Profile of a Food Photographer: Robert Caplin
"The question every foodie wants to know: Does Caplin get to eat all the top-notch dishes under his nose?"
Robert Caplin, an unassuming young man in his mid-twenties, walks into an upscale Manhattan restaurant wearing jeans and sneakers and is eagerly waited upon, sliding past lines of hungry patrons. How does he do it?
The key is hanging around his neck: a camera. As a freelance photographer for the New York Times, Caplin experiences the city's restaurants in a uniquely splendid fashion—through his camera lens.
Several weeks ago, Caplin entered Novita, a small trattoria that sits at the border of Manhattan's Gramercy and Flatiron neighborhoods. At that time it was a hidden gem of the city, producing some of the city's best pasta in an unassuming space. (Its obscurity would not last long because, as Caplin's presence would suggest, New York Times restaurant critic, Sam Sifton, was crafting a review, which was incredibly favorable. It earned two stars.)
When Caplin arrived at Novita, he was ushered to a table with the restaurant's most impressive array of dishes: black spaghetti with mixed seafood and spicy tomato sauce, grilled portobello, shiitake, and oyster mushrooms topped with Parmesan shavings, filet mignon with asparagus gratin and a dark Barolo sauce, Macaroni alla carbonara, and the rolled chicken breast, stuffed with spinach and prosciutto (Sifton writes that this dish "revives confidence, both in chicken breasts and in stuffing them").
The question every foodie wants to know: Does Caplin get to eat all the top-notch dishes under his nose? Or is it a "Photograph, don't touch," situation. When asked, Caplin smirks. "We aren't supposed to sit down and have a meal, but the chef often insists you try something." It would be rude not to oblige.
Restaurateurs not only urge Caplin to try the food, they pull out all the stops when they know he'll be stopping by, including stacking the restaurant with celebrities. Typically, the critic visits without announcement, as stealthily as possible, but by the time Caplin arrives, the secrecy has faded.
He calls ahead to let them know when he'll be there with camera in hand so they can prepare the food. They are more than accommodating, if not indulging.
"Mentioning the New York Times really opens the door," said Caplin. Restaurants are more than happy to open their door, with the exception of a few quirky restaurants in Chinatown. "No pictures, no pictures!" they repeat, while holding up their hands.
While Caplin's food photography initiates a Pavlovian drooling response, he is a photographer of many genres—not just of food. In addition to the New York Times, he has photographed for the Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, among other publications. He is quick to state, "I'm not a food stylist," differentiating himself from the photographers who specialize in food photography and might, for instance, take pictures for a McDonald's advertisement.
They use additional equipment that Caplin doesn't use—snoots, grids, gobos, and reflectors—and they might take an entire day to shoot just a hamburger. He acknowledges the difficulty inherent in that specialty kind of shooting, saying that it "really takes discipline."
Caplin has purposefully diversified his skill set. The fact that the New York Times can send him to take pictures of the food as well as capture the ambiance of the restaurant, and even send him to the kitchen for a portrait of the head chef, is what makes Caplin so prosperous in the industry. His philosophy is optimism, and he attributes much of his success to staying positive.
"When I was taking pictures in Cuba, I couldn't speak the language, but if you approach a person or a situation with a smile, with warmth in your eyes, they are more likely to grant you access," he reflected. His optimism encourages people to let their guards down and that is when he is able to take his best photographs, when he can capture moments of truth.
The New York Times "Frugal Traveler" blog did a Q&A with him and mentioned his blog, which has since accrued a steadily growing fan base. While he is excited about the diverse opportunities the future holds, he is grateful for what he has already experienced in his young career.
His assignments so far have heightened his appreciation for food, and have certainly expanded his awareness more than if he were left to his own devices, sans camera. He photographed a tapas bar, Boqueria, for a 2008 article for then New York Times food critic, Frank Bruni. He ended up taking his girlfriend there for Valentine's Day.
Kugel rang Caplin's Upper West Side apartment with doggie bags of candy lining his arms like hangers on a coat rack, from every corner of the city, and wanted his photographer to help him sample the sweets. Caplin happily served as Kugel's tasting partner before he hit the pavement to photograph the stand-outs.
Behind each photograph is a photographer, and behind Robert Caplin's photographs are stories as compelling as the photographer himself.