Cory Howe is in his element during a weeklong culinary event for Hormel Foods. The food is extraordinary, the chefs even more so. And the setting is New York, the city that never sleeps.
Cory fits in like the pro that he is. Dressed in khaki shorts and running shoes, his glasses perched on his head, he moves in and out of scenes easily. At times he opts for his smartphone camera instead of the high-end digital equipment that allows him to bring his vision and creativity to life. Social media demands real-time posting.
“These things are getting better all the time,” Cory says, packing the phone away in his pocket. “They’re incredible because they fix imperfections right away. Lighting, for instance.”
He’s been in the business long enough to remember when smartphones weren’t a phenomenon or at the very least, not as ubiquitous as they are today. In fact, he’s seen a lot from his side of the lens.
Cory studied sports and editorial photography in college. He launched his career in Colorado in 1994, concentrating on editorial. Two years later, he moved to Wisconsin to accept a job with a studio that specialized in furniture photography and then worked for a package design firm involved in the food industry. That’s when he was bitten by the bug. “I loved the food,” he says. “The colors you get are beautiful.”
With that, Cory had designs on becoming a high-end food photographer, a challenging line of work, even for the most seasoned pro. For starters, food doesn’t always hold up during hours-long shoots. Fortunately, a good food stylist can make some magic happen. There are tricks, Cory says. For example, marbles in a soup bowl keep heavy ingredients from sinking to the bottom. Armor All brushed on tortilla shells keeps them from drying out and cracking under hot lights.
“My job is to make the stylists’ work look beautiful,” Cory says, adding that he strives for “perfectly imperfect shots.”
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You know them when you see them. A muffin gently broken by hand, crumbs spilling on the plate and onto the linen napkin. A knife off to the side, serving as a foil to butter so sweet and creamy, you can almost taste it. It’s real life, it’s stunning, and it’s hard as heck to nail.
Further complicating matters, each Hormel Foods brand has its own style. Some are light, bright and airy. Others – such as Hormel® Black Label® bacon – have a more dramatic look; darker with more contrast. Those are trickier, Cory suggests.
Regardless, his go-to technique is always backlighting, the art of illuminating a subject from behind. “It’s the most important thing in the world,” he says.
Cory’s skill with it has been honed over 15 years of shooting food photography. Before coming to Hormel Foods six years ago, he had his own photography studio; at least half of his work involved food.
Cory is still called on to photograph people, and that’s sometimes a “relief,” he says. “They bring out a different side of my creativity.” Plus, it’s nice to not have all the control, he adds.
He accompanied a group of Hormel Foods employees on a recent trip to Guatemala, where the team helped with the company’s Project SPAMMY® effort.
“I had a ball. It was humbling beyond belief,” Cory says. He watched – and his camera captured – two teenagers soften a bit each day until they were “transformed.” He followed a little girl around and was there when she decided to hug one of the volunteers. “It was incredible to capture that moment,” he says.
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The photos – hundreds of them – help the company tell its story to the world. But even before Cory returned to the United States, he was putting the images to good use.
“Cory hustled for three hours, selected the best photos and got them retouched so we could all watch them together at the conclusion of the trip,” says Michael Yaremchuk, manager of creative services for Hormel Foods. “It was really special, and it was all Cory.”
Don’t Touch That
Cory insists on doing his own retouching – lightening a shadow, highlighting a carrot, making a dollop of peanut butter stand out. One shot can take in excess of an hour to finesse. Reliance on it, however, is one of the things he’s seen change during his years as a professional photographer.
“It’s a tool,” he says. “But it bothers me when people say, ‘We’ll fix it later.’ It used to be there was no fixing it later.”
Cory is one whose shots are often good enough to go as is. In fact, he’s won awards for images that haven’t been retouched, a rare feat these days.
He is slow to name a favorite shot, not unlike a parent who finds it impossible to name his best child.
“There are thousands of photos that I love, a few that are on my walls and a lot that are in my heart.”