Behind the lens with food photographers Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott

Photo courtesy of Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott
Toronto-based food photography team Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott Photo courtesy of Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott

It was supposed to be just another magazine shoot for photographer Michael Graydon. But when he met pastry chef-turned-entrepreneur Nikole Herriott, something just clicked. Between camera flashes for his House & Home assignment, in a moment impossible to capture on film, Graydon and Herriott began to fall in love.

As their relationship moved beyond the lens, Graydon and Herriott united in their shared love of photography and food, blogging photos about their travels and victuals.

Unexpectedly, their work caught the attention of a photo editor at Bon Appétit magazine.

"We didn't market ourselves directly to them, they found us," says Graydon, alongside Herriott, in an interview from their west-end Toronto studio. "That was a miracle. Especially to a guy like me who built his business on knocking on doors and sending out mailers."

After landing their first gig at Bon Appétit, requests from American clients came rolling in.

"At some point it reached critical mass, where we had to get American visas," Herriott says.

As a photography team, Graydon and Herriott travel the world and create beautiful portraits of food that you wish could leap off the page and into your mouth. Their celebrated images have been featured in the world's greatest culinary magazines, and in 2015, their work was featured on the covers of six issues of Bon Appétit.

Their biggest project to date is Gjelina: Cooking from Venice, California, a cookbook published last year with farm-to-table chef Travis Lett. Lett's recipes are paired with Graydon and Herriott's sumptuous visuals featuring fresh, West Coast-inspired dishes designed to be made at home.

The couple started working on the Gjelina project in 2013, travelling to Venice four separate times, hanging out with Lett and his team to capture their menu and the vibe of the Venice area.

"It was the most fun we’ve had at work — ever," says Graydon. "The light there is so beautiful and the produce is insane."

"It’s California! What’s not to love?" adds Herriott.

Fantastic locales aside, you may be wondering how two people can thrive as both a couple and a creative team. Part of the secret of their success is that neither takes absolute credit for any one of their photos.

"We're both each other’s creative director," explains Graydon. "There is some overlap, but we both bring separate skills. I've been a photographer for 20 years and pride myself on the technical, that is my strength, and Nikole is a trained pastry chef and really knows her way around food, that is her strength."

"At some point in our collaboration, in certain jobs, it just kind of meshes together and it doesn't really matter," Herriott says. "Speaking for myself, I try to not care who took the picture because I really feel like we are doing it together."

Popjournalism asked Graydon and Herriott to select some of their favourite images taken together and to share their tales from behind the lens.

Urban Oasis
Urban oasis
Photo courtesy of Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott

Michael We were shooting creatives together like crazy, doing blog posts and stuff around this time.

Nikole A creative is something that you would just do for fun, not to get paid.

Michael Nikole and I were walking in our neighbourhood and she looked over, as she often does, and noticed something beautiful in the ordinary.

Nikole There were lilacs blooming.

Michael It was like an urban oasis. Nikole has this old picnic bench from her family that she had shipped from Victoria, so we strapped it on the top of my car, and we brought it over to this location in a train track area. Then, before the sun came up, we pushed it over a fence along with all our props and took a picture. This was our first creative together. We were both fascinated with each other. Nikole liked what I could bring to the table, as she was already doing this kind of stuff before I met her.

Nikole You made it look professional. At that time, technically, I was not able to do that.

Michael To me, Nikole was amazing because I walked by these train tracks a hundred times before I met her and had never noticed it.

Nikole It's one of my favorite photos. It’s sentimental.

Michael We've come a long way since then, but to me this is the nucleus. It's how we got started.

Bon Appétit December 2014: Shortbread Cookies
Bon Appetit, December 2014
Photo courtesy of Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott

Michael There are some very good people that we share the credit for this Bon Appétit work.

Nikole Food stylists.

Michael Alex Grossman, the creative director. Alex Pollack, the photo editor. They're extraordinarily talented people.

Nikole And they hire talented people. If a person can make a cookie that looks like this, it’s as much the person who made that cookie, the creative direction who decided they wanted a cookie with petals on it, as it is us putting a cookie on a piece of parchment and taking a picture.

Michael Annie Leibovitz once said that the cover is often the most uninteresting photo of the spread because it needs to be cover. It needs to be simple, iconic.

Nikole They often do a Christmas cookie story for their December issue. Most times, when you shoot a cover for Bon Appétit, a day is set aside just to shoot the cover and to explore a number of different ideas.

Michael We had lots of different versions of these cookies, with different patterns and what not. In this case, it didn't just get thrown down. We were moving these cookies ever so slightly so that something just popped. You’d be surprised to see the versions of this that didn’t make the cover.

Nikole Silver cookies, black cookies, a mixture of different colours and backgrounds.

Michael Eventually, you key in on something. It’s not necessarily the last picture you took. Sometimes you go past the best one. In this case, we knew this was the one.

Nikole This was a lot harder than it looks.

Michael It's September when you shoot the December cover and you’re supposed to be thinking winter thoughts. It has to be cool tones. It can’t be flowers and petals on a cookie. But Nikole was obsessed with this cookie. So while there were discussions going on in the kitchen, she said to me, "Just put these cookies down and we'll take a quick picture." She put three or four down and this was the one that made the cover. That’s Nikole’s cover. And when they showed their cover choice to us in November, she was like —

Nikole I knew it!

Michael This is Nikole doing what she does best.

Gjelina: Cooking from Venice, California
Gjelina: Cooking from Venice, California
 Photo courtesy of Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott

Michael We kind of fell in love with [chef Travis Lett], as I like to say. Travis, as his book shows, is adamant to share credit. It was a tremendous honour for us to be included on the cover. He didn't make a big deal out of it when we saw the cover design for the first time.

Nikole We were like, okay, wonderful!

Michael The project itself was was daunting. In total, from the first email to the book in your hand, was two and a half years, at least. Both all of us had not done a cookbook before, and really, it became a labor of love so we all just put our all into it. Amy Wilson included, the prop stylist.

Nikole It took longer because if it wasn't perfect, we went back to California and shot some more.

Venice Pier surf
Venice Beach wave
Photo courtesy of Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott

Michael When we shoot commercially, one of the unique parts of our job is that it has to happen that day.

Nikole In front of people.

Michael There’s no, like, I ain’t feeling it today, do you guys want to go to the beach? Normally, it wouldn’t happen for a book either, but with Travis, if it wasn’t there, he'd tell us to stop banging out heads against the wall trying to make it happen.

Nikole That’s how shots like this happen.

Michael It was one of the first shots of the book and Travis fell in love with it immediately. That was just us wandering around the Venice Pier. You don't get shots like this by saying, "Let's go to the beach and shoot a contrast-y photo of the surf."

Nikole I think also as we got to know Travis more, it was possible to represent what he does and what his vision is, because he has a very distinct vision. By getting to know him and getting to know the people he chooses to work with and the food he makes – everything he’s about you get to know from being there. In order to represent him and represent him well, I think he knew that we needed time. Because you didn't want it to be like the traditional Venice beach vibe of surfboards and skateboards.

Roasted cauliflower with garlic, parsley and vinegar
Roasted cauliflower with garlic, parsley and vinegar
 Photo courtesy of Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott

Nikole If you open that book to a page, we ate all of it. If we were doing three of four vegetable shots in the morning, we would eat it for lunch. Travis would make the food and put it on the plate. You can tell, it doesn’t look all styled. There’s a drip there. Not all food shoots are like that. On other kinds of shoots, a food stylist — I wouldn’t say they shellack things anymore — would move things on the plate with tweezers with 16 people on set and eight of them having to weigh in.

Warm date cake with ginger gelato
Warm date cake with ginger gelato
 Photo courtesy of Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott

Nikole This is one of the most popular desserts at the restaurant. They've been making it for quite a while and it's delicious.

Michael His food is insanely good. Hopefully the pictures do the food justice.

Nikole We were in Travis's backyard shooting this. His dog is there and it's California, so it's warm and nice. And he just put this piece of cake down and we decided to put it on a white surface, with this white wall at his house. Then we took this picture with the gelato on top of it.

Michael And we just ate it.

Nikole I said, let’s take a spoonful. The rest kind of happened organically.

Michael It was never planned to be the end of the book or anything like that.

Nikole It’s one try though. That one piece of cake, that one scoop of gelato.

Gjelina: Cooking from Venice, California is available at bookstores, including Amazon.ca and others. For more about Michael Graydon, visit MichaelGraydon.ca. For more about Nikole Herriott, visit HerriottGrace.com.

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About Robert J. Ballantyne

Robert J.Ballantyne is a senior editor at Popjournalism and Creative Director at Artsculture.ca. Previously, he was a journalist at the CBC on a number of news programs including the fifth estate, Marketplace and The National. He also worked as a staff writer at the Toronto Star.

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