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by Sara Bavar
Maya Bookbinder’s accomplished journey has been anything but predictable. As a graduate in sculpture, Bookbinder worked as a taxidermist as well as an erotic cake designer before discovering her true passion – food styling. Merging her artistic talents with her abstract imagination she creates provocative settings, pushing boundaries and finding the beauty in “gross and unsettling” food.
Bookbinder talks with DLISH about what it means to be a food stylist, her projects and life post COVID-19.
Sara Bavar: Can you please tell us a little about yourself?
Maya Bookbinder: I'm a freelance food stylist living in Los Angeles. I studied sculpture in art school where I often incorporated food elements into my art practice, like tattooing and sewing with cold cuts. After graduation I moved to San Francisco and worked as a cake decorator (in an erotic bakery) which then led me to working as a baker for almost 7 years. I loved working in bakeries, but it became very monotonous. Luckily I discovered food styling as a career path in LA. I assisted food stylists for several years before going off on my own. I really love what I do because it truly is the perfect combination of working as a creative problem solver, using my hands, working with food and working with other artists. I'm also always learning new things and every shoot is different, which is very important for a Gemini like myself.
SB: What does it mean to be a food stylist?
MB: For me personally, being a food stylist means that I make food for the camera and it's honestly different on every shoot. Sometimes I'm cooking and styling a specific recipe for a client, but the end result is the photo or video, so it's about how it looks, not how it tastes. Other times I'm making weird sculptural food that is completely inedible and completely aesthetic, sometimes it's somewhere in the middle. Amazingly, being a food stylist means that you get paid to play with food! Sometimes in very conventional ways and other times in the most unexpected ways, but it's almost always about composition, colors, textures, etc.
Photos by Stephanie Gonot
SB: How much of your work is your own expression and how much of it is what the client wants?
MB: For commercial shoots, there is most often a brief with a fairly clear idea of what the client has in mind. Sometimes commercial clients will be more collaborative and allow me to riff on something, but it's gotta stay true to the brand. For editorial shoots or test shoots, the vision is often my own, along with the prop stylist or set designer and photographer or director.
SB: What is the work you are most proud of? Why?
MB: I'm always most proud and excited by whatever was the last thing I did. So for now, that would be a recent test shoot I did with the photographer Elise Mesner. I told her that I wanted to explore styling food and make-up and she happened to have received a bunch of Gucci lipsticks. We shot entirely outside and made a giant mess and really just played with tons of make-up and desserts and ice cream that were all melting. It was my first time working with cosmetics and I'm so happy with the images we ended up making.
And a shoot I did last year for the cover of the business section of The New York Times shot by Julia Stotz. We made a Dutch masters style homage to the demise of Heinz and Kraft. I love how that image turned out! Plus that just felt so special because that's the newspaper I grew up reading and I know is at my parents kitchen table while they're having breakfast every morning. So it was sort of like the first time I knew my work would be in the homes of my family members and they would get to see and hopefully understand what I do.
SB: Your work seems to push conventional boundaries with respect to food, correct? If so, what does it mean to push boundaries?
MB: Hopefully my work does push boundaries! To me, if food isn't seen as just "appetizing" and "beautiful," then it is pushing boundaries. For most of my commercial clients, that really is the point -- to make an image that makes someone feel hungry or say "Oh my god! That looks so good! I wanna eat that!" But for me, what I'm drawn to for my personal work, is working with food in ways that make people say, Is that food? What is that? Is that edible? And I'm drawn to food that is considered gross or unsettling and I want to explore that much more. I love fake food, sculptural food, surreal settings for food, anything unexpected and of course food scenes that make people laugh. There's so much humor in food! I never take it that seriously.
Photo by Julia Stotz
SB: Are you concerned about the effects of COVID-19 on your work?
MB: Yeah of course! I think anyone who works in a collaborative work setting is concerned about what the future holds in this new normal. One of my favorite things about working is all the people on set. I'm assuming teams will be much smaller for awhile and that we'll have a lot of new protocols such as masks and some sort of social distancing on set that I still can't quite imagine.
SB: What do you think the world post-COVID-19 will be like?
I think about this a lot. I think the world will forever be changed by this pandemic. In the immediate future I imagine, and hope, that we all will take a lot less for granted.
SB: How are you dealing with lockdown/social distancing?
MB: I'm dealing by just staying at home with my boyfriend. We've been on lockdown here in Los Angeles since mid-March. I think every week has been really different and at first it felt so scary and I was dealing with a lot of anxiety, like a lot of people. Now I have a routine and I do see the light at the end of the tunnel. Luckily I'm safe and healthy so this has really just been a time to read, do little projects around the house, watch bad reality tv, do Zumba in my garage and FaceTime with friends and family.
SB: Any last words for our readers?
MB: Wash your hands. And thanks for reading this :)
Click here to follow Maya Bookbinder's work.