Picture imperfect

"I really want to make people want to eat," Varney says. That mouth-watering technique shows in his photo of the Margherita pizza at Barbuzzo, one slice temptingly pulled askew, and of the specialties from four area fooderies below.
"I really want to make people want to eat," Varney says. That mouth-watering technique shows in his photo of the Margherita pizza at Barbuzzo, one slice temptingly pulled askew, and of the specialties from four area fooderies below. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)

This Philadelphia photographer has shot for hot area restaurants and a raft of glossy national magazines. "My favorite kind of stuff is messy," he says.

Posted: July 21, 2011

Jason Varney was working hard to capture the perfect, not-so-perfect photo from Guapos Tacos food truck one day last week.

His assistant, Caroline Kavit, sat on a low wall in JFK Plaza, delicately holding a taco.

"A little lower," Varney directed. "No, it's not right." He stepped back.

"How would I eat a taco?" Kavit asked. "Ah, more like this," she turned it vertically, and paused for a bite that she'd never take. At least not until Varney got what he wanted. Salsa dripped down her fingers, onto the crumpled parchment paper around the taco.

"That's it," he said.

Not quite the pressed linens and gleaming china that often frame food for photo shoots. But for this Philadelphia food photographer, that's exactly the point.

"My favorite kind of stuff is messy," said Varney, 32. "I want to capture what eating that food would be like."

With a specialty in food photography, Varney's style is distinct and plenty have come calling. His work has been featured in the glossy, photo-driven pages of Food & Wine, GQ, Food Network Magazine, Town & Country, Travel + Leisure, and Philadelphia Magazine. He's taken publicity shots for many local restaurants, and, most recently, he's been photographing cookbooks.

His philosophy: "I really want to make people want to eat."

Which is why some of his most lip-smacking photos are of pies just pulled from the oven, strawberry filling oozing out onto a tarnished baking pan. Or fresh mozzarella cheese, looking luscious even in plastic wrap. Or fried shrimp in crumpled tinfoil from the North Philly institution Sid Booker's, tempting enough to make you head straight up North Broad to get some.

Part of what makes his images so memorable is that he shoots only in natural light, creating a soft glow or a moody aura. And the subjects of his photos are never perfect: oyster shells are askew and cracked open, flatbreads rest on grease-soaked paper, a berry crumble has juice running down the white ramekin it was baked in.

"His images feel very organic," said chef Jose Garces, Food Network star and owner of the Guapos Tacos truck and several successful city restaurants. "His photos capture the true essence and atmosphere of whatever setting or subject he's shooting."

But they also manage to convey that life is better wherever that photo was taken. The light, composition, subject, and props are all the mediums of his art.

He got a feel for his craft from his father, a commercial photographer in North Jersey. He learned from a young age how photos can tell a story, but according to Varney, his father focused on the technical side.

"I didn't realize it could be about the art," he said, until he took a photo class in high school.

Famous paparazzi photographer Ron Galella (who shot everyone from Jackie O to Sophia Loren and was the subject of the documentary Smash His Camera) happened to live in his town. Varney was introduced to Galella through a friend when he was in high school. For his first assignment, Galella sent him to the Grammys in New York City.

With a homemade press badge and only Galella's name for a credential, the 15-year-old was forced out of the red-carpet press pool by the bigger guys. Devastated, he wandered into the kitchen, where the caterers took pity, and sneaked him into the anteroom where the celebs go after they accept their awards. His photos of Sheryl Crow, Jewel, and Toni Braxton showed up in Marie Claire, Us Weekly, and Glamour the following week.

"I loved seeing my photos in those magazines," he said. But it was unfulfilling. "I had nothing to do with the photos; it was all about the people." He vowed never to shoot a celebrity again.

Back in JFK Plaza, after he finally got the perfect taco shot, Varney double-checked it on his laptop, and started packing up his equipment. One benefit of shooting in natural light: He travels light. His camera, laptop, and tripod are pretty much it. "And an apple box to stand on," he said, laughing.

Sometimes he also lugs along his box of tricks. "My favorite props are distressed and rustic," the little touches that give his photos such a strong sense of place, usually things he's grabbed off curbs on trash days - distressed woods, pieces of fence, construction debris.

He also has an eye for perfect linens, dishes, and cutlery, which he finds at his go-to spots such as Three Potato Four in Manayunk, Open House, and Terrain at Styer's.

"I'm lucky enough to be in a position where people hire me for my style," he said.

Owners of Percy Street Barbecue, Rouge, Farm and Fisherman, and Barbuzzo, as well as the Starr and Garces restaurant groups, have hired him to snap publicity photos of their chefs, dishes, and interiors.

His first cookbook assignment was one any photographer would envy: a travelogue/cookbook with Garces.

He traveled to Ecuador, broke bread with Garces' extended family, stayed in haciendas, and shacked up in the Andes, uncovering food and recipes and history, all documented through his photos. The book will be published in the fall of 2012.

"He's a blast," said Garces. "He takes his work very seriously and you can see that in the results, but he's also got a great sense of humor and a real easygoing personality."

Varney recently shot a book for L.A.-based cocoa masters Choclatique, out this fall, and just wrapped a three-day shot for Lisa Vanderpump, the first cookbook for the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

Another cookbook, the one in which the taco will be included, The Philadelphia Chef's Table, is scheduled for fall 2012.

Last year, he created a blog called Fussing With Forks (fussingwithforks.com), which was nominated for a Best Food Blog award by Saveur magazine. "I didn't win, but what an honor. You just never know who is going to see your work."

The blog wound up becoming a great outlet for displaying and selling his work. You'll see his prints hanging on the walls of JG Domestic and Supper, and Garces bought some for his own home.

It seems that he's been in every kitchen in Philadelphia, which is why it's hard to believe that he's never shot a cheesesteak. "I'm going to get my chance," he said, though, smiling. AARP's magazine, which claims it has the world's largest circulation, is doing a feature on Philadelphia food. And of course, it called Varney. Only he can make Wiz look pretty.

Contact staff writer Ashley Primis at 215-854-2244, aprimis@phillynews.com, or @ashleyprimis on Twitter.

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