Hélène Dujardin is a portrait artist, but not in the traditional sense. Her subjects are less fidgety. Some come out of the ground, some come out of the oven. All are gloriously beautiful, at least in their photos. That is, after all, Dujardin's job.
Dujardin is a food photographer, one of those fantasy careers that, no matter how difficult we all know it must surely be — all that attention to detail, to the sugar crystals and sesame seeds, the stray alfalfa sprout that can ruin a shot — is still hard to believe is real. But as Dujardin has made clear with her highly successful career, food photography is an absolutely real and demanding way to make a living, even though, as she says, "It really doesn't feel like work."
Looking at her photos, this is easy to believe. Dujardin's images are warm, rustic, and convey a love for and celebration of her subjects. Savory dishes are often pictured on the kind of whitewashed wooden table associated with meals en plein air and in French farmhouses. Pies are sliced and served at a picnic, their richly colored fillings spilling out of just-slightly-crooked latticework crust. There are specks of golden crumbs or bits of bright green herbs scattered throughout the frame, making you feel that everyone has been served and the next piece is for you. Every detail speaks of parties and get-togethers with people you love, food that is good for the soul, and a picture-perfect setting.
But behind the scenes, as with any photography shoot, there are a huge number of things that must happen to create that vision of effortless simplicity. Luckily, Dujardin is no stranger to the chaos that frequently surrounds exceptional food, having spent five years working as a pastry chef at the (now-closed) restaurant Mistral. "I had no credentials to be a pastry chef. Life just happened," she says. "The owner came to me, he said, 'I have no one, could you do it?' And I said, 'Well, we can try.' A trial period of a month turned into five years. It was easy for me because I knew things not just from being French but from baking for a while." It was during her stint at Mistral that Dujardin took her first steps into food photography, though solely from necessity. "I started leaving little sketches for the staff when I was gone, so they would know how to make everything look, and one night I was eating there with family ... and what I was served was nothing like what I had left in the sketch! So I jokingly went back to the kitchen ... and they said you can't draw, your sketches are like a three-year-old. So I started leaving snapshots."
And thus began what would become an illustrious international career as a food photographer. After leaving Mistral, Dujardin set to work creating a portfolio of her desserts, as she imagined that she would remain in her career as a pastry chef. But as she was putting the collection together, she says, "I realized I enjoyed the photography more than making the desserts." She started teaching herself photography, learning every day and practicing by taking pictures for her food blog, Tartelette (which nowadays is one of the most popular food blogs around). People began taking notice of her work, and she went on her first professional shoot when Garden & Gun magazine asked her to be a photo assistant.
Fast forward to today, and Dujardin has a full studio in her home, clients based everywhere from downtown Charleston to Australia, and her own book on food photography, Plate to Pixel: Digital Food Photography and Styling, which came out in May 2011. She just finished up a shoot for a marmalade cookbook, which involved receiving seven boxes of marmalade at her home from which to make the recipes, to the surprise and delight of her visiting, marmalade-loving parents. Dujardin's work will soon be used to illustrate a presentation on healing through food given by Donna Karan's Urban Zen Foundation in New York, and her publisher has already asked for a second book.
In short, she's enjoying her second totally successful, totally unplanned career. And in the midst of this very busy schedule, Dujardin is also hanging her very first photography show at King Street's food-and-garden bookshop Heirloom Books.
Although several of Dujardin's images currently grace the walls of downtown's Lana Restaurant, this is the first time that she has put together a true exhibition. "I went for the pictures that I love the most, more than selecting them by groups," she says. "I went with what really presented the scope of what I do and what I enjoy doing. I wanted to cater it more toward the shop aspect rather than the restaurant. ... These are pictures of food that people could buy for their walls."
Carlye Dougherty, co-owner of Heirloom, first became familiar with Dujardin's work through Tartelette and worked with recently on a photo shoot for the store's upcoming Tastemaker Tag Sale. Dougherty is excited to display Dujardin's photos, which will be on exhibit during the Charleston Wine + Food Festival. "I love how clean and simple and lovely her work is. You just want to be sitting in front of her food, eating it."
And that's not only because the food looks so delicious. There's an added element to Dujardin's art, a subtle grace, a warm glow, that must come from her understanding of what food really means to us: It's sustenance, sure, but it's also memory, family, home. For someone who lives across an ocean from her own family, that's no small thing. "Everything I do [in the kitchen] is a way to connect with home. I learned everything I know from my grandmother and mother. My grandmother was a great baker, my mom loved to cook," she says. "Every time I do a tart, something with almonds or apricots, that reminds me of my grandmother, and lavender, cardamom, those make me think of my mother."
We've all had those moments when a certain smell or taste takes us back, almost uncannily, to a moment from our past. Dujardin's photos are somehow the visual version of that — just with noticeably prettier kitchens.