Shrimp Cocktail Challenge

MPS- Heel Red Image Still lifeMarie Jacob for Mai Piu Senza

An overwhelmingly red still life, which is also an advertisement for Mai Pui Senza – a young Berlin-based high heel brand – radiates unambiguous signals of lust, consumption, texture and history. The observer can also see a shrimp taking a bath in a cocktail. This slight shift of perception, which exchanges foreground and background and triggers a tender but absolute personification of the objects within the picture, comes naturally when spending time with Leanne MacKay.

Leanne is a set designer and a very passionate food lover. In her work she creates images which often combine natural elements alongside man-made objects for the purpose of advertising, like she’s done in the composition above. After I got to know Leanne at several parties in Berlin I started to ask myself two questions that I never asked before. The first one was: What is set design? Admittedly, I have to say that I somehow always took the design of sets for granted, be it in photo or film. Which means: I took for granted a big part of the expression of those media. The second question was: Who is Leanne MacKay? I mention this question here because for me it became deeply intertwined with the question of what set design can be.

One night I was out at a party. It was a magazine launch of friends, the weather was excellent and we were all hanging out in front of the bar. I met Leanne there and unlike everybody else, she seemed rather low. It was because of oysters. Since a number of days she had a bad conscience because she had oysters in her fridge that were leftover from a recent photo shoot. So her living “oyster babies” were sitting in the fridge and there was an impossibility to move on. The guilt had grown so heavy as there was no way to consume them – alive. They had sat out all day under the hot studio lights. Also, it would be cruel to just put them into the trash after they had made it so far. The fear of her own conscience, eventually, was too big to open some of the shells and have a look if the creatures were actually still alive or not. I didn’t envy Leanne. The situation was tragic. Of course, I would never let my own kitchen become a stage for such a tragedy because I would just not care that much. But in Leanne’s case the tragedy had a certain beauty. It was not rooted in animal welfare but in her absolute non-hierarchical perception of the environment and the objects surrounding her. This trait, as would become apparent, is very fruitful as a set designer. Or, maybe it just constitutes Leanne’s way of being one and moreover her way of being in this world.

A week later I found myself at her flat. It was not about oysters but about shrimps. The idea of a shrimp cocktail challenge came up during the shoot of the heel advertisement. Telling me about it, she took me into the world of set design:

Unfortunately the salmon wasn’t as deeply red as we had wanted, and the experiments with red food coloring to inject a deeper pigment immediately read as blood which was a definite ‘no’ from the client. Luckily as a back-up for the red image, I had selected some fresh shrimp and tiger prawns. The art director, photographer and I all had a fun time pushing the edges of strangeness within this image, and it was a shared intuitive collaboration. Corinna’s plug wandered into the corner, Marie’s tinted mirror became the plate and the shrimp cocktail idea was thrown in at the last minute as the ‘something’ which was missing to balance our frame.

I had the red glass and the fresh shrimp but unfortunately had not prepared for this spontaneous cocktail and was on the spot to try to make a drink out of seafood within 15 minutes. All of the ice had been mixed with salt from the previous image, and surprisingly adding water to the salt-ice immediately melted it, dissolving into a heavy pile of white at the base of the glass, which the poor shrimp could hardly balance on. Tanja and I quickly tried to carve roses from strawberries to use as a garnish, or to discreetly prop it up against something on the rim. I had no fake ice, no straws, no mini umbrellas! The mountain of salt grew deeper and the beautiful lonely shrimp kept falling to the side of the increasingly dirty glass. I knew I could do better but there was no time. We all became quite attached to the shrimp cocktail and in the end the strongest option was the most simple – the shrimp peeking out of the top of the red glass, balanced just barely long enough to capture the image.

The day’s shooting in the studio executing all of these elements happen so quickly. I can prepare everything conceptually in advance but always work on my toes to try to come up with something compositionally on the spot with the photographer in response to the needs of the client. This feeling of a failed Shrimp Cocktail remained in my thoughts the following days. I thought compulsively about the idea itself of a Shrimp Cocktail. Beautiful aquatic still lives mixed with abstract versions of the familiar creamy pink trashy shrimp rings offered during suburban summer parties. What could other versions of a considered shrimp cocktail actually look like?!”

And this was our turn. We decided to do this together. To spend one afternoon together and develop shrimp cocktails. We went wild. And I learned a lot.

The preparation of set design food is in one specific way opposed to the preparation of pleasant tasting food. Set design food has to create craveability or memory or disgust or comfort etc only through the way it looks. And this is often counterproductive for the taste even if the look of the item is a tasty one. But there would be no way to produce those looks and hence those emotions without being an extraordinarily sensible and very delicate gourmand. The set food designer has to know exactly how the look of the food tastes through the gaze and dreams of the spectator.

Leanne is a dreamer herself and that’s maybe why she is so good at it. She worked for years within set design for film, on big productions, but lately shifted mainly to photo based work. Film, like music dies when it is over. It’s temporary. The picture stays. You can look at it as long as you want.

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