BRATTLEBORO — Imagine one of the hottest days this summer, when the air was thick with humidity and your car is scorching hot inside. On one such day, Clare Barboza, internationally known food photographer, needed to shoot a magazine cover.
The subject? Ice cream.
"When I went to the store to buy it, the ice cream was already soft," says Barboza, of Brattleboro, with a hearty laugh. "You can imagine the rest."
Barboza, who hails from the state of Washington, has always loved the arts. She originally focused on the performing arts but fell in love with photography.
Since that happened, "I've stayed true to my field, but I tried out different parts of the profession," she says.
At the beginning of her career, Barboza discovered that lots of people were looking for documentary-style wedding photographers. That became a focus, and eventually, a regional magazine, Seattle Bride, named her the Best Wedding Photographer in 2005. However, after several years, the work left her feeling stressed.
Barboza remembers what happened next.
"Around that time, I was hired to document a small farm on Vashon Island, off the coast of Washington state," she says. "I arrived at a 13-acre raw-dairy farm where they featured only food that was raised on the farm. They made their own apple cider vinegar and had weekly farm dinners."
She was hired to document the farm over the course of the year, photographing life and work as it was taking place - from slaughtering the meat to harvesting the crops - through the four seasons.
"The work simply lit me up inside," she says.
After Barboza rebranded herself as a photographer of food and farms, she took on a project of shooting photos for three different cookbooks. At this point in her career, her photographs have illustrated three dozen cookbooks.
Hired by Vermont author and Montpelier resident Rowan Jacobsen, Barboza visited Vermont in 2012 to photograph his book Apples of Uncommon Character. She found herself "totally charmed with his life."
"We were working in different people's houses, as he had asked several people in his area if they would open their homes so that we could use their dishes as props in the photos," Barboza says. "I fell in love with everything in his world. I found Vermonters charming, the scenery gorgeous, and the people authentic, real, and welcoming."
For many years, Barboza traveled back and forth from the East Coast to the West Coast, building her business. But eventually after the birth of their child, Hugo, she and her husband, Joe, decided to make the move to Vermont in 2016.
The Barbozas chose Brattleboro after visiting a relative here. They purchased a house, and eventually rented an 1,800-square-foot studio at the Cotton Mill. Joe built a functional kitchen in the space where racks and racks of dishes, cookware, and cutting boards line the walls and a living room and kitchen table make a welcoming space ideal for professional food photography.
Clare Barboza creates her photos with the assistance of a food stylist.
While some food photographers will solve the problem of ice cream on a hot day by shooting tempting scoops of lard, "the food is always real," she says.
"And when working with someone who knows how to style food, they time the elements to a dish differently so that everything is looking its best," she says.
Showing food from farm to kitchen to table
"To put it simply," says Clare Barboza, "I work with awesome, socially responsible food brands around the country and help them tell their story."
But then, she adds that "really - creativity, in all its forms, is what rocks my world."
Most of Barboza's clients represent food brands, but she also works with restaurants, chefs, and publishers. She produces photos for egg producers, coffee pot manufacturers, bread bakeries, cheesemakers, and other categories of food producers.
She also works with a lot of Vermont brands, including Tavernier Chocolates, Vermont Wagyu, Maplebrook Farm, Back Roads Granola, True North Granola, Stowe Bee Bakery, and others. Barboza also enjoys going to farms and photographing farm products and food right on the vine.
Over the years, she has built her business by word of mouth and has covered food topics from arugula to zucchini. And since her passion is to show the progression of food from farm to kitchen to table, she's taken thousands of photographs used in cookbooks and advertising over the course of her 15-year food photography career. She also teaches photography classes, enjoying sharing her skills with others.
Then her business took yet another turn.
"Food and product photographers are always looking for surfaces and backdrops to use in their shoots," Barboza says, calling the quest "a constant struggle."
In 2020, the pandemic provided a quiet opportunity to design a new business to fill that need - a company that makes photo backdrops.
Poppy Bee Surfaces was born.
As described on the company website, "After going through five different printers, we had the ridiculous thought that perhaps we could make printed surfaces ourselves. 'How hard could it be?' we laughed casually, like a child eyeing a hot stove.
"A technical advisor from Canon helped us find the right printing technology and, suddenly, we were able to perfectly replicate our digital files. The quality of the prints far exceeded anything we had seen before."
But the "beautiful, matte material" on which the backgrounds were printed turned out to be "supremely scuffable."
Joe Barboza used his background in multimedia art production to create "a complex, proprietary, and labor-intensive method of laminating each print we sell" - a process that preserves the colors and textures but makes the final product "matte, durable, and waterproof."
He makes and applies the liquid laminate by hand.
"I design and create all the content photos, and Joe does all the production work," Clare Barboza says. "So far, we've created over 200 designs. I use our own backdrops in my work."
The numbers of professional food photographers in the world are modest. The numbers of companies that sell photo backdrops for specialized photo shoots is even smaller. As a result of the success of their handmade product, the Barbozas are now shipping to every continent around the world.
"While our best customers are professional food photographers, those we sell photo backdrops to range from amateurs to professionals, from food stylists to prop stylists," she says. "We also sell to people who make their own products, like potters."
While business is good, and it's exciting to launch a new enterprise, the Barbozas have realized that there are other benefits to living and working in Vermont. The example set forth by her first Vermont customer in Montpelier showed the family the route they wished to travel.
"You live here in this tiny, charming town, but all your work is not here," Clare Barboza says. "The vast majority of my work comes from outside Vermont. I get my income from the city, but then I come home and put that money back into my community."
It's the best of two worlds.
"I don't have to rely on this small area for clients, but I bring my business here and put what I earn back into our community," she says. "We support this place that we love - a lot. We want every business to thrive and succeed here."
This News item by Fran Lynggaard Hansen was written for The Commons.