Zesty mower is one of the more popular images in the Big Appetites series. It is also one of the most accidental. Two of the most common interview questions I get are “Where do you find inspiration for images?” and “How long does it take you to create a photograph?” In both cases, I usually use Zesty Mower to address both of those questions.
Inspiration can really come from anywhere. You just need to be open to it when it arrives. On the day that Zesty Mower was made I wasn’t even in the studio shooting. I was organizing a drawer of kitchen tools and found a forgotten citrus zester. I went to the fridge, took out an orange and began to make a long strip of rind.
My mind immediately went to a memory from back in college when I watched one of my roommates peeling a kiwi fruit with a knife. He didn’t take the peel off in little bits, as I would have, but instead made a long, unbroken strip of peel from start to finish. If I asked him about it today I doubt he’d remember this thoughtless act. But for some strange reason it made an indelible impression on me: the slow, deliberate care he took as he drew the knife towards his thumb, and the way he rolled the fruit in his hand, the bright green of the kiwi flesh against the taupe brown of the skin. Sometimes being a good artist means being observant of some of the most simple details of life: movement, color, texture, light. The most elegant and basic things in the world are also the easiest to miss.
With a long, unbroken piece of orange rind the idea hit me in an instant. I set up a green backdrop, placed the orange and peel just so and then went to my archive of figures. It just so happened that I had a figure with a lawnmower and the gauge of the mower seemed to perfectly fit the width of the channel of rind and pith.
Out came the tripod, a camera body and a lens. Using natural window light and a reflector I made 64 frames in the span of about 10 minutes until I worked through a range of apertures and had the image I wanted. Sometimes I’ll spend a few hours working in the studio and in that time I’ll do a few different images. Or I might shoot one set-up a few different ways. On occasion, once I import the digital images into my computer and begin the editing process I’ll be unhappy with what I have, or I’ll see a mistake that wasn’t so obvious. So I’ll go back and do reshoots. Every photograph has its own process so it is difficult to say what the average time is. I also don’t keep track of the time spent shooting so most of my answers about that metric are always a best guess. (I’ve always been a terrible judge of time). But one thing is for sure, Zesty Mower happened quickly and came to me without much trouble.
My image of a woman mowing an orange was selected to be on the show card for my first Seattle fine art exhibition. A couple of serious local art collectors, with a legendary art collection and close ties to the Seattle Art Museum, purchased one of the very first Zesty Mower prints for their collection at that show. The image was selected for the cover of my Big Appetites book. It has been licensed for countless publications and websites. It is featured in my notecard line. And fine art prints of this image have sold so well all over the world that it is getting close to the end of the edition in all sizes, at which point no more will be made.
Sometimes you just stumble into a good image. I can spend hours on a set-up sometimes, with elaborate sketches and all kinds of figures that keep falling over and needing to be reset. aAnd yet when the image is finished no one seems to connect with it. I might like it but maybe my galleries don’t, or think that the context isn’t clear, that it isn’t commercial or it won’t sell. And then, as further evidence of the dubious quality of my so-called genius, I’ll stumble into an image like Zesty Mower and it instantly resonates with people who see it. I know fine art photographers who have had a career for 30 years and even they admit that they still don’t fully understand what makes a successful image. I relate to that sentiment and I respect the humility. Sometimes you just need to get out of the way of it and let the work speak for itself.