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Copyright © 2000, Deborah Bowen and The Independent

In the eye of a hurricane:
A major shelter mag comes to shoot

By Deborah Bowen

September 21, 2000

I have run a bed and breakfast, the Inn at Green River in Hillsdale, for 12 years. Like many other B&B owners, I love to decorate and garden. So I am a great fan of shelter magazines like Martha Stewart Living, Country Living and House and Garden.

Imagine my delight when I received a phone message one day in late July saying, "This is Helen Sanematsu of Martha Stewart Living magazine calling. I saw your web site and I'm going to send a disposable camera. Please take pictures of your kitchen and garden and return it. We are doing a story about squash and may want to use your bed and breakfast as a location for this shoot."

I suppressed a squeal of joy since I was at the office, at my day job at The Paper."

Help! Martha Stewart Living will be here in a week and the garden is hopeless.

That call was on a Friday, two weeks before the magazine photo shoot -- no time to weed the garden, which had not been done all during the busy, very wet summer. The weeds had taken over. Well, at least it was green.

I removed the stacks of magazines, the TV, VCR and boom box from the kitchen, put the computer on the floor so it could not be seen, and took pictures of the kitchen and the grounds.

The following week, Helen called to say the photos looked great. They booked several rooms, and all the rooms of another Hillsdale B&B, The Creek, that they had used before - to arrive in a week.

Yes, they would use my kitchen. I would be hearing from the food editor.

Call for help

I quickly called Hillsdale gardener, Tom Carty. "Help! Martha Stewart Living will be here in a week and the garden is hopeless." I knew Tom had worked on the Copake Falls gardens of Margaret Roach, the gardening editor for the magazine, and thought he would be up to the task.

He came and surveyed the damage and suggested I go see his garden and discuss which plants I liked, and what we might plant to fill in the bare spots.The following week two of his assistant gardeners arrived to weed and edge the neglected garden, and plant a few specimens gleaned from the by then somewhat depleted summer perennial stock at Zema's Nursery in Stephentown.

Tom also lent me eight pots beautifully planted with exotic species. He was going on vacation and needed someone to water them, so it was a win-win solution. We place them in strategic locations, and voila, the garden looked better than it had ever looked before. Amazing the lengths one goes to when a shelter magazine is coming to photograph.

Empty refrigerator

On the appointed Monday, after nearly two straight weeks of guests at the B&B, and with a pile of laundry on the kitchen floor, I emptied my refrigerator and freezer and lugged the contents across the street to the kitchen of my weekender neighbors who graciously offered their fridge space for the interim.

I lugged all the canisters of flour, sugar, tea, the knife holder and jars with kitchen utensils up to my bedroom to make all the countertops bare.

My housekeeper Emily Clark and I were still cleaning when the first of the Martha Stewart Living crew arrived, Susan Sugarman, the food editor for the story, and her assistant, Samantha Fremont-Smith. Soon every surface in the kitchen, two wing chairs, a cherry drop leaf table and the sofa were covered - with bags and boxes of ingredients, knives, bowls, Kitchen Aid mixers and other cooking utensils. They promptly set to work preparing the food for the two and a half day photo shoot: 14 recipes.


Susan and Samantha were followed several hours later by stylists, art directors and assistants bringing their boxes of props. They set up on the dining room table, with empty boxes stacked in the living room. They had warned me it would feel like an invasion, and it was true.

The photographers and their assistant, also staying at the inn, arrived about 11p.m. and promptly retired in order to get up in time to leave by 4:40 a/m/ for the dawn shoot at the local Columbia County farm where Martha Stewart Living magazine has a number of items grown specifically for them.

The cooks were in the kitchen by 7 a.m. No fancy three-course breakfast served to these guests!

By Tuesday afternoon, there were at least fifteen people on site; three photographers, two stylists, the magazine's senior art director, the assistant gardening editor, the art director for this story, and various assistants. It was like a movie set.

Lunch was set up on the lawn for the crew. They had scavenged the property, pulling an old, weathered door slated for stripping, out of the shed and using it as a prop. The stylist had brought several tables, glasses, pitchers, bowls, compotes, serving dishes and platters and flatware. These entirely covered my dining room table, which ordinarily seats eight.

Watching the action

The crew could not have been nicer. They didn't mind my wandering around taking photographs of them taking photographs, peeking into the kitchen to see what was on the stove, and watching the styling process.

First, the stylist chose from among the many platters, pitchers, glasses, flatware and serving utensils she brought. She brought several tables and chairs, as well. Then they decided on a spot in the garden, or in the garden house, or on the lower lawn beneath the towering maples, with my compost pile in the background screened by a fence of wooden pallets. It looks quite charming when out of focus!

I was fascinated by the location choices. All the hard work by Tom Carty's team didn't seem to matter. Not a single shot was taken in front of any flowers or any of his exotic planters.

Of course, I think it mattered that the grounds looked good, but not in the final analysis for the actual photos.

Then one of three photographers (two were a husband-and-wife tam who worked interchangeably) would set up the shot. They first snapped Polaroids until everyone agreed that everything looked perfect, then they shot film. Their choices even included shooting down on a platter on the stone bench in the front yard, and pulling out an old door from the shed for a backdrop.

The photos are, of course, gorgeous, as anyone who sees Martha Stewart Living knows. Some were dark still lifes that reminded me of Renaissance paintings with their use of chiaroscuro. One shot of the assistant garden editor, Jennifer Hitchcox, wearing a straw hat and bending over picking squash in the High Valley Garden field looked like a Millet painting. Each is beautifully accessorized, and the wonderful light of a Columbia County summer day is much in evidence. As the magazine senior art director, James Dunlinson, said to me, the light just cannot be reproduced in a studio shoot, even though almost every other aspect could.

As the shots were mostly close-ups of the food, there wasn't much evidence it had been done at the Inn at Green River; only two shots showed the field and surrounding ridges in the background. But one of those shots was deemed possible cover material, so keep your eye on the August 2001 issue!

The doghouse

One amusing incident (after the fact, anyway) involved two tarts cooked the first afternoon. They then sat around in various locations in my kitchen and on the screened porch waiting to be filled with strips of zucchini and photographed on Wednesday.

I watched as the tarts were moved from counter-top to table top to a chair seat on the porch. And sure enough, when I came down to the kitchen at 7 a.m. Wednesday, I noticed the corner of one tart missing. The likely suspect was my dog, Jasper, who up until that point had received a lot of friendly attention from the senior food editor. He was in the proverbial dog-house at that point.

Fortunately, nothing went wrong with the second tart, and the photo turned out fabulously. She forgave Jasper before she left and promised to be back this winter to ski at Catamount.

Tools of the trade

The photoshoot fit my image of a movie set: hurry up and wait. Everyone would rush to set up the shot, choose the accessories, then wait for the food to be prepared. Then out would come Susan Sugarman with the appointed dish and her tray of props, like the tray at the dentist's office. On it were tweezers, a squeegee bottle of water, cotton swabs, cotton Q-tips, and other touch-up utensils. If the food sat too long, waiting for the photographer to be happy with the shot, it might need misting with water to look fresh, then of course the plate had to wiped dry — a very precise operation.

The crew worked long hours, finishing each night at 6 or 7. Then they sampled the local cuisine in one of our many fine restaurants in the Hillsdale/Great Barrington area; to bed, then up and ready early the next morning. It is hardly a lark to go on a location shoot.

I enjoyed the whole process immensely, and the best part is the magazine called again to book another shoot this September.

Seems they like the location.


Copyright © 2000, Deborah Bowen and The Independent.