BurkleHagen: Seeing the possible in food photography

CLEVELAND -- Northeast Ohio has an evolving and diverse food scene, and now there are two men dedicated to capturing some of that tastiness on camera.

BurkleHagen opened its doors in a studio loft in Asiatown earlier this year, creating the first photography business in the city to focus solely on food.

The concept came from partner David Hagen, who spent 26 years as a commercial photographer, covering everything from portraits to his most-loathed subject -- cars.

He followed his "gut," deciding that he wanted to work strictly with edibles.

Hagen contacted Kent native and fellow photographer Andrew Burkle, who had been working in Chicago since college. After a few visits back to Ohio, Burkle was convinced to come back home, and the partnership was born.

"Right now there's a huge budding restaurant scene here, and I think people are excited about that." Burkle says. "Big food producers are here in Northeast Ohio."

After only a few months, they have managed to snag a variety of clients, from national restaurant chains to Ohio-based distributor Smucker's. They have even worked with celebrated local chef Zack Bruell and are in talks with Chef Jonathan Sawyer about his forthcoming restaurant, Trentina.

"Nobody, as far as I can tell, is only shooting food like we are on the commercial level," Hagen says.

Their work can be found in a number of places.

"They could be for packaging for items in grocery stores, menu items for national chains, recipes books, online content," Burkle says of the projects they've completed so far.

Much like the mission of their business, the style of their photography seems tailored to Cleveland.

"As the farm-to-table movement came, and we got back to real ingredients, people wanted to see real food," Hagen says. "We get to eat everything we shoot for the most part."

Burkle laughs, "Gone are the days of -- if you're shooting a burger, the bun has to be this pristine, half-sphere, and there can't be any crumbs. If there's something oozing down the side, that looks real!"

Accomplishing that rustic look is harder than many people realize.

Heidi Robb is one of several food stylists that BurkleHagen hires as a freelancer. After years of working in professional kitchens, Robb segued into food styling for television and print. She knows the tricks of working with perishables.

"You're looking for that one optimal moment when food is at that magical, best peak of desirability and craveability," Robb explains.

Having worked in much larger markets, Robb sees Cleveland's appeal for people in the industry.

"There is a community and it's growing. More and more commercial accounts realize that we have the chops to produce the kind of work that New York and Chicago can," says Robb. "It's time. We have all this beautiful warehouse and loft space here, and the rents are amazing. The talent is here."

Staying narrowly focused on culinary meant that Burkle and Hagen could specially design their space with uniquely food-related accommodations.

Featuring a giant double kitchen as the centerpiece, the studio has a prop area with tons of glassware, plateware and silverware, as well as a workshop for building custom tabletops and dining room sets.

The space was also designed to have natural light coming in from all four directions, often an asset in food photography.

Another nod to a very Cleveland tradition is the rehabbing and recycling of nearly all of the building materials used to convert the old warehouse into the chic studio.

Giant rolling islands used for prep work in the kitchen are actually made from old bowling alley floors.

"The conference table and the dining room table -- that's old barn wood from a barn in Western Ohio that's 150 years old," Burkle says.

From doors and bookshelves to the fully stocked bar and even swings hanging from the ceiling, the wood and metal was almost entirely salvaged from older Ohio buildings.

"It's a fun place to work. It's light and airy and has a great atmosphere to it. It's nice to be able to come to work and just kind of hang out all day, sit on the swings," laughs Burkle.

The two are hoping that Cleveland's love for the scrumptious will provide plenty of work for them in the future, as they pioneer in an industry that will hopefully grow in the coming years.

"I think Cleveland's the perfect spot for food right now. Being a part of this food community right now is a lot of fun," Hagen says. "It's a growing market for sure."

For more information on BurkleHagen, visit their website at burklehagen.com.


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