Tight Focus: Polaroid Sensation Jen Altman Turns her Lens to Food / VERVE Magazine
By Kathryn Stewart
Jen Altman is a self-taught photographer seduced by a self-proclaimed wanderlust. Whether she’s capturing an international wedding or a backyard barbeque, the high-profile blogger/author clearly does things her own way. Her adventurous spirit infuses her entire aesthetic, from curating her online boutique, Cisthene, to photographing fresh-baked bread.
It’s also translated into major success. Last year, Altman co-authored Instant Love: How to Make Magic and Memories with Polaroids, as well as her own book, Gem & Stone: Jewels of the Earth, Sea & Sky, featuring fine-art photos of raw gems. Her photography has also appeared in several major publications, including Kinfolk and Martha Stewart Living magazines.
She works closely with fellow Asheville-based blogger Ashley English. They collaboratively post English's “Small Measure” series to the popular, Brooklyn-based site Design Sponge, and the two are working on a book titled Handmade Gatherings, to be published in spring 2014. Altman’s current book in production, Photographing Your Children: A Handbook of Style and Instruction, is due this spring.
Since moving to Asheville a year-and-a-half ago, though, Altman has turned her focus on capturing the beauty of food. Locally sourced cuisine is big in NYC, where she came from – but she appreciates the relative intimacy of the mountain experience: “You don’t have to drive two hours from the city to see a farm.”
“I grew up in a very food-centric environment,” Altman goes on. She spent summers working at the small scratch bakery her father opened in San Diego when he retired from the Navy. “He was always introducing my brother and I to new food.” During the school year in Omaha with her mother and stepfather, “we spent a lot of time eating out,” she recalls – “and eating everything. It really expanded my appreciation of fine cooking.”
Altman may have gotten a head start on refined taste, but her curiosity has led her all over the world. “My real education in the diversity of dishes came from living and traveling in Europe for six years. I draw the majority of my inspiration from new places.
“Travel introduces you to new flavor profiles, and I love to learn how to manipulate them so my children” – three daughters ages 5, 6, and 8 – “will enjoy them.” After a recent trip to Singapore, she recreated a recipe for Hainanese Chicken Rice that has become her kids’ current favorite dish.
Altman calls herself and her husband, a nuclear engineer, serious foodies. They’ve been known to go to great lengths for a food-related experience. Once, on a road trip, they drove an hour-and-a-half out of their way to visit Hillbilly Hotdogs in West Virginia for a taste of this independently owned regional icon.
She shares her food adventures through her most recent blog, Nectar, an offshoot of her instant-photography blog Nectar & Light. Each post stands on its own, not following a particular format or adhering to rigorous posting parameters. “I found that I was always making rules for myself and breaking them, so I stopped making rules,” says Altman, who notes that Nectar was born after her relocation to WNC.
Instead, she shares with her readers what evolves naturally in her life. She dreams up her own recipes, whips them up in her kitchen, and tests them out on her family before they make the blog. “Nectar is a reflection of my life and my work. I try to keep it organic, and if my children won't eat it, I'm probably not going to share it.” Altman stands firm on some basics and remains flexible with the rest.
One aspect of her style has remained consistent over time. Altman shoots exclusively with natural light. “I think it's a gift from shooting Polaroids for so long,” she says. “I had to train myself to manipulate natural light.” Although she has expanded her craft to include digital photography, she remains faithful to this approach in her transformation of food into art.
“When I was shooting a recent Asheville travel piece for Martha Stewart, I would ask to work next to a window,” she says. At the dimly lit West Asheville foodie destination The Admiral, she brought the dishes outside to their porch. “It's just my personal style. I know quality of light from natural light, and I've been lucky enough that I've never had to use studio light so far.”