For a recent Valentine’s Day story, fashion and lifestyle website Refinery29 asked employees what message they would secretly like to send their valentine. The answers came back decidedly unsweet, if not completely unromantic. “All we do is eat & sleep. It’s nice,” says one. “Get off your phone,” says another. A slideshow makes up the heart of the story, written by executive food editor Elettra Wiedemann and photo edited by Erica Gannett—the answers are transcribed in frosting on the tops of a variety of cakes. Photographed by Lucas Zarebinski and accessorized with chopsticks and Chicken Lo Mein or Cheez Doodles and confetti, the images occupy the slightly queasy place between food photography and conceptual still life.
Zarebinski says the hardest part of the job belonged to food stylist Hadas Smirnoff, who had to have all ten cakes baked, decorated and ready at the same time on the day of the shoot. Most of the pairings of cake and background had been decided beforehand (Chloe Daley was the prop stylist for the shoot, and Zoe Bain is senior food editor for the site), but “on the day of the shoot, we were playing and matching what worked with what,” he says. A few were switched around “organically on the set.”
Shot on a tripod at a three quarter angle, Zarebinski’s biggest challenge was to keep the light even and smooth across all ten cakes. Working in his Manhattan studio, he used just one light, “a very hard, directional light, to give it a 3-D, unreal look,” says Zarebinski. “I wanted to imitate the sun as much as possible.” The result was cake that’s not exactly appetizing, and wasn’t meant to be. “It’s almost plastic looking,” says Zarebinski. “It’s not like your recipe shoot. This is food as an object, food as message.”