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Martin Jacobs: Painter Turned Award-Winning Food Photographer

MARTIN JACOBS is in search of the perfect piece of chocolate. Not to eat, but to photograph.

Here in his New York studio, Mr. Jacobs is photographing gourmet chocolate for an upscale chocolate company. It will be for the winter holiday catalog.

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He sits on a stool overlooking a silver tray full of assorted chocolates, cocking his head from side to side, considering different angles for glare, contrasts of light and dark, and more.

"Look for a good walnut that's not bruised," Mr. Jacobs asks his assistant, Marianne Smith. He carefully takes tweezers and moves a few chocolates around. Some are white chocolate, some dark; a few are wrapped in gold foil. "This one has a small pinhole in it," he says as he sends it back to be replaced. (In order to have just the right chocolates to choose from, the company has provided close to 300 different chocolates.) "What I'm trying to do is angle all these chocolates so they pick up the light in the right way," he explains.

A Polaroid serves as a blueprint. "You can spend an entire day doing this," says Jacobs, whose studio is filled with props, backdrops, and tools of the trade. ("I have everything," he says when asked what's in his toolbox.)

The No. 1 rule is: No seam can show. And all the chocolates have a seam. So Jacobs constantly double checks. He wears white gloves to handle the chocolates. At one point he carefully places a small piece of putty under one to give it a lift.

"Do you mind the rough edge?" he asks the art director and company representative about a particular piece of chocolate. The answer comes back "No." "Shoot it already, Marty!"

Jacobs is an award-winning food photographer known for such cookbooks as the "International Chocolate Cookbook," "A Taste of Hawaii," "Foods of Vietnam," and "Spirit of the Harvest - North American Indian Cooking" (Stewart Tabori & Chang publishers).

"He's very talented, he's patient, technically he's one of the best I've ever worked with," says art director Marianne Pettorini. "He knows how to finish sentences visually."

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"I started out as a painter," Jacobs says.

Photographing food is very much a team effort. You have food stylists, prop stylists, art directors, and clients, who all help convey a concept. "I express a type of feeling and choose props to reflect that feeling," Jacobs says. As an example he shows a recent shot of a table that looks like it holds a big meal at Grandma's house.

Does he have a favorite work of food photography? He admits to having several, including one shot, which he brings out, of peanut-butter and jelly styled on a piece of whole-wheat bread on a cutting board.

"That's my rococo," Jacobs says with a smile. The concept? "Just goodness. That's all it is, goodness."

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