For this interview, we spoke to photographer extraordinaire Gabi Porter. Known best as a NYC-based booze and hospitality photographer, her images have been published internationally and she’s travelled the world eating and drinking all in the name of “work”. Normally you’ll find Gabi out capturing images of the rock-stars of the hospitality world, doing her magic at the industry’s highest profile events. But, in this Pandemic period, we caught up with Gabi while quarantining at home with her Mom where she pushed her boundaries and managed to do a complete cocktail shoot for Hiatus Tequila in her living room!
You have a background in music photography, but transitioned to the hospitality industry, can you tell us a little about this shift and how it influenced your work?
Aren’t people tired of this story yet?! Back in 2006 or 2007 the music industry was crumbling, so as a freelance photographer I was very available at this point, and my big break into hospitality photography was for Employee’s Only Repeal day party. So, I became a party, food, and cocktail photographer, they all kind of blended in to each other. My approach to taking images for parties, food, beverage etc., was heavily influenced by my background in music. Music photographers are always looking for the decisive moment; to capture that one alive, exciting image. Having that instinct of making decisions and shooting very quickly really informs how I shoot in the hospitality industry; that smile, the wink, the flourish of hands, the motion blur of liquid pouring, splashing, chipping, throwing ice. Capturing action and not still life is where I’ve distinguished myself.
You are a top-notch barfly and beloved in the industry, which has been hit so hard these past few months due to COVID-19, how has having to stay home affected your business practice?
Of course, my focus is outside of the studio -or home in this case now. I am an environmental photographer versus a studio photographer, so it was a big blow to begin working from home. I was supposed to shoot this massive gala at the New York Public Library, which happened to be scheduled right at the start of the pandemic and that of course was the first of many that got cancelled. The last gig I did out of house was a whisky event at Underdog, around March 10, but after that it got too scary with COVID and I started saying no to jobs outside. I have done some in home studio improv since then. A lot of “on white”, which is basically very clinical bottle images that are more for commercial or retail use. Hiatus Tequila was the most creative shoot I did. It also forced me to do something I had wanted to do for a very long time, which was to build an in-home studio.
What specific challenges and/or inspirations did you experience while doing the cocktail shoot with Hiatus Tequila during quarantine?
The biggest challenge was getting stuck in my own head, I was second guessing myself about achieving the results I saw in my mind. Also, identifying what I had in-home versus what I knew I needed to make a successful shoot. It’s much different than being able to go to a bar and have multiple lighting options, different backgrounds and varied surfaces to work on. There were mountains of creative decisions that had to be made alone. I was used to going into situations where there is a big group of people on-site, all giving direction and all I have to focus on is the lighting. Here, I’m wearing all of the hats; set director, food stylist, prop stylist and photographer. I’m used to in-person collaborative brainstorming. So here I am now, stuck at home, asking my mother to come and give her opinion! I had also been studying Renaissance painters, collecting images that I grouped in a folder called “inspiring light”. I was definitely influenced by the likes of Rembrandt and Van Eyck during the shoot for Hiatus. The dramatic lighting and the folds of the drapery, I had a lot of that in my head while shooting the cocktails for Hiatus. I have a whole new respect for still life photographers and painters. And thankfully in the end, I managed to get the shots to match what I had in my head, which never happens!
You have an extensive glassware collection. What began this love affair? Where is the furthest location you’ve brought glassware home from?
This starts in childhood! I loved little dishes, bowls, serving bowls, glasses, all of it! I’ve always enjoyed having beautiful and unusual versions around me. The first big cocktail shoot I did was at Maison Premiere in Brooklyn, and they had limited glassware at the time. It was a three-day shoot and after the first day I asked around for sources for glassware and got sent to a shop in Chelsea owned by two little old men, which will always remain my secret source. It’s an amazing shop, and is rumored to have outfitted the sets of Mad Men. That really planted the bug for me!
On a trip to Poland with my Mom in the 90’s while I was still in college, we went to Krosno, which is a famous glassware manufacturer. We fell in love with two sets of six pieces, and we had to travel around with all this glassware via train from Krakow to Warsaw and then be picked up by my Mom’s friend’s son who was bringing us to the airport. There was no bubble wrap or proper packing, so it’s just like this crazy tangle of what looked like toilet paper wrapped all around and then jammed into these bags that are like expandable nets, it just looked crazy!
Have you been to Mexico before? When and where did you travel to?
I have! I have been to Guadalajara and the town of Tequila, quite a few years ago, on brand trip for Casa Noble. We stayed at the distillery, La Cofradia which happens to be where I hear Hiatus tequila is also made. The people I was traveling with wanted to go to a cigar bar while we were there, but I wanted to go to La Capilla, which is a famous old bar owned and operated by Don Javier who created the Batanga cocktail. I didn’t know if he’d be there, but I would have loved to meet him or even just have a drink at his bar. So, the group changed their schedule around because now they wanted to go as well, and they ended up getting poor Don Javier out of retirement to meet us. It was one of his last times behind the bar and so it was super special. I asked our tour guide why the bar was named La Capilla, which means “the chapel”. I had thought maybe because it was a sort of a pilgrimage to come and pay homage to Don Javier and the Batanga. And he begins to gesture with his hands and stumble around pretending to be drunk, and said, because by the end of the night the patrons are on their knees! I would love to spend more time in Mexico just riding the chicken buses around and visiting the small villages, enjoying drowned tortas (ahogada) and seeing the agave fields and just soaking up the culture.
What does the word “Hiatus” mean to you?
It’s simple, it’s taking a break from the grind. We’ve all kind of been on a forced hiatus recently.
Blanco, Repo, or Añejo?
I’m a blanco girl. I’m of the belief that if you make a good blanco, then you make a good repo and good añejo will follow. If your blanco is no good, why even bother with the rest of it. I feel like it’s the same way with cachaça as it is with tequila where the younger, unaged versions are so bright and vegetal and floral, you can taste greenness in them and it’s such a unique flavor. It’s not that the introduction of wood or aging spoils it, it makes it delicious, but I personally really love the bright unaged flavor of tequila. My favorite cocktail from the Hiatus shoot was the Frambuesca, that went down way too easy, also the Jalisco Sunset, both blanco cocktails. But then also, of the stirred cocktails, I loved the La Joya with the Hiatus reposado. And the La Cofradia, the combination of Chartreuse and añejo was really inspiring, and really delicious. You know, in hindsight, I loved all the cocktails actually! I’ve been sipping on Hiatus’ blanco, and I couldn’t find the bottles the other day, it turned out my mother had polished off all the bottles from the Hiatus shoot! Not a drop of that Hiatus went to waste!
What was your most memorable tequila infused night with friends?
Oh, it’s a sad story actually, but a nice one. I had the most beloved dog of my life, my Mexican Chihuahua, little Speedy Gonzalez. He passed away when he was about 13 years old. I was really torn up about it, I had a hard time getting out of bed, it was devastating. I was moping around the house and my dog Lilly, who I still have now, was kind of like, where is he? She was sad, I was sad, my mom was sad. Speedy Gonzalez liked a good cocktail from time to time, he liked a little sip on a Negroni. So, I looked around at my liquor cabinet, and was like I really need to make us some cocktails. I had this recipe from Macao Trading Co. that used a repo, which I had a bottle of in my bar, but at the time I didn’t know what a good bottle of tequila I had and that I was making cocktails with an $80 reposado! My mom and I sat out on the fire escape and between the two of us drank the entire bottle. We laughed and we cried and we cried some more. But the most miraculous thing about that night is that I woke up feeling great, no hangover! So, the moral of the story is that good quality tequila is the way to go!