Q&A with Greg Knott, Photographer Who Marries Humor and Food

Photographer Greg Knott talks about his work: food as art.

Perhaps while eating out, you have noticed the photographs of food lining the walls and wondered who takes those photos or how those ideas are formed. Photographer Greg Knott gives a picture of the thought process and how pairing milk with wine makes sense. 

Photo Courtesy of Greg Knott.

NVM: How did you get started in photography? 

GK: I was a commercial photographer. I guess that’s how I got started in the arts. I started in photography in college I took some drafting courses and photography courses and then won some awards in both, but kind of flipped a coin and photography took less schooling. So I went that direction thinking that I’d have to get a real desk job one day but so far so, so good. 

The face behind the photos, Greg Knott /Photo Courtesy of Greg Knott

Most of your work tends to be in a series, and in an interview you’ve said that you love seeing the smile on people’s faces when they “get it.” What is your process for brainstorming these ideas? 

At this point, now that it’s going, people will come to me and they’ll want to get a, you know, I had a dentist come to me and she wanted a piece. So the process is just trying to deconstruct what it is to be a dentist and its pieces and then try to, uh, just its simplest elements. And the same thing, of course, like a food dish. That’s a little easier where you just break it up into its simplest ingredients. 

One series that you did variations of was the idea of the PB&J. Why did you feel it was important to do a jelly, jam, fruit preserve and what seems to be a “healthy” PB&J? 

Oh yeah, the organic one? Original I had was the Skippy, the Smuckers jelly and the Wonderbread. And that’s kind of what I think of as your classic peanut butter and jelly. And what I’ve done, two other versions now, and that’s just what the people requested. I had a client that wanted a healthy, organic peanut butter and jelly and I was said, “Alright, cool. I can do that.” 

Classic PB&J /Photo Courtesy of Greg Knott

On the less healthy side, let’s talk candy. I love the triptychs of the two chili peppers and then Hot Tamales, and the two real lemons with Lemonheads candy. What’s up with the 100 Grand one? I can’t eat these stacks of Benjamins. 

Well, that’s kind of hundred grand. I don’t know. The wads of cash? It’s funny those first three that you mentioned were some of the very first ones that I did and those aren’t so much a deconstruction of something as they are just kind of fun. And how I think it evolved is that I did those and then I did the s’mores ‘cause it was with the candy. The very first show I did, I got so much reaction from the deconstruction of the s’mores that I was like, “Alright, let me try this.” And then I came up with the duck duck goose and the rock-paper-scissors, and it just went from there. So now everything I do is more of a deconstruction of something and not just kind of fun like those first ones. 

That s’mores one is another interesting case. The triptych is in the style of a lot of your other work, where each piece is presented like a portrait. The quadriptych, though, is presented vertically and with movement that shows the s’more coming together. What was your thought process like for that one? 

Most of my work these days is just driven by demand. I had a client that was going to buy a large s’mores in the triptych version and they told me they were going to rotate it in 90 degrees and have it go up a wall so it would fit the space in their kitchen that was very kind of tall. And I was just, not appalled but you can’t do that. The horizon line will be on the side then. It was just kind of, you know, that’s going to look weird! And so I tell them, “Don’t buy this one. Let me go back and shoot one for you that’s more of a collapsing s’mores.” And they were very excited about that so I went back and shot that for them so it would go with the kitchen wall for them. 

S'mores Horizontally /Photo Courtesy of Greg Knott

Yeah, that would have really messed up the composition.

Yeah! Then again, they had a check. I would’ve let them buy it eventually, but it’s just, you know, let me just try first to get something else for you. 

Why wine and milk then juice and… what is that next to it? 

It’s a.m. with the kids and p.m. with the kids. So it’s the same thing. It was a client. They invited me over their home and they wanted a diptych for either side of this island in the kitchen. They didn’t know what they wanted and they said, “So we’ll leave it up to you.” I went over there and we opened up a bottle of wine and started chatting. They said they only use the kitchen morning and night so we kind of started figuring out how you represent morning and night in my style. And they had two small kids so they were like, “How do we get them in here as well?” 

Photo Courtesy of Greg Knott

So it’s the coffee but I just put the cream in it so the cream still isn’t mixed up yet with the juice box for the kids. And then the wine is almost gone and the milk is almost gone. So it’s the very first thing you do with the kids in the morning and the very last thing you do with the kids at night. That’s kind of where that came from. 

And kind of fun, too, the wine glass and the milk cup were the clients. So I took those back to my studio and photographed them. But I didn’t want to use their coffee cups ‘cause they weren’t clear. But when I delivered the piece I delivered twelve coffee cups so it’s now the coffee cups they use as well. 

Your food photos are often placed in personal kitchens and restaurants. How do you think they act in the context of that space? What about when the restaurant doesn’t even sell the kind of food depicted in the piece? 

I’m dealing with that now. There’s a restaurant, Café Pizzaiolo in Shirlington has a bunch of my work up. They’re commissioning a couple pieces that are more along the lines of food that they sell there so we’re kind of brainstorming now. They do a tie-in coffee, so we’re going to do some kind of coffee one for them. 

S’mores, not a lot of restaurants sell s’mores, but it’s still food-related and fun. Obviously they care about food and to kind of combine that fun-ness with it. It still works whether they sell it or not. 

What’s your favorite food? If you had to turn it into a photo series of some sort, how would you do it? 

My favorite food is probably a shrimp scampi or something like that. Yeah, I guess I should do… I could easily imagine just a gorgeous shrimp kind of standing on its end and then like a, a mountain of some spices, a stick of butter and some pasta, angel hair pasta standing on end. 

I just did another one. I had a chocolatier from Minnessota want to do a piece. Her parents saw my work at the Factory. And so they were opening up a new shop there and so they wanted me to do kind of a deconstruction of their chocolate. That one was a four-piece as well. I did do some sticks of butter, cream in a measuring cup. And then they sent me a big block of their chocolate. I don’t know, when it’s first cooked it comes in this big block. And then one of their boxes of their candy, kind of upright. 

That one I kind of almost screwed up because I painted the chocolate. I wanted it to have a little more texture to it. So I painted it with butter since I had the butter there anyway, just to give it a little shine. When the chocolatier first saw it, she was appalled. She sent me a piece of chocolate. I think what she called it was “blooming.” The chocolate, if it’s not cooked just right, it gets these milky waves in it. And it bloomed or something. 

She was going to send me another piece immediately, and I said, “No no, it was just me. I painted it with butter.” 

She’s like, “Oh no, we can’t have that.” 

Luckily, I had shot it before I had painted it with butter. Anyway, I swapped it out and then she loved it. She actually loved it. 

Photo Courtesy of Greg Knott

What’s it like when you go into a restaurant and you see your photographs? 

I mean, it’s fun. It’s very flattering when you go in someplace and someone likes your work enough to hang it up. 

Like Greg’s work? Cafe Pizzaiolo is having a “Meet the Artist” night on Jan. 16. You can also check him out at gregknott.com or at his studio in the Torpedo Factory (105 N. Union St., Studio #317, Alexandria) or at these restaurants:
Tempo Restaurant, 4231 Duke St., Alexandria; Cafe Pizzaiolo, 2800 S Randolph St., Arlington; and Hot Spot, 3232 Old Pickett Road, Fairfax.