Scrolling through the photographs on Barney Taxel's laptop is like viewing a pictorial encyclopedia of Cleveland's culinary awakening. There's a shot of the Godfather himself, Carl Quagliata, looking dapper in a suit and tie. Young brothers Patrick and Dan Conway are snapped inside Great Lakes Brewery soon after it opened. Dressed in crisp chef's whites, Paul Minnillo looks ready for dinner service at the old Baricelli Inn. A baby-faced Michael Symon and his new bride Liz are captured in situ at the newly opened Lola Bistro. Sergio Abramof, Marlin Kaplan, Zack Bruell, Karen Small, Doug Katz, Dante Boccuzzi and Sanford Herskovitz – aka Mister Brisket – are all represented in what could serve as an archeological record of our restaurant-rich past and present.
Over the decades, Taxel has been there every step of the way, documenting each delicious bite for local publications like Cleveland Magazine and Northern Ohio Live and national outlets like Gourmet and The New York Times (and this entire issue, for which he took every single photo). He never intentionally set out to be a food photographer after graduating from Case Western Reserve University with a Bachelor of Arts in photography, it just sort of happened, he says.
"In the late '70s I was doing a lot of commercial work for [the industrial design firm] Nottingham Spirk, shooting packaging images for their bakeware and other products," Taxel explains. "We would use food as props and that's how I became familiar with food stylists and their routines. That work eventually led to my decision to build a full kitchen in the studio."
Long before it was the hip (or, frankly, prudent) thing to do, Taxel set up shop in a 3,000-square-foot studio on Prospect Avenue, behind the Agora Ballroom – before it was the Agora Ballroom. The year was 1976 and, while not totally unheard of at the time, the idea of an in-studio kitchen typically was reserved for photography firms that handled large commercial food, cooking equipment or tableware clients. Four decades later, you can still find Taxel working in the same studio.
Somewhere along the way, Taxel and his wife Laura had fallen into parallel and complementary careers, a partnership of sorts that would span the years. Interestingly enough, it all grew out of a thin wallet and a fondness for ethnic food and restaurants. Together, the thrifty diners would uncover exotic gems like Empress Taytu Ethiopian, Minh Anh Vietnamese, Balaton Hungarian and Seoul Hot Pot, back when the menu was still split between pizza and Korean food.
"We were always poor, so we searched out unusual and off-the-beaten-path places to eat, which drove us to many ethnic restaurants," Taxel recalls. "That turned into Laura's monthly column for Avenues Magazine focusing on ethnic restaurants and markets of Cleveland, which eventually turned into the book Cleveland Ethnic Eats."
Taxel describes those early years as a "slow burn, like a good cigar," he says. "Things didn't really start breaking until Michael took over that little spot in the Caxton Building. That kitchen was like a closet and we had to shoot in it, but he was hilarious."
"Michael," of course, is Michael Symon, and that "little spot" was the Caxton Cafe, a supernova of a restaurant that helped propel Cleveland into the dining big leagues and send Symon down his path toward celebrity chef status. Just three years later, Taxel would shoot Symon again, this time at his own spot, Lola Bistro, a seminal moment for the local food scene if ever there was one.
Laura moved from Avenues to Northern Ohio Live, where she had a beat reviewing the most noteworthy restaurants of the day. But rather than dine anonymously in some dark corner of the dining room, dispatching a photographer to shoot the meal at a later time, the Taxels would make a date out of it.
"We would ask for the table that had the best lighting and they would send out course after course for us to eat and shoot," Taxel recalls. "That was only possible thanks to digital photography becoming more accessible, because you could sit at a table and photograph what's being served at fairly low light levels and know that you were capturing something usable."
The next course up for the Taxels was Feast, a glossy food-themed magazine under the umbrella of Great Lakes Publishing. Laura served as editorial director and Barney as contributing photographer. "It was a real labor of love for both of us," Taxel says of the project, which had a too-short five-year run. A few years after that publication was put to bed, the Taxels teamed up on Cleveland's West Side Market: 100 Years and Still Cooking, a well-researched hardcover that chronicled the history of the iconic public market.
Every step of the way – from that pivotal bistro in Tremont to the very magazine you're holding in your hands – food photography has been the silent partner of success. Working behind the scenes and behind the lens, food photographers, along with stylists and other support crew, have been documenting this city's culinary transformation for consumption in print and online media. Along with the clever scribes who paint pictures with words, a talented photojournalist has the ability to make the sights, smells and flavors of food spring forth from a two-dimensional image. Savvy chefs know to seek out skilled shooters who will present their dishes in the best possible light.
Cell phones, social media and foodie culture have actually helped in that regard, he thinks.
"I think it's great for our profession because people know what quality is, so it helps us rise to the top of a medium that's full of everything from the sublime to the ridiculous," he says, adding that our current obsession with food all but guarantees him job security.
"Eating out has become a form of entertainment as opposed to something you do on the way to the theater or movies," he explains. "With competition comes marketing and with marketing comes the need for a visual message that tells the story. Part of my job is to discover what that viewpoint is and bring it into a two-dimensional, one-shot reality that tells that story. These observation and implementation skills are things that I've worked a long time to acquire and they're not going to leave me anytime soon."