When I stumbled upon the Kitchen Ghosts website, I was mesmerized. Pancakes perpetually drip in syrup and milk continuously diffuses in cups of coffee. Not a still photograph and not a video, these cinemagraphs resided perfectly in the “in-between,” looping in short, beautiful repetition. I found myself frequenting the site between meetings and emails, finding the subtle movement of the cinemagraphs profoundly calming.
Daria Khoroshavina, part of the duo that created the site, likens the feeling of looking at these cinemagraphs to watching water or fire. “The human eye is designed to spot movement, so when you see a picture and something in it moves, it captures your attention. As a result, people stare at those pictures for quite some time.” She and co-collaborator Olya Kolesnikova have been receiving messages from fans who say they spend five minutes at a time staring at one cinemagraph.
Daria and Olya, both based near Moscow, had collaborated previously on portrait and fashion photography projects, and wanted to try something new. Fascinated by cinemagraphs (essentially animated GIFs) they saw online, they decided to give it a try.
“Kitchen Ghosts” was the first name that came to mind for their project, and it stuck. “I guess I had in mind the process of food preparation without any particular person appearing in the frame, like the food happening by itself,” says Daria.
Their goal was to create a story with food. They started with breakfast, fond of the mood set by this first meal of the day.
Daria shoots each of the scenes on a tripod. She then uses several tools, such as Adobe After Effects, Photoshop, and Flixel, to edit. She looks through the filmed material, searching for two- to six-second sections that can loop seamlessly.
“The looping is always different for each image. Sometimes it’s a reversed movement; sometimes it’s opacity blending. I just try and see what looks best. Those images with the perfect seamless motion are the best, and most believable I guess. It’s worth all the time spent.”
Daria may suggest elements that will work better for the shot—like not having reflective objects in the frame or like including certain liquid ingredients that will add that certain je ne sais quoi to the frame—but it is Olya who searches for the recipes, prepares the food, searches for props, and meticulously styles the scene. And if you’re wondering who the woman is cooking or spreading jam on toast? It’s always Olya.
There are some tricks they’ve learned along the way, like undercooking vegetables for more vivid color or adding some sugar to soda to make more bubbles. They never use anything artificial to make the food look better. For example, in the cinemagraph with the foaming beer, Daria points out that they did not add dishwashing detergent or the like to make the beer look foamier.
Since it’s just the two of them working, they tell me they are not likely to eat everything they cook, so they hand it out to friends, family, and neighbors. “I guess it’s no secret it’s good to be neighbors with a food photographer,” Daria tells me.
Having worked a lot in the National Geographic studio styling photo shoots, I know there are always unexpected mishaps, even with the most straightforward of projects. I ask them about this. “We’ve had a lot of problems, actually, because I’ve never been a food photographer,” Daria says, and tells me about the time she and Olya did a cinemagraph of Olya mixing meringue. “We spilled and splashed the meringue and egg whites all over the walls and floor and all over my camera equipment. It was actually really fun, but not so many good images came out of it. So we had to learn and make it again and again, and then I called my mom.”