Passing through security at Los Angelles International Airport, Martin Wonnacott opened his shiny Zero Halliburton camera case to give the TSA agent a glimpse at the two Leica SLR bodies and assorted lenses he was carrying. “OK,” she said as Wonnacott snapped shut the case. Pointing at the other identical Zero Halliburton case, she asked, “And what’s in that one?”
Because he’d been through this many times before, Wonnacott paused, cracked a wry smile, and answered, “Tea.”
“Tea?” she asked him. “Whaddya’ mean, ‘tea’?”
“It’s tea,” the New York-based commercial photographer repeated before opening the case. Snugly stowed inside was a small green box of Fortnum & Mason Earl Grey tea, a half-liter Bonavita mini travel kettle, four fine china teacups and four matching saucers. As with the Leicas and lenses, each of the 10 objects in the case was cradled in its own precisely cut compartment in the four-inch deep foam padding.
“Well, I never!” said the agent before letting out a loud laugh. “I have never seen anything like that!” She laughed again. “Oh my God! It is tea! Honey, you just made my day!”
Wonnacott loves telling this story. First, because it makes him laugh. Second, it offers a peek into his approach to work. “Work is important,” explains the internationally acclaimed photographer. “But so is tea,” he says from a plush leather couch in his two-story mid-Manhattan studio.
“Taking time for tea, no matter how stressful or busy a workday one is having, is one of the first lessons I learned while working as a photographer’s assistant in England at age 17,” he explains. “To me it’s not about being fancy; it’s just normal. And best of all, it keeps me from getting too frazzled. It normalizes everything. It keeps me calm.”
“Calm is a great word to describe Martin,” says former Coca-Cola Creative Director Lisa Motto, who has known and worked with Wonnacott for decades. “Martin has photographed long, complicated campaigns for us around the world and in many stressful situations, but I’ve never seen him lose his cool. Does the tea help? Definitely. But it also helps that he’s so skilled and creative. He’s easily the best beverage photographer in the world.”
Others agree. He’s won a slew of awards, not to mention scores of world-class clients: Guinness, Coca-Cola, Bacardi, Budweiser, Jack Daniel’s, Heineken, Coors, Jameson, Pepsi, Stoli, Absolut, and many others. As he notes on his website (which itself has earned a Webby Award), he has “shot virtually every sort of liquid form of refreshment for sale in the world.”
Why liquids? “That’s a good question,” says Wonnacott. “I guess I’ve always been attracted to liquids—the way they look and move—and intrigued by the challenge of photographing them. I know it sounds a bit nerdy, but the technicality of that fascinated me as far back as when I was in high school. I still have some weird pics of bottles I took in my teens. Also, the first photography studio I worked in had a nearby distillery, Gordon’s gin, as a client. Guess I got hooked.”
Wonnacott opened his own commercial photography studio in London at 23, but it wasn’t until he landed an assignment for Absolut Vodka some years later that he considered specializing in beverage photography. “I was taken with the challenge of making a mundane object, say a can of beer, look amazing. Shooting a gorgeous model in a beautiful dress in a perfect setting is one thing, but making a drink or a can or a bottle look glamorous is hard work.”
He ticks off the problems of drinks photography: Bottles are shiny, as are labels and foils, and can be hard to light. “It’s not enough to put a nice reflection on them. They need to ‘say’ something.” Ice is tricky; it melts, changes shape, and moves. Real ice is translucent; the camera can see right though it. It can look foggy. Artificial ice, if it’s skillfully made, is better but can be complex to light. He’s come to believe that while lighting is everything, it’s important to keep it simple: “With drinks photography you need to find the right lighting balance and not over-complicate things.”
“Most challenging,” says Wonnacott, “is the need to bring liquids to life, to bring out their personality so a viewer feels that and wants it. I want to engage people with my work. Otherwise there’s no point.”
Adds Coca-Cola’s Motto, “Martin is excellent at capturing images with emotion. He knows how to find that interaction or connection between people when they are drinking; it’s that split second before or right after one takes a drink. He understands that in beverage photography you are not just photographing a beverage; you are photographing togetherness.”
With an increasing number of U.S.-based clients, Wonnacott relocated to New York City some 15 years ago. “It was scary at first,” he admits. “But scary is good. I’ve found that throughout my career it’s important to keep moving out of my comfort zone. Reinvent or get stale.”
Case in point: When a London-based agent tried to dissuade him from specializing in drinks photography (“Not enough money in it, mate”), he took that as a challenge. “I saw that the drinks industry was a huge, global industry.” Even braver, he began representing himself by starting his own agency, Cake-Factory, with several like-minded photographers. The agency now has six photographers and video directors. Wonnacott and his wife, Tammy, run it from their London and Los Angeles offices.
Reinvention also applies to Wonnacott’s latest endeavor: directing videos. “I admit I’ve always been a little bit frustrated with shooting still pictures of liquid because I had long thought of it in terms of movement, and I wanted to capture the perfect moment. I’ve always had some kind of video camera and had experimented with it.” When a client asked him to produce a video he jumped at the chance. “Again, it felt scary,” he says. “There was so much to learn and I did so by pushing myself.”
He’s had a steep learning curve with directing videos but he’s thrilled with the freedom it’s given him. “Video, or motion, offers you so many more chances than film to capture different nuances with movement and sound,” he says. “Video has been a natural career progression for me.”
As with his career in still photography, he’s had some stumbles while directing videos. “If you’re not making mistakes you are doing something wrong. You should learn from every mistake.” The fact that he’s done video work for Jameson, Fernet-Branca, Guinness, Johnnie Walker, and Coca-Cola shows he’s learned well. As he says when asked about future video work: “Watch this space!”
Photographer, video director, agency owner: Martin Wonnacott has continually challenged himself. And succeeded. What’s next? “I’m always aiming higher,” he says. “I love everything about this business, from taking pictures to making videos and even networking and marketing. It never gets old. I am always learning.” And when it gets stressful? There’s always time for a cup of Fortnum & Mason Earl Grey Classic tea.
“Exactly!” says Wonnacott. “A cuppa makes everything better!”
Robert Kiener is a writer in Vermont.
Tags: commercial photography