Romulo A. Yanes, one of the top food photographers of the past four decades, whose career spanned the 1980s awakening of America's palate for global cuisines and food-centric travel and whose seductive photographs helped feed today’s passion for all things food, died June 16 in Tampa, Florida, of peritoneal cancer. He was 62.
For 26 years, Yanes was the staff photographer for Gourmet magazine. His playful creativity and genius, plus his command of both studio and outdoor lighting, had a lot to do with putting Gourmet at the top of the pack of food magazines during its heyday in the latter part of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st. These talents also factored significantly in the magazine's several ASME awards.
He helped guide the visuals from the tweezer days of precision-placed chives atop perfectly fanned green beans to the crumbs-and-all reality of how we really eat. Thumbing through decades of Gourmet, you can see the formal, uptight entertaining of the '80s and '90s give way to the farm-to-table era and relaxed gatherings of friends. His imaginative still-lifes of, say, a ripe, cracked-open pomegranate or an assembly of just-picked garden vegetables, brought new energy to the magazine covers and reflected the growing concern with how food was grown and sourced.
Yanes was just 24 when he arrived at Gourmet, and he soon began an ongoing update to the studio, switching from incandescent lights balanced for tungsten and large format cameras (the previous photographer used a metronome to count 325-second exposures) to strobe lights, Polaroid tests for light exposures, and finally digital cameras and a naturally daylit studio.
In the competitive world of food magazines, Yanes was a style setter. The word from staffers from competing magazines was that everyone waited eagerly each month to see what Gourmet was up to … and much of what they eagerly anticipated was Yanes' work.
Within mere minutes of the bombshell news of Gourmet's closing in 2009, his phone rang with job offers and his freelance career burgeoned. For the past 12 years he was a regular contributor to Williams-Sonoma catalogues and shot images for over 35 publications, including Bon Appetit, Martha Stewart Living, and the New York Times. The list of cookbooks he photographed is long and impressive. He was thrilled to have been asked to the White House to shoot for Hillary Clinton's “An Invitation to the White House,” published in 2000. He photographed two of Nick Malgieri's books, one on bread and another on pastry, and the New York Times' own senior food editor, Genevieve Ko's Better Baking.
Yanes was born in Fomento, Cuba, and in 1968, at 9 years old, he emigrated to the U.S. on one of the "freedom flights" from Havana with his sister and parents. Sponsored by an uncle in New Jersey, the family settled in West New York, where his father, Abraham Yanes, found work as a mechanic, and his mother, Caridad Nieblas Yanes, in an apparel factory. A younger sister was born in New Jersey.
Yanes excelled in public school, making the high school honor roll, and was on track to become a dentist. That is, until he took the Kuder aptitude tests and perplexed his counselors by scoring high in the arts and low in the professions. He changed course and took a photography class his senior year. When he went into the darkroom for the first time to develop film, the smell of the chemicals immediately reminded him of an uncle's darkroom in Cuba and he knew instantly that he would become a photographer.
At the School of Visual Arts, Yanes floundered in street and fashion photography, but thrived in studio work, where he could control the lighting and composition. One of his professors, Irene Stern, was a food photographer and she connected him with Carl Fischer, a professional photographer known for his Esquire covers in the ‘60s among many other iconic photographs bearing his name. Through Fischer he met Irwin Glusker, Gourmet’s Art Director in the '80s and early '90s, who recognized Yanes’ talent and lured him, with Fischer’s blessing, to the magazine.
Yanes is survived by his husband, Robert Schaublin-Yanes, and two sisters, Cira Yanes and Ana Yanes, and a nephew, Michael Cozzino.
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