Tony Cenicola’s ‘steamy turkey’ is this year’s poultry pinup

Last year, New York Times photographer Tony Cenicola made a chicken sexy. This year, he made a turkey steamy.

Cenicola has a way with birds.

The dean of New York poultry photography and his brother have been cleaning out their parents’ house on the Jersey Shore ever since Hurricane Sandy hit it hard. Nevertheless he returned to New York on Election Day to build a set for a photo illustrating Jeff Gordinier’s story about Jacques Pépin’s recipe for steamed turkey.

“We wanted to do something that didn’t go quite as far as the chicken,” Cenicola said by phone. The chicken shot was based on a concept by dining photo editor Tiina Loite, he said (“I tried for three days to convince her not to do it,” he remembers).

“Really, this was the only idea that popped into my head,” Loite said by phone. “I think in the photo department, Tony and I are the people who see things that are not there.”

Cenicola decided early on not to go “goofy” on the turkey: “We weren’t gonna put a towel around its neck,” he said. “We could have gone much further in terms of comedy but we opted not to,” Loite confirms.

The “steam” would come from dry ice, Cenicola decided, so he built a couple of sets that would make the fog from the ice look right, turkey-wise. Loite bought two turkeys: a “leading man” turkey and a “stunt turkey” for getting the shot right.

The turkey was staged.

On his first attempt, the turkey was upright, breast up, and just looked too weird. His next try involved posing the turkey in front of a curved piece of stainless steel. “It looked like it was being tortured,” he said. “Not to bring up waterboarding, but on that level, you know.” That set got struck as well.

For the third go, he flattened out the stainless steel and clamped it to plywood, forming a back that still evoked a pan. He cut pieces of Lucite to go on either side of the bird, and a lip out of packing tape in the front to keep the dry ice fog from spilling out — dry ice “steam” flows down, Cenicola explained. The dry ice went into four aluminum pie pans in front of the bird, which he misted to look like it was getting a good schvitz going. (Some of the droplets hit the stainless steel and added to the effect.) The turkey went neck down, legs up. Magic awaited.

He placed a strobe head with a grid on it above the set and a large “soft box” light behind his Canon 5D Mark III to light the piece of stainless steel. On either side of the set, he placed strobe heads, “far enough back so the light wouldn’t hit the turkey but far enough forward so it would hit the steam,” Cenicola said. He shot the final picture on Wednesday, Nov. 7. (Another shot, of a turkey actually inside a large pot, accompanies the article as well.)

Cenicola, 57, has worked for 13 years in the Times’ photo studio, which he also maintains. Food photos are only part of his job, he said. “It’s a crazy, ridiculous range of stuff,” he said.

He hasn’t heard as much about the steamy turkey as he has about the sexy chicken, which is just fine with him — he got “hate mail from PETA” after the chicken became an Internet sensation, he said. (PETA’s Alisa Mullins wrote a blog post called “How Can a Beheaded Corpse Be Sexy?” and its president, Ingrid Newkirk, told Adam Clark Estes she considered the photo “necrophilia.”)

Loite pushed back against my suggestion that these pictures bring “food porn” to a higher level. “That’s a word that has crossed over into the realm of overuse,” she said. “I look at this as a concept that worked, two concepts that work.”

She was pretty sure these two were the only two poultry pictures she and Cenicola have worked on, she said. I asked if they had anything planned for Christmas: “There’s nothing being hatched at the moment,” she said.

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