D Magazine food photographer Kevin Marple traveled to LA to capture images we needed to compile “The Newbie’s Guide to In-N-Out.” He returned with the pictures but he went through hamburger hell to get them. Here’s his story.
I’ve had art directors send me into some wild scenarios. And when D Magazine’s Creative Director Todd Johnson called and asked me if I could get to Southern California for a photo shoot, I said sure. In hindsight, I realize I should have asked a few more questions. At the time I didn’t know he was sending me into a private, secretive underworld. I just figured I get some time to hang in LA and shoot some burgers.
Like most of the population, I’d heard about In-N-Out but I didn’t really understand the hype. During a pre-production meeting, I got a briefing on my assignment.
Johnson wanted me to photograph burgers and some of the secret items on the In-N-Out Burger menu. Secret items on a fast food hamburger menu? I had a few questions. Like: How do I order them? What if they don’t have them? Do I have to learn a secret handshake or password?
Johnson explained that In-N-Out was very protective of their brand. They don’t allow photography in any of the restaurants or corporate headquarters. It was up to me to get to Southern California and figure out a covert plan of action to get the photos D wanted.
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First, I mapped out all of the In-N-Out locations in the L.A. area. Then I narrowed my search to sites with a hotel close by. The best combination happened to be in Marina Del Ray. Yes, I would have loved to have completed this operation at the Ritz-Carlton, but the Holiday Inn Express was only a half-mile from my mark.
When I arrived, I convinced the desk clerk to allow me a very early check-in so that I could have my “studio” set up by the time In-N-Out opened at 10:30AM. To avoid suspicion I had traveled light. My bag was filled with what I needed: a Canon Rebel T1i, a Canon 100mm Macro lens, 2 Canon 430EX Speedlites, and a Canon 580EX II Speedlite.
Plan 1.26a was to go to the nearest In-N-Out and order as many of the burger combinations I could safely carry to my room and bang out the whole shoot in one trip.
Wrong. I had to go back a second time. When I returned to the drive-thru, the clerk asked me if I’d been there earlier. When I said yes, he called a manager to do a “frequency check.” I felt like I’d just been pulled over by the F.B.I. They ran a check on my credit card number and noted that I’d made several significant purchases in a short period of time. They let me complete my order, but I was beginning to get paranoid. I felt like a criminal. So I did what anyone with a ATM card and a deadline to meet would do—I revised by attack plans and decided to go guerilla-style.
I decided to mix my buys. Then next time I placed an order, I paid cash inside. When I returned to the hotel after my fourth trip, my paranoia multiplied. The clerks at the front desk were looking at me like I was some kind of pervert. For five hours they’d watched me carry in over 30 bags of In-N-Out burgers. I’m sure they though I was a single guy with a burger fetish. I ran past the maid trolley, locked the door, and secured myself behind the Do Not Disturb sign.
I set the new burgers down and surveyed my room. It was a mess of bags, wrappers, napkins, and half-eaten burgers. I had to dodge bits of lettuce, onion, and the splatters of secret sauce on the floor to navigate across the room. Every inch of counter space was littered with stained gooey cheesy burger bags, boxes, and wrappers. The stench of seared, greasy meat would surely arouse suspicion soon. I felt guilty and seedy. How long before I checked the local porn rag to find a burger fluffer? The line between food porn and real porn was blurred.
Day one was also a blur. I spent 12 hours going back and forth and photographing burgers in various stages of undress. Each I drove to the restaurant, I purchased 10 of each item I needed to shoot and headed straight back to my “studio.” Once inside, I would dissect each burger and attempt to reconstruct a photographable double-double, triple double, or Animal-style fries.
I taped the curtains to conceal the flash of my camera. I had to work fast as the burgers don’t hold their poses for long. I jumped away from my camera every time I heard a noise in the hall. I burned endless images of melting cheese and oozing pink sauce to the brain of my memory card. That night I tossed and turned in a bed that reeked of grease.
I woke up in a panic. Not only was I behind in my assignment, I’d run out of trash receptacles. I decided to get smart. As I left, I located a clerk-free entrance to the hotel. I managed to repeat my “buys” without too much suspicion. Sometimes I had to step to the back of the line to avoid getting one of the staffers who had already filled one of my orders.
Gradually I got my images and got the hell out of LA.
I’m sure the cleaning staff is still talking about me. I left the room filled with evidence and feeling like a pervert. Every trash can and corner was crammed with bags of spoiling burgers and fries. Then there was the huge task of smuggling packets of secret sauce back to Dallas. For despite all of my efforts, not one shot was good enough for a magazine cover. My accomplice and favorite food stylist, Angela Yeung of Food NetworkChallenge: Food Magicians, was waiting for my return. She went to work in a real photography studio and recreated a romanticized interpretation of the 4×4 that graces the cover of D Magazine.
It will be a long time before I crave an In-N-Out Burger. And it will be a long time before I discuss them with the rabid fans who are eagerly awaiting its arrival in Dallas. I learned that a burger preference is a personal thing. And like politics, sex, and religion, you don’t discuss burgers at the dinner table.