Profiles in Art: Vero Kherian, aka Miss Cheesemonger

Vero Kherian is a photographer and food blogger based in San Francisco. Her areas of expertise include creative portraiture and food photography. You can find her cheese-based work on Twitter and Facebook as well as the rest of her portfolio at verokherian.com

Interview conducted by: Tiffany Chan

Edited by: Morgan Moore and Tiffany Chan

All images provided by: Vero Kherian


Q: What is your story? How did you fall in love with photography?
In a lot of ways, my passion for photography stems from a drive I’ve felt since childhood to document my life—not necessarily the facts of my life, but the emotions. It started in childhood, with writing. Inspired by the book Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh, I started writing my observations about daily life. That practice of writing wove in and out of my life out until the summer of 2001, when my father passed away from cancer. My life was thrown into chaos. There was so much emotion around that event, that I felt a strong drive to write everything down to sort my thoughts out. Writing at that time felt almost like a declaration of the existence of myself and my emotions, because I never really shared them with anyone. On top of that, writing came easily to me. One of the last things my father said to me was that I should never stop my writing; he saw something creative in me even when I was in high school. Whether it’s from his advice to me, or my own need to write, I haven’t stopped doing it.

I could have easily gone down another path, and avoided photography altogether. My family strongly encouraged me to become a lawyer; I thought I wanted that for myself for a long time. I hated every moment of law school, though, from the first day. To balance the law school experience out, I felt this need to nourish my creative self—through classical singing (which I still do to this day), and dancing (which, sadly, I don’t). I graduated law school and started my legal career already sensing that this was not the path for me. The answer about what to do next didn’t actually come to me until several years later.

Photography for a long time was limited to a point and shoot camera. I had vaguely dreamed of really studying this art form, but had always put it off until about 2014, when I decided to really take my food blog, Miss Cheesemonger, seriously. I started this blog in 2009 after graduating from law school. Miss Cheesemonger was a way to document what I was learning from working at a cheese shop.  By 2014, I was no longer in a cheese shop, but I had kept the blog going. I wanted it to mature, and a big part of that strategy was taking up photography. I got my first DSLR and decent lens, and started photographing food.

During this time, I was performing in operas and operettas, so to avoid boredom backstage and at rehearsals, I brought my camera and start documenting the happenings there. That decision greatly impacted my creative path. For the first time, I was able to walk among dozens of talented artists who had so much to share with me and the camera. They were almost always in costume and makeup, or in the process of making themselves up. Photographing my fellow performers let me break down the artistic process moment by moment. It also allowed me to connect with people in a new way. I’m pretty reserved, but the things that I could capture with my camera and show back to my subjects was anything but that. I could capture the swirls of color, movement, and emotions that I was feeling but otherwise would not be able to express adequately. I started to understand the storytelling power of photography.

Now photography is available to me as a communication device, I think that my long-rooted passion for documenting life is more accessible to other people. It has given me more opportunities to take part in other people’s creative and professional journeys, which is something I consider a great privilege.

Q: What was your professional path like? How did you get to this job?
It has been a long and winding road to this point! Ever since I was small, my parents had hoped I would attend a prestigious university, then follow with a high-powered legal or corporate career. I thought I wanted that for myself, too, and so ended up studying Economics in college. My “fun” second major, French, kept me in contact with the more creative side of life.

My first plan to go to law school straight from undergrad backfired, so I ended up taking a year to teach English to elementary school children in Normandy, France. Casting about, I briefly considered teaching; actually teaching for a year convinced me that that was not the best path for me.

In law school, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what area of the law might work well for me. International business would have let me nourish my Francophile self, so I did two clerkships at Paris-based law firms to test the waters. I developed an interest in immigration law, clerking with the Board of Immigration Appeals and writing asylum decisions. Finally, I discovered copyright and trademark law, which I found to be the most creative aspect of the law. It was in these two fields that I wound up practicing as a lawyer.

After all my formal education finished, I feel like the real education began. Apart from one short stint at an office job, I think I created all my jobs myself, first by starting my own law practice, then by starting my blogging business, and now, by creating my own photography practice. I’ve had very few great experiences working under someone else, and so prefer working for myself as much as possible. I learned about starting my own businesses, growing a trusted business network, communicating with clients—everything that comes with being a small business owner.

It took many, many hours of practice—shooting, posing, assisting, doing post-production, lighting, and planning—before I felt comfortable calling myself a photographer.

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Q: What is the quirkiest side job you’ve ever worked?
When I was going through my political phase, I interned for Congressman Tom Davis on Capitol Hill. It was in July, and it was an election year. Congressman Davis was helping out another local politician with her election at a local fair, and I was the one who had to put on a huge elephant suit in 90 degree weather, after another guy had already worn it for a couple hours. I couldn’t see well, so whenever a child ran up to me, the politician would tell me someone was coming, and from where. It was hot, and so, so sweaty. Now that I think about it, at least half of the sweat in that suit was probably not my own.
Q: What does a normal day look like for you?
I start the day off with exercise, and have been doing that since college! It reminds me to take care of myself. Then, I’ll respond to emails. Mondays are usually my blog post-writing days, although sometimes that changes. I do have an editorial calendar; I’ll usually shoot something and write it the week before it’s supposed to go online. I try and meet with clients or business partners on Wednesdays or Fridays, usually in the late morning or early afternoon. Editing can happen in the afternoons, and go on late into the night, especially if I am really excited about a shoot.

Shoots often happen in the afternoons, and they can last from 1-3 hours for a portrait session.

I set aside time for social media. I post on Instagram for my food blog around meal times. For my photography Instagram, the time of day matters a little less. I try and post on Facebook at least a couple times a week for Miss Cheesemonger.

I perform in 2-4 operas/light operas a year, so those take up a lot of my evenings.

My husband and I love taking our dinners at home, together. It lets us catch up on our days, and share time together.

I have had to embrace saying no to more things as time has gone on. Time is so limited and so precious. I used to be open to meeting nearly anyone, or going to almost any event. Because I have so many projects now, I just don’t have the time to do that.

Q: What is your creative process like? Is it different for each shoot/client or do you have set routines?
A lot of people have said I work very meticulously, and I think this is true! Before a session, I gather as much information about a person as I think I need to create the shoot that will best serve my subject. In my pre-photo session consultation, we go over the client’s professional journey—where they are at this point,  where they would like to go; their creative or professional influences; what they would like to convey about themselves through their imagery; how they envision themselves. We go over location(s), wardrobe, mood, makeup, hair—all those logistial points as well. In some cases, we create a mood board to share makeup/hair/location/mood ideas.

Everyone’s answers to these questions about their session are different, and that’s where I personalize things. Knowing what a person wants to convey about themselves is the cornerstone to my preparation. Well in advance of a shoot, depending on the complexity, I’ll start planning poses, expressions, lighting, and compositions for a particular client. Sometimes I’ll sketch shots out.

That said, by the time the photo session rolls around, with all of this time spent preparing, I am willing to let spur-of-the-moment inspiration come into play. During the shoot, I am constantly looking out for composition, background distractions, and clothing malfunctions. More importantly, though, I am constantly tuned in to my client to check their comfort, mood, posing, etc.

I see portraiture as a rather intimate exercise requiring a shared effort on my part and the part of my subject. For someone to be seen a certain way, they have to reveal themselves in that way. It is a delicate, sometimes difficult thing for people to do, and I recognize that. A huge part of my work is encouraging and allowing that revelation to happen. When it does happen, it is part of my work to capture it with my camera, and acknowledge and honor it.

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Q: In your opinion, what are the most important considerations that make up good design/ composition?
Deciding on the focus of an image is key. For portraiture, usually, the focus is on a person’s face and expression. Everything else in the image—the background, wardrobe, hair, jewelry, lighting, and pose—needs to serve that. By really identifying what the focus of an image is, it’s much easier to figure out how to best serve it.

A corollary is that before snapping a photo, it should already be planned out in the photographer’s mind. There are so many photographers in the world with so many styles. What wins clients over are the creative choices a photographer makes over time, whatever they may be.

Q: How and when did you know you were a capital-A Artist?
Maybe I still don’t know, and actually, I am not often comfortable describing myself as an Artist. That said, when my cousin Lien Truong, an accomplished painter and assistant professor of art at UNC Chapel Hill, said of me, “Yay! We have another artist in the family!” I felt pretty proud. My family has a handful of accomplished artists, particularly painters, so maybe I am carrying on a family tradition in my own way.
Q: What inspires and motivates you about each subgenre of photography that you practice?
When it comes to portraiture, I am in love with the endless ways people can express themselves. Sometimes, someone I have known for years will reveal themselves in a new way to me in front of a lens, which I find stunning! Being able to connect with so many people through this craft, and to give them something that they will love and share with their loved ones, possibly for years to come, is enormously satisfying.

On the other hand, I see food and product photography as more of a technical exercise. My subjects don’t move, so it’s really up to me to make sure the lighting, composition, and styling come together to create a dynamic image.

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Q: What was it like to start your own business? What were some unexpected challenges/lessons?
It took a lot of mental debate beforehand, but once I started my first business, my law practice, I was glad I did. Owning that business, and my blog and photography business now, has forced me to engage with the world. I went from being voted “Most Shy” in my high school choir to connecting with new people constantly. I’m still ultra awkward in large groups, but I love getting to know someone, and learning about their projects and their ambitions.

Another hurdle I took a long time to overcome was valuing my work. For whatever reason, it was really tough for a long time for me to see the value of what I was creating with and for my clients. After a lot of talks with my other creative entrepreneur friends, I’ve become much better about that.

Other little challenges come up all the time. Luckily, my recent ones are associated with growth, so I can’t complain too much. I’ve just had to get better at keeping track of more clients, more shoots, more photos, and more dates!

Q: What is the origin story of  Miss Cheesemonger? Why the name and subject matter?
I like to say that I didn’t choose cheese, cheese chose me. I was looking for legal jobs to apply to on Craigslist, and happened upon a cheese shop job posting. “F**# it,” I thought. “I’ll just apply. I like cheese, and no law firm has hired me yet.”

The blog started with equally little thought. The night before my first day at the cheese shop, I was hanging out at home with my husband, and casually mentioned, “What if I started a blog?” We chose the name in about 2 seconds, without any thought at all. My husband got the domain name, and we set up a simple site that evening.

Originally, the blog was a way to document all the things I was learning at the shop. Since then, it’s taken on a whole life of its own.

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Q: What is an unexpected skill that you’ve had to pick up “on the job”?
Thanks to my work as a cheesemonger, I have learned how to use a cheese wire to cut through 80 lb wheels of comte, and how to break open a whole wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano (I’m still not great at it, though). I came to love wrapping cheese in paper. It’s so relaxing, and so satisfying when done well.
Q: What is the quirkiest/snarkiest/generally most memorable reaction someone has had to your work?
Hmm, I can’t think of anything right now! Usually, responses have been positive, which makes me happy.
Q: What are the greatest rewards of the job?
Creating portraiture for and with someone is rewarding in itself. Each session presents new challenges, and offers new opportunities to expand my photography skills. On top of that, the fact that I’m making images with another person makes it even more special. This joint effort we undertake to create something beautiful and lasting is a shared experience that is eye and heart opening. During a session, my photo subjects and I have so much fun, and we have something wonderful to show for our efforts.

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Q: What are the biggest challenges you faced as a photographer?
I think the challenges I face as a photographer are the same as those of many small business owners. They’re not about actual photography, they’re about running a business. See above for my answer on challenges I faced when running a business.
Q: Were there every moments throughout your career when you doubted your creative path and/or personal creative vision? How did those instances resolve?
I feel pangs of doubt about my work all the time. My creative process involves ups and downs, and I embrace it. Looking at my past work regularly helps me figure out what I want to do in future works. I learn so much from just that.
Q: How do you work out of a creative rut?
If something is feeling too hard for too long, I’ll change something and try to move on. That can be during a shoot, it can be during post-production, it can be in the planning. During a shoot, it can be as simple as changing an angle. If it’s during post production, I’ll move on to another section of the photo, or take a short break.

To keep my mind fresh, I look at art as much as I can—not just photography, but paintings and sculptures.

I go for long hikes—I’m lucky to live close to nature. There is always something out there to to inspire me.

Q: What advice would you give to your younger self/someone just starting in the field?
To my high school self : “Go try out for the damn school musical already!”

To my college self : “Take a music theory class. Study a little less, and make some more friends.”

To my law school self : “Learn what you can from this, but don’t forget to take care of yourself.”

To my beginner photographer self : “Learn your gear, and create everywhere, at all times of day, in all settings. Share your work with the world, and take pride in it.”

Just for fun…

Q: Can you recommend a wine and cheese (any comfort food/drink combination) to us?
Recently, I had an exquisite pairing with Jasper Hill Farm Harbison, a Vermont cheese that you can spoon onto your bread, or directly into your mouth. Together with a glass of 2014 Domaine Blain-Gagnard La Boudriotte, Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru, from Burgundy, France, this was a match made in heaven. The wine’s beautiful, creamy notes of pear and apricots brought out an extra brightness in the cheese. Be ready for some gustatory fireworks.

There are so many great pairings out there! One of my favorite sessions was with The Cheese Sommelier Chuck Kellner. We crafted these wine and cheese pairings with Copain wines.

Q: What do you do for self-care?
I’ve alluded to it several times in this interview, but music a huge part of my life. Actually, if I could re-do all of my education, I probably would have studied music in college and grad school. I had piano lessons all through childhood, up until college. When I was 10 years old, my parents took me to see Les Misérables on Broadway, and that day, I resolved to be a singer. Later, when I was in college, my musical tastes crystalized a bit more, and I knew I wanted to learn classical singing. Because I was so shy and reserved earlier in my life, and because my family didn’t really encourage it, I did not actively seek out formal vocal instruction until law school. It took many years of searching for the right voice teacher, but for the past 4 years, I have been working with an excellent one in San Francisco. Now, I perform in local operas and light operas regularly. I am constantly learning new solo repertoire. This musical journey is a long, difficult, but rewarding one. It encompasses mind, body, and spirit. The body coordination to sing classical music has taken years to learn, and I still have a long way to go. Singing in multiple languages is a challenge, but I have come to appreciate the musicality and phrasing of each one.

I like structure in my activities, but I also value expression. Performing opera is an extremely difficult skill to develop, but now that I am feeling confident in my technique, I can delve deeper within myself to feel more deeply, to communicate more meaningfully, and to listen more intently.

Apart from that, I enjoy spending time with my husband, my family, and my family dogs Indy, Gavin, Pippen, and Gibby.

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Dogs: Gavin (top), Indy, Pippen, Gibby
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3 comments on “Profiles in Art: Vero Kherian, aka Miss Cheesemonger

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