I have to thank Nick Solares and Slice for introducing me to the Hong-An Tran and her beautiful photos. Another film shooter, Hong-An attempts something even I can’t do, shoot food photos on film! I’m still not familiar enough with all the manual settings needed to properly take a photo on a film camera. It would take me forever to decide on what shutter speed and aperture and I usually underexposed the photos. Boo… I really do believe that things do look calmer and prettier on film.
Q. Can you tell me what you’re trying to capture when you take your food photos?
A. Deliciousness and good company! Though I’m sure people look at my food photos for the food, I look back at my food shots to remember how much I probably oohed and aahed and groaned with delight during a meal. And to remember how much my dining companions were doing the same!
Q. When and why did you decide to take photos of food?
A. More often than not, food is a communal, joyous, occasion for me. I’m with friends, or family, or sometimes complete strangers, and I wanted a way to capture that experience that wasn’t simply about the food at hand (though a single photograph, out of context, can make a food shot seem like, well, food porn). Meals can tell a story about your dining companion, about you, about whether you’re celebrating, or commiserating, or whatever. And so food photography was a way to remember those moments, to remember how awesome that first forkful of pie was. I started doing this around the middle of 2006, when friends gave me a digital camera as a birthday/phD gift, but I didn’t start shooting food with film until the middle of 2008.
Q. Have you always been interested in photography?
A. I guess so. Or at least since my early teens, anyway. My father had a Pentax K-1000 that he bequeathed to me when I was a teenager, and which I took with me to college, where I very informally worked on my black and white photography. After college, my brother got the Pentax and I got my father’s Nikon FE, which I still shoot with now. I think I’ve always been interested in seeing photographically — not in the sense that anything/everything has a potential to be a photograph (because you end up looking at the world as a means to a photographic end, and that just feels … not quite right), but rather in the sense that there’s so much loveliness, and off-kilter-ness, that I just want to share with others who aren’t with me at the time.
Q. Do you approach a food photo differently than a non-food photo?
A. Since I shoot almost exclusively with film, I think I approach food and non-food photos similarly in that I have a finite number of shots I can take (unless some benevolent person would like to pay for unlimited film and processing for me!), so I think of all possible photographs as just capturing a single moment, and that that moment can’t/shouldn’t last for more than a few seconds. With food, I’m usually with hungry dining companions, so I can ask them to wait for only so long before the food starts to cool down (or, more commonly, hunger gets the best of everyone’s patience). With non-food photos, I am also just trying to capture something fleeting, something ephemeral: the play of light against a building, or the interplay of gesticulating hands during an animated conversation. These moments are no different than the moment where a plate of food is put in front of you, and you’ve got only an instant to capture that sense of grace.
Q. What makes you stop and take a photo (like when you’re just walking around)
A. Quiet moments. This isn’t to say that I’m not into action shots, but rather that in the midst of lot of things going on in the city, what I see most distinctly are the brief instances of people, or trees, or whathaveyou, at rest. There’s this moment, when I’m taking a picture of a friend, when they let their guard down just enough — it’s the tiniest of exhales — and that’s the moment I love most. I think it’s possible to capture that moment in just about anyone/anything.
Q. Any food photography heroes? If not any photography heroes?
A. Nick Solares over at Slice and A Hamburger Today takes glorious food shots that make me weep with hunger. (Apparently his food shots also make me mix my metaphors!) The photos are precise without feeling clinical or cold — you can see all the details, upclose, of a perfectly cooked piece of fish, and know all the ingredients, and what you remember the most is a certain warmth in the photo: you’re looking at food that’s not only being eaten, but enjoyed, about 3 seconds after the photo was taken.
Q. Best meal so far in 2010?
A. Oh man. There’ve been a lot of great meals this year! I’d have to say this one: Around noon of the day that first NYC blizzard started this past February, I had taken the day off, and my friend Mark and I went to Mile End, the Montreal-style deli in Boerum Hill. We got two of the last seats at the counter as it hit noon (when the restaurant starts to serve its smoked meat sandwiches) and the snow started to come down hard. We ordered a sandwich and a plate of poutine. I remember taking a photo, but also remember quite distinctly exclaiming something like “oh sweet jesus!” when I finally took a bite of the sandwich. Otherworldly.
The funny thing is, I still think about that sandwich, almost daily, but even though I live 3 blocks from Mile End, I haven’t been back. And that’s the thing with food, and food photography for me: what made that a great meal was in part the sandwich, but also the company, and the blizzard swirling outside, and this room full of folks not entirely sure that we weren’t going to get snowed in. (Not the worst fate, really, with all that meat behind the counter!) And when I look at the photo I took of our meal, that whole experience is what I remember.
All photos courtesy of Hong-An Tran.