Friday, March 20, 2009

Kevin Ryan Makes Food Look Magical

Is it food or some earthy sculpture? When a photo transcends the reality of the actual image it makes one take notice. Kevin Ryan's photography does just that. I had met Kevin a few years back when I was interviewed for the Park Slope Food Co-op's in-house newspaper "The Linewaiters Gazette". The article was about the P.S.F.C.'s involvement with C.H.I.P.S. soup kitchen on 4th and Sackett in Park Slope. For years the co-op has been donating usable but unsellable produce and other food items to the kitchen. Then about 4 years ago the co-op started donating members work slots. I've been cooking there since it's inception.

Kevin recently contacted me in regards to the fact that he has been doing more food photography lately. If you visit his website you will see the fine photography he has in his repertoire of portraits, scenery, architecture, and projects. Judging from the samples of his food work they are equally impressive. Here is an interview I did with Kevin:

1. When did you decide to start branching out to food photography and what was your thoughts on doing so?

I have been photographing food related images for the Park Slope Food Coop for the past 12 years or so, however over the past several months I have been shooting what I have been calling "produce portraits", carefully lit, isolated images of produce that emphasizes their natural forms. My interest in doing these studies has a lot to do with the recent downturn in the economy, which has seriously hurt my business as a photographer of fine art. The art world is going through one of the worst periods in memory, and as my source of income is directly tied to the production of catalogues and the sale of art, I had to begin to think about finding a way to sustain my income outside of the art world.

As I began thinking about what I could do, and what I wanted to do within the field of photography, I began to think about what truly gives me pleasure. It occurred to me that shooting food would be a natural extension of what I have already been doing and it would be something that I would enjoy being around on a daily basis. So, I began to take some very simple images of individual fruits and vegetables, trying to see them as individuals, much in the same way that I would light and shoot a person's portrait, or a piece of fine art.

I lit them using the simplest of means, the light coming through my kitchen window and occasionally a reflector to bounce some light back into the shadows. The straightforward formal quality of the images is reminiscent of the early twentieth century photographs of the German design teacher, Karl Blossfeldt, whose minimal, isolated shots of plants and natural forms have become influential icons of nature photography.

2. What are the challenges associated with taking pictures of food as opposed to say a person?

The challenges of shooting food are many, depending upon what it is that you are trying to shoot. I don't have an interest in doing highly stylized studio shots that require the use of other materials to represent what is really supposed to be the subject. I would rather shoot things in available light if possible, concentrating on the forms themselves in their most natural state. I enjoy seeing beautifully prepared food shot as simply as possible, without too much intervention. A beautiful photograph doesn't necessarily have to resort to trickery to achieve its goal. When I photograph one of my "produce portraits" I prefer to treat it as though I am shooting a person's portrait, concentrating on isolating the subject, finding their best " feature", and trying different lighting solutions to enhance the subject's look.

Shooting portraits of people is very challenging because of the inherent nature of the personal involvement with the subject, their expectations, and the desire to please. I like to use dark backgrounds to accentuate the subject, using chiaroscuro and a single light source. This creates a more dramatic look and it allows the viewer to see the form for what it is, apart from everything else.

3. Have you encountered difficulty in having your food photography published?

I am just starting to try to get these images out there, and so far only the Coop has reproduced them, but my real interest is in getting some kind of photo project going , such as a cook book or magazine assignments. To be honest, I have to get something that makes money out of this, as much as I like the shots as individual works of art, my main goal right now is to break into the commercial publishing world of food photography to get some steady work.

4. I've been present at a photo session of my cookies and saw some tricks used for taking pictures of food, would you reveal a favorite trick you like to use to make food look special?

As I don't come from a background of being trained to shoot food, my approach as always been to shoot it much the way that I would shoot an object of art, or a person's portrait. The only trick to enhance the photo would be to use a lot of reflectors to fill in light in the shadows to better define the forms. This is something that I have been doing for years shooting sculpture, and it works very well for shooting the way I do with single source lighting, either daylight or with "hot lights", (tungsten photo lights). Most food photographers would likely use natural light or strobes, but I use a lot of tungsten, because that is what I have worked with over the years shooting art. I have approached the subject of photographing food in the same way that I shoot art, concentrating on the sculptural forms. In shooting with natural light in the kitchen you can use anything stainless steel to bounce light back onto the forms, even aluminum foil.

5. Do you get to eat the food after it's photographed? I imagine you did not eat the raw chiogga beet.

The best part of shooting food is that it is just the beginning of the experience. My wife and 18 year old daughter, are always cooking in the kitchen, and that has been a big inspiration to me. I shoot what I eat, and eat what I shoot. My daughter Ava is a vegetarian who only eats organic, and as a result has had to teach herself to cook food that will give her all of her nutrients. She did cook up the chiogga beet, which she puts in salads, or in quinoa etc.... she is an amazing resource for interesting food combinations, and is my inspiration for a lot of what I shoot.

6. What would stuff would you like to have a crack at shooting? For me some of the things Andrew Zimmerman, from Bizarre Foods, eats could be worthy.

I would love to accompany Andrew Zimmerman to a shoot, but honestly, I don't have the same adventurous spirit as he in terms of eating all of that crazy stuff. I have been shooting things at the Chinese markets in Brooklyn's Chinatown on 8th ave... so many interesting forms. It would be a dream of mine to actually do some travel work like that and focus on food from different cultures and get paid for it. That is the type of job I want!

7. Anything you'd like to mention regarding food photography?

I have posted a number of images that I've taken on the photo website for VII Photo agency, where you can see some of my recent food shots as well as my photos from Puglia.


Below are photo's of food from Kevin's catalogue. I've identified the photograph of the chiogga beet at the top of the article. Can you identify the five food items below? If you think know your produce, now is your chance to show off your knowledge. Just place your answer in the comment field of this blog and show the blog world how smart you are.


  1. Congrats on the blog - fantastic!

  2. Pomegranate, radicchio, Swiss chard, portobello mushroom, Romanesco broccoli.