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Even if your camera settings are perfect, “if the food isn’t, your shot won’t tell the story properly,” photographer Andrew Scrivani says. A picture is worth a thousand words – and could save you thousands of calories. Yes folks, gazing and drooling over a photo of an indulgent dish is calorie-free, fat-free and sugar-free. (Unless, of course, you then recreate those recipes in your kitchen.) But for some people, just viewing rich dishes is enough to tempt their taste buds and provide pleasure. If you look around the next time you dine out, you’ll notice that snapping food photos is all the rage. Sharing what’s on your plate via social media sends a virtual treat that might even make your meal seem tastier. A 2013 study in Psychological Science found that rituals (like, say, posting images of your food to Instagram before eating it) could actually make eating it more enjoyable since you’re more involved in the experience. In full disclosure, I have been known to make my family wait for dinner if my meal is snapshot-worthy. My obsession has even spread to my children, who send me pictures of their favorite dishes when they are away from home. Yes, we have all become plate paparazzi. “If you want to be an artist, think like an artist more than a cook,” Andrew Scrivani says.
But we’re amateurs. Andrew Scrivani, on the other hand, is an expert. The professional photographer is the man behind many of the images that make you salivate when flipping through the food section of The New York Times, where he’s worked for more than 12 years. As one of Scrivani’s biggest fans, I was thrilled to interview him at his studio, where he shared his photos, thoughts and even made a mean espresso while we talked about our shared passion for pictures. Here are some edited highlights from our conversation: What was mealtime like when you were growing up? My whole family cooked. In fact, I learned how to prepare meals from them. The women were everyday cooks and the men were event cooks. The men made it known through food that it was a special event. Taking a picture of food was not even given any thought. When did you get your first camera? I didn’t get involved in photography until college. A friend of mine was very into photography and he let me play around with a camera. Although I was often the subject of pictures, he became my tutor and taught me a lot. At that time, I was a literature major and a baseball player who was being looked at by the major leagues, but an injury sent me back to my creative side. I explored it in the years that followed through teaching, coaching and photography. To date, teaching never left me – I now teach photography workshops all over the world.
So how did you end up at the Times? I got my start at the Times! My day job was teaching – I always loved teaching others. I began some regional work with the Times in Staten Island doing restaurant stories that revolved around food. Coupled with the fact that I enjoyed cooking, I developed a reputation around the newsroom as someone who enjoyed working with food. One December, an emergency assignment came my way: I was asked if I could cook and photograph a hangover remedy that had to be shot by Christmas and published by New Year’s Day. This gig opened the door for studio assignment work and soon, I was shooting still life shots as a tabletop photographer. They stopped sending me to restaurants. What do you think of the term “food porn?” I don’t like it. It’s not that I have an issue with the word “porn” – that word means an object of desire, and in this case, it’s food. But I don’t like when words are overused. The term becomes a catchall phrase for anything having to do with food photography. “Food porn” sounds sinful, but what’s wrong with a good bowl of pasta? I also don’t like when foods are classified as good foods or bad foods. Some foods are just guilty pleasures, and not meant to be used or regarded as rewards or punishments. Do you photograph dishes that you prepare at home? No. When it’s over, it’s over. At the end of the day, I like to separate my work from my home life as best as I can. You need to know how to turn it off. What about Instagram? I only post my professional photos to Instagram. I built a brand and I won’t take subpar pictures. I don’t dabble in food photography – it’s my profession. Do you use any tricks to enhance you shots? I only use edible touches. We don’t want to destroy food, we just want to help the food along a little – not hurt it. Sometimes, we have to choose the best-looking, best-shaped, best cut [food item], and perhaps spray it with a little olive oil. We have to reproduce the images that you see when the food is in front of you – a cold drink that sweats, steam rising off of short ribs. I’m creating a story – not just a food picture. How has food, and food photography, changed over the years? Food has become less formal and food photography has gone the same route. Linen napkins and the right fork for salad, for example, are not as comfortable. Even high-profile chefs have become less formal. No one dresses up for dinner anymore. In food photography, we work in daylight instead of strobe light, and food is real, not manipulated. How is food photography different than other forms of art? You have to get the food to look right before you take your picture. All of your camera settings could be perfect, but if the food isn’t, your shot won’t tell the story properly. Your food can tell a specific story by using images that have intentional connotations. A photo showing eggs poached in tomato sauce next to a glass of wine and a magazine conveys a warm, comforting – but quick – meal. The magazine also shows that this might be for a single person, and the wine depicts the end of the day. When you look at a food picture, you’re still looking at a piece of art that tells a story using one image. It goes way beyond what’s on that plate. What foods do you enjoy photographing the most? The least? Hands down, I like shooting dessert most because I like dessert. It’s uncomplicated and it’s always a home run for my audience. People always have good feelings around dessert and, for the most part, it makes people happy. As for what I don’t like … I’m kind of sick of frittatas! It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s more that I’ve had to photograph them so frequently. What else would you like to tell readers about you or your profession? I am a thinking man’s photographer. I put a tremendous amount of thought into what I do – I deconstruct, I intellectualize. I want people to see more than pretty pictures of food. To do this job, I don’t live and breathe food – I live and breathe art. Food is the vehicle for the art. If you want to be an artist, think like an artist more than a cook.