Aya Brackett on Bringing the Art and Culture of Food to Photography

February 8, 2017

By Conor Risch

Combining a graphic sensibility and an appreciation for the culture surrounding food, Aya Brackett creates still lifes that tell a story beyond what’s pictured in the frame. As a subject, Brackett says, food has “so many layers. It relates to culture and customs, and daily rituals and routines. Sensually, it has color and texture, and for me it’s been an infinite source of inspiration.”

Brackett says her food photography clients come to her for “clean, graphic photography that hopefully also feels very natural.” She carefully composes her images, thinking about the shape and color of the food she’s photographing, but her lighting is simple—often using or emulating window light—and there’s always something “off” in the photos, so they don’t appear clinical or scientific. “I don’t ever want to do photography that feels like it’s been in the studio,” she says.

She likes to shoot directly overhead or “straight into things,” she explains, and to “play a lot with negative space.” She tries to figure out how to make her pictures of food “look like a painting,” she explains, although she says it’s difficult to articulate how exactly she achieves that “gut” feeling.

If she’s not using window light, she’ll use one larger source “to emulate a big window,” and then use modifiers such as white and black boards to create fill or enhance shadows. “Sometimes I try and take photos of my setup in the studio, and you can’t even see the camera because there are so many flags and boards and things,” she says.

Brackett’s always been “interested in food in its states of disrepair and decomposition and messiness,” dating back to the first food images she made as a student at Rhode Island School of Design (where Brackett took photo classes while pursuing her undergraduate degree at neighboring Brown University). That messiness was once edgy, she says, but is fairly common—even trendy—now. Still, she says, “I’m going to keep looking at the way the messiness of food suggests the story behind who made it, or who was eating it, or where it was eaten.”

© Aya Brackett

To create the opener for the chapter on cocoa in Bitter (Ten Speed Press), a cookbook by Jennifer McLagan, “We just threw a bag of cocoa powder on the table and shot that,” Brackett recalls. © Aya Brackett

In 2014, Brackett worked with Ten Speed Press on Bitter, a cookbook by Jennifer McLagan, which won a James Beard Award. Focused on “the world’s most dangerous flavor,” the book called for moody recipe photographs and chapter openers that used ingredients in creative still lifes. Brackett is the sister-in-law of Ten Speed’s Executive Editor, Jenny Wapner, but Brackett’s style doesn’t work as well for the “more commercial” books the press usually publishes, Wapner says. She pitched Brackett for Bitter because of her ability to create dramatic images that were clean. “We wanted the photography to be a little bit moody, but we loved that Aya’s work has such sharpness,” Wapner recalls. Brackett says the publishers gave her a lot of freedom. To create the opener for the chapter on cocoa, “We just threw a bag of cocoa powder on the table and shot that,” Brackett recalls. The project, she adds, didn’t feel like a cookbook with expected recipe shots. “I felt like this book was really creatively satisfying,” she says.

The most important influence on Brackett’s food photography is her family, she says. Her mother, who is Japanese, frequently made elaborate meals when Brackett was growing up. The family lived in the woods, 45 minutes from the nearest town, and magazines were important influences as well. “My mom would get Saveur magazine and Bon Appetit and Vogue,” Brackett recalls. “Saveur was especially interesting” because it combined food and travel, she says. When she would go to Japan to see her mother’s family, food helped her connect to the culture. Years of art classes, in which she’d often paint food, also fed her interest in food still life. As a kid, Brackett says, she wanted to design wrapping paper, and her love of graphic patterns has also influenced her food work. “I also like to bring that kind of sensibility [for patterns] to my food still lifes,” she says.

The photographs of Irving Penn and Martin Parr are also touchstones, Brackett says. She remembers seeing Penn’s food still lifes in Vogue. Styled by Victoria Granof, they emphasized form and color. “They would really do sculptures with food, like a huge hunk of parmesan cheese with an olive on top,” she recalls. She appreciates the anthropological content of Parr’s pictures, which convey something about the culture surrounding the food, often with a sense of humor. “I’m always trying to keep in mind that idea of referencing the quirky nature of the context, or trying to bring a little bit more story to the arrangement of food,” Brackett says.

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