Bobby Fisher on Defying Food Photography Conventions

February 8, 2017

By David Walker

While shooting the photography for Appetites, Anthony Bourdain’s new cookbook, Bobby Fisher needed an image for a beer nuts recipe. He threw some matches down next to a bowl of beer nuts on a bar. Then it occurred to him to light a cigarette and extinguish it in the bowl. “I thought, that looks killer,” he says. “There was a trail of smoke, like somebody got drunk and put their cigarette out in the beer nuts.”

Fisher approaches food photography with no patience for its conventions. “It’s absolutely more about making a cool photo than making it look appetizing. I don’t care if someone looks at it and goes,What is that?’ I don’t care!” He has an aversion to the “very pretty, very daylight-y, very Martha Stewart-y” look of so much food photography. “I’ll do those jobs if people pay me”—and he has, he says—“but it doesn’t interest me. It’s boring.”

His lighting tends to be dark, rich and earthy. He prefers continuous lights, and typically uses “a couple of Joker Bug 400 or 800” watt lights, often with a Chimera Lantern Pancake (softbox) and v-flats “that we’ll mess with” until the lighting looks good, he says. “I don’t have a specific setup.”

Fisher shoots hand-held with a Nikon D810 and 58mm f/1.4 lens, the better to move around and keep up with his rapid-fire ideas. He doesn’t care if the images are a little noisy because he has to jack up the ASA.

The result is serendipitous work that captures the hedonistic pleasure of cooking and eating. Fisher often creates the colorful, messy aftermath of some elaborate meal. At a loss to describe his style, he finally says, “It’s beautiful chaos or elegant regurgitation. I don’t know. If I can get away with making art, I’ll do it.”

Besides shooting the photography for Bourdain’s book, Fisher recently shot the photography for Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster Cookbook. He shoots frequently for Food & Wine, and has also been shooting for Gather Journal. “The theme of their new issue is the seven deadly sins,” Fisher says. “My assignment was gluttony.”

© Bobby Fisher

Bobby Fisher photographed a chocolate rye bundt cake for the gluttony section of Gather Journal’s recent “Seven Deadly Sins” issue. © Bobby Fisher

“I was thinking, I don’t want this to look pretty. He was the perfect commission,” says Gather Journal creative director Michele Outland. She was inspired by the dark, cinematic approach he took with Bourdain’s book, and says, “I appreciate the depth and richness of his style.”

Fisher held food photography in low esteem when he fell into it a few years ago. He’d spent nearly 20 years shooting travel assignments for GQ, Travel & Leisure, Food & Wine and other clients. “I concentrated on amazing portraits, landscapes, and details,” he says. Food shots were incidental. “I thought, ugh, this is just food, and they’re going to waste an entire page on it.”

Then chefs became celebrities, and Fisher got a couple of assignments to photograph them as they traveled. Travel & Leisure sent him to Ethiopia with Marcus Samuelsson. “I thought, Hell yeah, I’ll go to Ethiopia,” Fisher says, explaining that he had no idea who Samuelsson was. He had a more recent assignment to follow Roy Choi—another chef he’d never heard of—on a tour of Choi’s favorite food joints in Hawaii.

Choi asked him afterwards to shoot recipe photographs for L.A. Son, a cookbook Choi released in 2013. “It was the first time I had to concentrate on [pictures of] food,” says Fisher. But there was no budget for a food stylist. “I learned that you really have to have a food stylist and props,” Fisher says. “[Those things] really make the photograph.”

After Choi’s book appeared, Bourdain called Fisher with his compliments, and asked if Fisher would shoot the photography for Appetites. “He said, ‘I want chefs to look at this book and go, What the fuck is this?’ I just smiled. I knew there were no parameters,” Fisher says.

By then, magazine travel assignments were growing scarce, and Fisher worried about making a living as a generalist. “I felt I needed to focus on one thing,” he says. Bourdain’s invitation gave him the freedom to have fun with food, and the job came with a budget for stylists. On a recommendation from a still-life photographer, Fisher hired food stylist Victoria Granof. He also brought in prop stylist Kaitlyn Du Ross. “They just bring all this shit in, and we’re walking around it, saying, ‘OK, let’s go crazy with all the stuff we have.’ It was pretty open and spontaneous,” Fisher says of the process.

Bourdain did apply the brakes here and there, and insisted on “some pretty photos,” Fisher says. But the restrictions were few.

Fisher took the same style-driven approach to Samuelsson’s Red Rooster Cookbook. “He wanted a Harlem vibe,” Fisher says. So Fisher brainstormed with Granof and Samuelsson about the ethnic influences, colors, patterns, and other visual signifiers of Harlem, and of the individual recipes in the book. Fisher proceeded to shoot images in the studio and on location with those signifiers in mind. (Granof did both food and prop styling for the project).

“It’s a collaborative effort,” he says. “I like working with people who are intelligent, have good taste and know how to come up with ideas.” But he also follows the documentary instincts he developed as a travel photographer, capturing images on the spur of the moment—such as a sharply dressed patron sitting down at the Red Rooster bar for chicken and waffles, or Samuelsson handling a fish with oil dripping from his hands—that are rarely conventional or boring.

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