Marcus Nilsson on Creating ‘Lived In’ Food Photography

February 8, 2017

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Clients who hire Marcus Nilsson tend to use the same words when describing the look they want him to deliver. “They say they want the story to look ‘lived in,’” he says. “I guess that’s what I’m known for: a pastrami sandwich with a bite out of it and a greasy thumbprint on the corner of the plate.” Though naturalism has been his signature for a decade in the business, Nilsson keeps adapting his techniques and changing his tools to keep his work fresh. “I get bored if I do the same thing over and over,” he says.

For a recent Bon Appetit feature about traditional Christmas foods (seen here), for example, “I was telling myself the day before: I’m not going to make it look like Bon Appetit.” The tables were propped with flowering branches, pomegranates and pitchers to recall Dutch still life painting. Nilsson decided that he’d stretch the conventions of the genre. He chose not to place his lights at a low angle, which would have created deep shadows and a painterly mood. “Other people are doing that, probably better than me,” he explains. Instead, he placed his Profoto strobes over the table so they cast a light that was “very bright and even” and “weird,” he says. The effect was more reminiscent of a hospital room than Rembrandt. “The light takes it to a different place,” he says.

© Marcus Nilsson

For a recent Bon Appetit feature about traditional Christmas foods, Nilsson told himself, “I’m not going to make it look like Bon Appetit.” © Marcus Nilsson

Nilsson has always loved food: He was a chef in fine restaurants before he began assisting fashion and advertising photographers. But when he was starting out, he didn’t like food photography. “I thought it was too pretty, too perfect,” he recalls. Then he saw Jim Jarmusch’s 2003 film Coffee and Cigarettes, which featured overhead shots of messy cups and ashtrays. He decided to create a similar shot in his apartment, using some dirty coffee cups and whiskey glasses. He posted the photo on his website, and it caught the eye of Richard Ferretti, Gourmet’s creative director, who was recruiting fashion photographers to help remake the magazine’s food photography. He gave Nilsson his first feature assignment, and its success led to many more assignments to shoot in a gritty, crisply focused style.

Nilsson recalls, “I was comfortable shooting that style for a while but if everyone does it, it’s time to move on to find something [new].” He shot some assignments using only on-camera flash to make the colors pop. On a 2014 assignment for Black Ink, the quarterly magazine available only to holders of American Express black cards, he shot recipes by Fergus Henderson, a proponent of “snout to tail” cuisine. Creative director Adam Bookbinder says the story called for “something really out there.” Bookbinder, who worked with photo editor Michael Shome and former art director Alex Spacher on the story, says Nilsson was right for the job: “I find that there is a certain intelligence to his work that makes it feel particularly modern and fun.” Nilsson chose to use large, overhead strobes and maximize the fill to eliminate any shadows. The photos, styled by Victoria Granof, show a pig’s head, hooves, the alabaster stomach of a cow and a slab of brain pate on white plates and a white linen tablecloth. The result was a stark examination of animal parts. Says Bookbinder, “It was bold, crude, beautiful and risky.”

Nilsson has recently pared down his equipment to a minimum. “I don’t want to worry about underexposing or overexposing or being out of focus. I just want to focus on what my eye sees,” he says. He bought a pocket-sized Sony a7 in hopes it would help him be “more spontaneous.” He now uses the Sony a7 for almost all of his assignments. To shoot a cookbook with chef Kris Yenbamroong of Night + Market, a restaurant on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard, Nilsson rode his motorcycle from New York to Los Angeles, bringing only a small camera bag packed with the Sony a7 and two lenses. Nilsson shot portraits, food and vignettes of strip clubs near the restaurant, while working closely with Yenbamroong—and no art director or stylist.

Nilsson says he’s committed to experimenting, even at the risk of failing. He’d rather not rest on his past successes. “You’ve got to move on because life moves on and you develop. That’s true in everything you do, whether music or writing or photography,” he says. “I don’t say, ‘Oh Radiohead’s first album was the best and then they went downhill,’ or ‘The Rolling Stones were so much better back in the day.’” He adds, “Who wants to listen to ‘Satisfaction’ for the rest of their life?”

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