Will Anderson on the Dark Side of Food Photography
February 8, 2017
From Gather Journal’s inaugural “Cocoon” issue. Anderson was asked to photograph the story in the same style he used for a personal project about his grandmother’s house. “The food was the secondary part in my mind,” he says.
In 1996, during his final year in college, photographer Will Anderson photographed a series of still lifes in his grandmother’s old home. Though abandoned, the house still contained memories and trinkets from his mother and grandmother. Anderson photographed these neglected objects amidst the decay of the house using natural light, creating sometimes somber, gritty vignettes for a project he called “Death in a Good District.”
After he got his degree, Anderson moved to New York City and began shooting fashion, portraits and still lifes for a number of clients and publications. Michele Outland, then art director at Nylon magazine, hired him to shoot musicians and bands for the publication. When Outland co-founded the independent food magazine Gather Journal in 2012, she asked Anderson to shoot food for Gather’s inaugural issue. “I had never shot food before,” Anderson recalls. But Outland was specifically looking for him to apply the dark, somber style of “Death in a Good District” to photos of food.
“I didn’t even think of it as food in a sense,” he recalls. “I just approached it as creating an image that would go in her magazine. The food was the secondary part in my mind.”
Gather’s inaugural issue was the “Cocoon” issue and Anderson was tasked with shooting wrapped foods, such as tamales and dumplings. He used natural light enhanced with black or white cards to fill shadows or add highlights. “That’s exactly how I photographed the house in my personal work,” he notes, “and the final result was similar: very rich in color and filled with visual content.”
The shoot was a success. Outland hired Anderson again for the next issue of Gather, then the next and the next. Outland says she has continued to hire Anderson because he’s open to experimentation and is willing to go beyond the expected when he shoots food.
For example, when Gather was planning the Summer 2015 issue, which had the theme “Spectrum,” Anderson did a shoot that combined reflections, shadows, rainbows and food. “Will did all these great lighting tests before the shoot to make sure it’d look amazing,” Outland recalls. Anderson says his research included general Google searches of the word “spectrum,” reading about the theory of light, looking at prisms and using all sorts of translucent objects—kids’ kaleidoscopes, prismatic glasses, reflective paper, projection slides and gels—to come up with treatments to share with Outland. This dedication is what separates Anderson from other photographers, Outland says. “He really takes things to heart and can enrich a story and develop it further.”
Anderson’s work with Gather has led to more food assignments, and he estimates that he spends roughly 20 percent of his time shooting food, while the rest of his assignments include jewelry, cosmetics and soft goods. He shoots almost all his still lifes using Profoto lighting equipment and a Nikon D800 or D810 paired with a 24-70mm lens. His other food photography clients include Martha Stewart Living (MSL), The New York Times Magazine and Refinery 29. They don’t hire him for any “signature style,” he says. Instead, “they’ve really wanted me to just bring in whatever creativity I can and meld it together with their concepts.”
For example, Anderson was hired to shoot MSL’s Thanksgiving 2016 issue, including a cover shot and a six-page spread all about pies. The assignment was to replicate the pattern of a piecrust with lighting. Anderson notes, “I got involved early on and was able to contribute to the conceptual process.” In the end, Anderson decided to shoot with lights shining through lace and fabric. “We collaborated to try and make it look as naturally lit as possible, but still with a surreal, patterned element,” he recalls. “It turned out really beautiful.”
Outland says she’s come to expect a collaborative experience when working with Anderson. “He has a wide spectrum in terms of his style, which, for me, I think enhances a story,” she says. “We can swing one way or another and it is this fun journey instead of one specific look.”
And while Anderson has come to enjoy shooting food, he says he doesn’t always differentiate it from other assignments. “Sometimes I’ll set up a food set as if I were photographing jewelry,” he notes. “In essence, I’m just throwing some lights on it and taking some pictures.”