San Francisco-based photographer John Lee has shot everything from presidential campaigns to the culinary creations of celebrity chefs. Over the course of a decade at the Chicago Tribune, he documented China’s emergence into power, Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East, the Iraq War, and civil strife in Haiti. In 2005, he left the newspaper, where he had also served as a primary photojournalist for the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine, to pursue his passion for food photography.
Marrying his skills in reportage with a knack for still life and studio lighting, Lee has developed a visual language all his own. From his minimalist photographs of gleaming, cored apples to his energized portraits of Guy Fieri’s kitchen, he discovers rich tones and textures that make the mouth water. In his career as a gastronomic photographer, he has worked on cookbooks by Tyler Florence, Sunny Anderson, and Richard Blais. He is currently the principal photographer for the Sprout Baby Food company.
How and why did you get into photography?
‘”I stumbled into photography during college in the early ’90s in Los Angeles. I was working at a poster shop in a mall, and kept looking at the Ansel Adams and Herb Ritts posters they were selling. I thought it might be fun to try out photography, so I borrowed my sister’s old Pentax 35mm camera that she never used, and enrolled in a beginning black and white photo class. I was pretty much hooked within the first week.
“I eventually started shooting pictures for the college newspaper, and started on my path to photojournalism. I would shoot everything from college basketball games to portraits of professors and students to shots of bands playing in the school quad. That was right around the time of the LA riots in 1992. On the first day of the riots, I took that old Pentax and a massively oversized camera bag and drove to downtown LA to get my first taste of major spot news. The adrenaline bug in me kicked in, and that was when I decided that I wanted to be a newspaper photographer.”
You worked as a staff photographer at the Chicago Tribune for ten years. How did you get your start there?
“I had interned with newspapers that had some great photography departments. Places like The Seattle Times and Minneapolis Star-Tribune. I also did well in the various college photojournalism contests, and one year won the William Randolph Hearst journalism competition. One of the judges in that contest was a photo editor at the Chicago Tribune, and after the contest I pestered her about working there. The Tribune had a residency program which hired young journalists for a year as an extended intern of sorts. She suggested that I apply for that, and they offered me a job as a resident. I jumped at that offer, because I was a California kid who knew almost nothing beyond my state and wanted to explore this mythical city of Chicago that I had only once briefly visited. The one-year residency eventually turned into a full-time job, and I was there for a decade.”
You left the newspaper almost 10 years ago for a career in food photography. How does one go from photographing wars to photographing baby food? What prompted this drastic career shift?
“Yeah, it does seem like a very drastic shift. While I was at the Tribune, I had the opportunity to shoot a wide variety of assignments. I had expressed an interest in sports photography, so I was put on regular rotation for Chicago Cubs, White Sox, and Bears. I was also assigned to shoot the Chicago Bulls in the mid ’90s when Michael Jordan was at his peak. I would literally sit on the floor of the court two feet in front of him. I was also shooting local, national, and international news, covering Illinois gubernatorial campaigns, U.S. presidential campaigns and primaries, disasters, various projects in China, and pretty much any story that I could convince them to send me to. And when 9/11 happened, I was sent to New York with a few other Tribune photographers. Two weeks in New York then led directly to three months in Pakistan to cover Islamic fundamentalism. From there, I covered the war in Iraq and the coup in Haiti, among other experiences.
“But besides the more news-focused assignments I shot, what I really enjoyed shooting were portraits. When I first got into photography, I admired photographers such as Herb Ritts, Annie Leibovitz, and of course Avedon. So at the Tribune, I experimented with lighting and studio work. I was also one of the few photographers on staff who didn’t view restaurant assignments as punishment, and would spend way more time than the newspaper required shooting still lifes of food and scenes in the various eateries.
“So when I left the Tribune to move back to my hometown of San Francisco, I wanted to go back to the type of photography that had interested me when I began photography, which was more portraiture and fine arts based. I decided to try my hand as a freelance portrait photographer, and started shooting for the local San Francisco magazines such as 7×7 Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday Magazine. Those assignments allowed me to reinvent how I approached photography. And since these were San Francisco-based assignments, they almost always had something to do with food. The San Francisco Chronicle also hired me to regularly shoot recipes in their food studio, which allowed me to experiment further.
“One day 7×7 Magazine assigned me a cover shoot with Food Network celebrity chef Tyler Florence, who had recently moved to the Bay Area. I spent three days shooting with Tyler, which involved location portraiture, some light reportage of him on farms, and an afternoon of shooting recipes in his home kitchen. Tyler and I hit it off in those three days, and that eventually led to working with him directly. Since then, I’ve shot three cookbooks with him, and dozens of editorial assignments and commercial projects relating to him. This is where the baby food photography comes in. Tyler co-founded a baby food company called Sprout, and they called on me to shoot the packaging for their first set of products, which eventually led to shooting their entire catalog of products over a span of four years.”
How did you go about establishing yourself as a food photographer?
“I owe much of my food photography career to Tyler Florence. He was looking for a local San Francisco-based photographer, and took a chance on me. My early food photography portfolio came largely from shooting with him. One of the fortunate things about working with Tyler was that his level of food and styling is extremely high, and that he has high visibility within the celebrity food industry. Shooting cookbooks with him opened up doors that I would have never been able to open on my own. Working on his cookbooks led to relationships with cookbook publishers, which led to cookbook projects with other celebrity chefs such as Guy Fieri, Richard Blais, and Sunny Anderson.”
Do you feel like your career and experience as a photojournalist informs your food photography at all? Is there any sort of overlap there?
“Definitely, although not in a direct way. There are intangibles from my photojournalism experience that have definitely benefitted my approach now. I find that I’m pretty comfortable under pressure during more intensive shoots. Perhaps it’s a sense of perspective and being able to quickly think on my feet that I’ve learned from my newspaper days. When I was at the Tribune, I would sometimes find myself in very tense situations such as violent anti-American protests outside of madrassas in Peshawar, Pakistan, to being chased by police firing tear gas during the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, to living out of a SUV for a month in the middle of the desert outside of Basra during the early days of the Iraq War. Having those experiences puts my food photography shoots and projects in perspective. I have a confidence that I can pretty much handle any assignment or job, whether it’s an on-location ad shoot for Miller Lite, to orchestrating a three-week cookbook shoot.
“Visually and stylistically, I am a completely different photographer than when I was at the newspaper. When I went into freelance photography, I made an effort to shift how I shot. I found that I had developed habits while at the newspaper that I wanted to get rid of. These weren’t bad habits, but more like practices that I relied on when shooting for immediate deadline under extreme and varied situations. Things like relying heavily on wide angles. I had noticed that when I shot with 35mm cameras and their digital equivalents, I would, almost out of muscle memory, compose images very much like how I shot when at the newspaper. That style, while useful, was not what I was striving for. But I had noticed that when I picked up medium format cameras, especially Hasselblads, I would automatically see and approach things very differently. So I tried whenever possible to shoot with medium format only. I’ve spent the bulk of my freelancing career shooting primarily that, starting with Haselblad film cameras and large format cameras back when shooting film was still viable, and eventually switching to Hasselblad digital a few years ago. And that way of seeing has trickled down to the way I shoot with 35mm digital cameras now.
“But I’ve lately been applying some of my old photojournalism aesthetics towards some food projects. I find that my photojournalism muscles come in handy when I’m shooting in a busy restaurant kitchen, where I don’t have the luxury of orchestrating scenes and lighting. I’m essentially a fly on the wall in usually very cramped kitchens where I’m taking up valuable and very limited space. I also recently completed a lengthy cookbook project with Guy Fieri where it was mostly reportage. Guy works in a very fast pace, and the photojournalistic approach is a good way to keep up with him.”
What advice do you have for photographers who may be thinking of a major shift in their careers? Is there anything you did to make the transition easier?
“I think one has to be comfortable with taking one step back before taking two steps forward. I was definitely nervous early on in my freelancing career, not knowing whether taking a gamble on these photographic detours was the right path. I was essentially throwing out my existing photo career to create a new one.
“One also needs to be comfortable with rejection. I remember during the early days of my freelancing when I made my first trip to meet with visual editors in New York City, a portfolio of portraits from my newspaper days in hand. One editor took a look at my work, closed my portfolio, and then proceeded to say that my work looked like newspaper portraits from five years ago (not a good thing), and that she was unhappy that I wasted her time. During that same trip, another editor tore apart each one of my images, saying that there was nothing new or unique about what I was presenting, and suggested that I go back to San Francisco and really examine what I want to say in my work. So I did just that. I woodshedded for two years before I built up the nerve to go back to New York and show my work again. Needless to say, those two years were probably some of the most valuable two years I’ve ever had in photography.”
Your work on Offset is full of gorgeous food photography. How would you describe your style? Who are you influences in the food photography world?
“My style is still evolving, but I seem to be settling into a slightly punchy aesthetic. I tend to favor a slight deadpan in my photography. As far as influences, I’ve lately have been looking more towards painters such as Wayne Thiebaud and Henri Matisse. Their works tend to have this humor to them, sometimes subtle, sometimes not. Among photographers, I really like the works by Marcus Nilsson and Roland Bello. I also find a lot of inspiration from the works of Nadav Kander, Todd Hido, and Andrew Cutraro.”
What are some of your favorite photos in the Offset collection? Any interesting stories behind them that you can share?
“A number of outtakes from a cookbook I shot called Tyler Florence Fresh is in the collection. The photography is stripped down and against a white seamless. That project was a big departure for me, because we were working without props of any kind. So many times in food shoots I will rely on props as crutches, such as a distressed cutting board, a vintage fork, or an antique platter. Sometimes it’s very easy to make food look good when surrounded by beautiful props. But on the Tyler Florence Fresh book, the food stood by themselves — a single egg, a beet slice, a tomato. Shooting like this forced me to examine the items for what they were and to find the beauty in them.”
All photos featured in this post can be found on Offset, a new curated collection of high-end commercial and editorial photography and illustration from award-winning artists around the world. Offset is an exclusive category channel partner on Feature Shoot.