How do the contemporary food magazines use photography? BJP speaks with five of the best to find out - Lucky Peach, Put A Egg On It, The Gourmand, Gather Journal, and Itineraries d'une cuisine contemporaine
When chef and Momofuku restaurants founder David Chang set up Lucky Peach in 2011, The New York Times called it “a glorious, improbable artifact”. It also predicted the venture would herald a new era of unconventional niche magazines featuring skinless chickens on their covers, eye-popping graphics and visuals, and a single theme per issue. Five years on, it seems The New York Times was right.
“It definitely was meant to push the boundaries of what, up until that point, defined food magazines, which tended to be very safe editorially and visually,” says Devin Washburn, the quarterly’s art director since September 2015.
A self-described non-foodie, Washburn was surprised by the sheer pace of food photography when he joined. “Ideas are very spur-of-the-moment, since you have to make the food on site and photograph it before it cools down, settles or loses its shape,” he says, adding that he also had to get an understanding of the cooking process, as everything that goes into making a dish has an effect on how it looks.
“I learned that each step – setting the ingredients, the prep work, the cooking – is equally important and interesting, whereas when I first started I was mostly interested in the final product.”
It sounds like a steep learning curve, but Washburn has something crucial in common with the Lucky Peach founder and team: a taste for taking risks. In the very first issue he worked on, for example, he accompanied a piece discussing taste as a matter of perception by having the food 3D-rendered in a crude, rough way.
When faced with illustrating a feature on Vietnamese desserts, he played up their monotone tan colours, asking Pete Deevakul to shoot straightforward, unprepossessing shots of even the most high-end recipes against a similarly bland background (including renowned pâtissier Pierre Hermé’s coffee macaron). The result is irreverent yet appetising, words that have come to define Lucky Peach’s brand.
“When you pick up Lucky Peach, you should expect to be in for something different visually,” says Washburn. “There’s a looseness and playfulness that is pretty unique. We’re not afraid of making mistakes. In fact, we avoid being too structured, which would make us boring. And we try not to take ourselves too seriously.
“Even the most beautiful piece needs to have a humorous note. Essentially, it needs to feel like it’s a magazine made by real people.”
He adds that Deevakul exemplifies what he looks for in a photographer when he’s scouring blogs and Instagram people who have a visual voice that is uniquely their own. Washburn is also on the lookout for individuals who have a strong personality, because he likes to know what to expect, and he is especially drawn to those who can turn seemingly mundane objects into art. “Pete can make a bottle of water look mesmerising,” he says, laughing.
And as much as he likes to work with long-term collaborators such as Deevakul, Washburn is also keen to use new photographers in every issue to help keep the magazine looking fresh. “Beyond that, we just try to push ourselves with each shoot,” he says.
“We want the process to be fun for us as well. Shooting with the same props would get quite boring. Each time, we try to figure out how to entertain ourselves.” And in the process, they’ve also worked out how to entertain their audience.