The hobbyhorse of Susan Brooks-Dammann, 41, is food photography. Her images are composed in a minimalistic way and thereby guide the viewer right towards the essential. The studied art historian and passionate blogger became a photographer more or less by coincidence. How that happened, why she is not afraid of competitors and which role her husband plays in her photography… all that she will tell us in this interview.
Dear Susan, why on earth that much food photography? Everybody does that, even though not as beautiful as you do.
Well, I kind of lost my heart on food photography. On the one hand I like that it is very uncomplicated. I have easy access to my ingredients, do not need to travel around to find good locations, do not need to hassle with unreliable models, and can – depending on how much time I want to spend – either realise a quick shoot with some fruits or vegetables or cook a delicious meal and call it work!
But in the beginning it was also a question of time. Now my son has already grown up a bit, but back when I started out on food photography it was a matter of child care. I still really wanted to photograph but did not have much time during the day. So it turned out to be the easiest and most efficient to either do food or still photography (or booth).
I don´t really bother that everybody does it. I get inspired by that, because there are lots of wonderful food photographers with fantastic ideas out there. And on the other hand it encourages me to keep improving my photographs all the time.
You are a studied art historian. How did you get into photography? Wouldn´t it be more obvious to work for a publishing house?
Oh, thanks no! As a matter of fact I realised only after my studies that I had no clue what to do with it. Staying at the university or working for a museum or a gallery were no options. Pure office work is simply too dry for me. I do need a certain creative freedom and appreciate the variety that I have now: I cook and bake, I decorate, I prepare my food in a fancy way, I care about the right lighting. But I can sit at my desk and work on my images, do boring paper work or – when I feel like landscape photography – even go out into the fields.
It was pure coincidence that I came up with photography. After finishing my studies my plan was to go into journalism since hat seemed to be very logical. But already during my dissertation I went abroad with my husband where I got pregnant pretty soon. After my son was born I started with photography to not go crazy between housekeeping, dissertation and breast-feeding. Soon I noticed that I would rather like to go on with photography than writing my thesis.
For a long time though I hesitated to go into stock photography because I was afraid of being annoyed of my most beloved hobby quickly. But it wasn´t like that. Now I know that it was just the right decision.
I imagine that as an art historian you have another approach on photography. You may be particularly influenced by different tendencies in art or have a certain sense of aesthetics, of color, form and proportion. Is that true or am I wrong with that?
To be honest: I don´t know. There is a humongous difference between theory and practice, which is also the reason why a lot of artists always look down a bit on art historians and connoisseurs. I would like to claim that I went into photography because I now all about images and how our visual senses are working. But to practically implement what you already know in theory is a whole different story.
What I do know from dealing with art is one thing: The importance of drawing the viewers attention into the image so that he focuses on what is most important in the image – no matter what kind of image it is. Therefore I avoided right from the beginning to overload an image with decoration. Yes, you´re right, I probably do think of color schemes and proportion theories when I create images.
Let´s talk about aesthetics once more. I think your food styling is extremely good and well decorated. Where do you get all those accessories? Thousands of different boards, dishes, kitchen towels, tablecloths, knifes, forks etc.
Oh, thanks for the flowers! The accessories pile up over the years.Oftentimes I prepare the boards for the background myself, sometimes I find them somewhere. My husband sometimes thinks that I am pretty crazy when I come home with an old and ragged door that I´ve found somewhere in the streets. Also I find a lot of very nice things at a well-know online auction dealer. Searching for „silver scrap“ I´ve once bought two kilos of cutlery for very little money. Sometimes I may find beautiful things at the flea market, other things I´ve found at my grandma´s, but I also still look around in deco stores. To me it is important that things are rather plain and good to combine. Other than that I have tendencies towards minimalism anyways and try not to overload my images. After all that is a great way to surrender oneself to the female passion for all kinds of bric-a-brac – even without having a bad conscience. It´s all for work… 🙂
Considering foodstyling, the trend is not use that many techniques anymore, that make the food shine and that preserve it a bit longer. Do you eat all those wonderful things after the shoot?
Yes, pretty much all of my food is eatable. Just for fun I experimented with artifical ice-cream last year. In the end it was fun but not very satisfying so I didn´t go on with that. But I have to admit that I do -not very often though- cheat a bit. Just a while ago I gathered ramson in the woods. Just the smell was so disgusting! But I wanted to have the ramson in the image so badly, that was the reason I was running around in the woods for after all! So I cheated on the soup and the Pesto and just put the very least amount of ramson into them that was neccessary so that the dishes would at least look delicious and eatable. But indeed I put no effort into them at all to make them tasty. You may have been able to eat it but…
Considering the short half-life period of some meals and ingredients: It is important to be well-prepared when you are dealing with either ice-cream or fresh herbs. Once everything is in place and ready to rumble, a shooting can be realised even within a few minutes.
Do you prefer working with natural or studio light?
I do work with natural light and reflectors. But this upcoming fall I would like to start an approach on studio lighting. It gets pretty dark during wintertime and I don´t like the uneven light falling in through the windows.
How important is digital postprocessing to you? Is that were you make the most of the emotion?
Postprocessing is very important. But I won´t use extreme filters anymore and try to make the food look very natural, fresh and appetizing on the images – and therefore you need postprocessing. A bit more on contrasts, a little brighter light, some less deep shadows – and there you go – everything will look even more appealing. What I don´t do is to manipulate my images. Everything that goes beyond my regular touch ups – cause again I have overlooked some stains, fuzz or crumbs – I won´t do. I am just missing out on patience for that. 🙂
„Food“ is a hard battled field in stock photography. It seems like tons of food photoraphers throw their images onto the market. Why did you still decide to take that challenge? What excites you about it?
To be honest: In the beginning I hadn´t even realised that. Later then it really frustrated me so much, that more than one time I was very close to giving up. Nowadays I think: „Now more than ever!“. Over the time I developed sort of a bullethead. Probably because even in my early years people always tried to keep me from doing things. Either because I apparently was not able to do them or – as in this case- because the competitors seemed to be too strong. But if I had ever cared about those obstacles, I would be working at the cash desk of a supermarket now.
I think it is important not to give up on something only because it starts getting uncomfortable. You have to be willing to work on yourself, to improve yourself and to adapt to new situations without completely bending yourself. It is obvious that quality still pays off even today, when you can get images almost for free..But I also have to admit to be very blessed with my husband who always supports me a lot and always encourages me to keep on doing what I do.
Are our briefings and discussions within the Westend61-community helpful to you?
Absolutly. Without all that helpful advice of Westend61 it would have taken me much longer to understand, which kind if images sell and which don´t. As an example: I have always liked to take very dark images, the so-called “Mystic Light” fascinated me. But nobody asks for dark images. You guys mentioned that in your food-briefing, so now I take brighter images. They look more fresh. And now I even prefer my images like that. In addition to that I can always peer on your list of shooting-themes when I have my creative off-time. The discussions within the Westend61-commmunity make the agency appear that authentic. You are not just one among many working for some company. Instead you are dealing with people who are very committed to their work and also take their photographers serious. You don´t have that in a lot of agencies. That motivates a lot.
For the future do you plan on getting more into some other fields of photography or will you keep on building most of your portfolio onto food photography?
Well, I still have some travel- and landscape-images in my portfolio but indeed I will keep on putting my focus on food photography.
I am taking into consideration to start photographing people or lifestyle as an add-on.
But right now I have at least half a dozen concept ideas on my mind, so I have no clue when I will start doing that.
Here comes the last question: Why is Westend61 the perfect home to your images?
I already mentioned that above: As a photographer you feel taken very seriously. You have a go-to person that you can always ask once you´ve got a problem or a question. On the other hand the agency contacts their photographers as soon as something seems to be going wrong: You are never left alone, you always get advice or help. I also photograph for other agencies but that I haven´t experiencend anywhere else. For my part I am very glad that I came across Westend61.