I’ve been a fan of Life & Thyme for a long time. I’ve also been fortunate enough to be able to contribute to a few articles there. Not only is Life & Thyme a fantastic source for great stories about food, it is a treasure trove of information and inspiration. I regularly take a look at what’s on offer, and I am always rewarded with new perspectives or approaches. Often this delving uncovers photographers who create work that I find intriguing or enticing, and I have been fortunate enough to be able to get into contact with some of them. Connecting with other creatives is a deeply rewarding experience, because it gives one the chance of discussing matters which often feel difficult to share with others who are not in the industry. There is a camaraderie between photographers that results in a free exchange of information that can be, to put it mildly, enlightening.
One such connection I have been blessed to make through Life & Thyme is Jim Sullivan, a food photographer and videographer from Southern California in the US. Jim has a gift for portrait photography – specifically photographing chef portraits.
During one of my browsing sessions, I came across an article for which Jim had done the photography, and one of his images immediately grabbed my attention. As a photographer, chef portraits can be a static experience (mostly chefs like to fold their arms and be done with it), but I had been changing my posing and during this search found inspiration in Jim’s wonderful work:
Inspired, I made a mental note that when the opportunity next presented itself, I would emulate what I’d seen and so admired in Jim’s photo with my own personal interpretation, of course. I don’t advocate copying, but inspiration is a true wonder and so readily available in the age of technology. Luckily for me, this opportunity did not take long to arrive:
When Jim and I started chatting, it soon became clear that we were both on a quest for new stories that hadn’t been told yet. We’re both former chefs, and I started my career as a sculler and Jim as a busboy, and so we have a passion for and connection to stories about the culinary world. We both photograph chefs and finished dishes as our main work and sometimes we need a break from the norm. One of the untold stories we had both begun to consider is to document the often unseen but essential members of any successful kitchen team: the scullers / kitchen cleaners. Without the tireless dedication of these individuals, a kitchen cannot run smoothly. They are the backbone and yet they are often left out of the spotlight because of the nature of their work. Even restaurants with kitchens that are open do not have their scullery visible – it’s just not a pretty job.
This was what intrigued both of us. The challenge here is to champion these individuals in our portraiture of restaurants to make sure that the whole story is told. We eagerly shared our favourite portraits of the scullers with each other – a niche passion I’m sure. What had once seemed obscure in each of our experiences now became somehow validated and deserved further exploration as story tellers of this exciting industry.
One day, Jim asked me if I would be willing to paint a portrait of him in a style that I had just begun experimenting with – digital painting. I was simultaneously excited and terrified, because it was the first time I’d been commissioned to paint a portrait.
Painting a portrait of a portrait photographer… how wonderful!
Even though Jim himself says he does not consider himself to be a portrait photographer, I do. I’m not one who lets a challenge prevent me from making progress, so I gratefully accepted the commission.
I’m pleased to say that the end product is something that both Jim and I are delighted with. A world of inspiration has been drawn from having a photographer friend across the pond (thank you technology angels!), connected through our love of food stories and the incomparably vital role it plays in our lives.
I asked Jim to share some words of wisdom.
Why food photography?
Food photography came natural to me since I am a chef. I wanted to best represent my food through an image. This led to me transitioning to becoming a full time photographer in the culinary world. Now I primarily focus on representing other peoples’ culinary work through my imagery.
What’s one tip you can give to photographers who want to emulate the emotive quality you create in your portraits?
One tip of advice I would give to anyone doing portrait photography is to focus on the emotion of the moment with your subject. By this I mean take the time to interact with your subject. Get to know them. Make them feel comfortable so they trust you. In my opinion, a portrait is more than just pressing the shutter.
You obviously see a great deal of international food photography. What do you think makes the American food experience a unique one?
I think that here in America the food culture is such an important aspect in our daily lives, especially in the era of social media.
Nowadays everyone has a smart phone and they’re taking pictures of everything they eat and drink, almost to a fault. It’s not to say that it’s not important in Europe, Asia and the rest of the world, but I think we place it on a much higher level.
If you could go back to when you were just starting out and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
Don’t get caught up with what everyone else is doing. Stay true to who you are as an artist.
For more of Jim’s work with Life & Thyme
For more of my work with Life & Thyme