Can you tell me what you’re trying to capture when you take your food photos? Images that are informative about the food, the process, the location, and the season in an appealing, inviting way. I like to bring people into my kitchen and make them feel like they’re at home there and welcome to a slice of cake. I want them to feel like they can put their elbows on the table and be the first to dig in and not feel like they’re interrupting anything too mysterious.
So I've known you since...2009. And you were taking pictures of food for your blog. I think you were trying to eat at a different restaurant each night for a month kind of thing? How has photography changed/evolved for you from then to now? Can you believe we’ve been friends for seven years?! Oyoyoy. Remember one of our first lunch hangs when we went to a fried chicken place (go figure) by Shake Shack… Hill Country Chicken! I think that was it. It was on a corner and it was so orange. I had just gotten my little Canon Rebel and I was snap snap snapping away like I had never seen a fried chicken before and you stopped me in line and said, “Molly, think about the picture before you take it.” And right then and there you shaped my approach, even though it took a good few years before it started showing through. Did you know that that still echoes in the back of my brain nearly every time I take a photo? And it’s gotten more extreme recently, like, I’ve been trying to challenge myself to get *the* shot with less and less attempts, a real “measure twice, cut once” mentality. You’d think I was shooting with film. It’s gotten me to pay more attention to the styling, lighting, and set up, all of the things that go into the photo before it’s actually taken.
I think I’ve also just gotten more selective about my lighting over the years. I’m so spoiled by the dark moody cloudy light of the upper Midwest, I likely would not lug my big ass camera to an orange fried chicken place these days.
Do you think there are similarities between playing music and photography? Yes, there’s the whole, “lock yourself in a room and do it over and over and over until you get better at it” thing that applies to both music and photography. But the similarity that I’ve been thinking about most these days is the importance of negative space. In photography, the difference between boring composition and exciting composition is so often the negative space, not necessarily the subject. And in music, if you don’t play the rests as carefully as you play the notes, you kinda ruin it. You really ruin it, actually.
Do you think Grand Forks has influenced/changed your photography style? Or anything about photography? Yeah, so, because Grand Forks is in the middle of the flattest land in the world there’s not a whole lot that obstructs your view. You see the land to the horizon and maybe a few tractors tooling about, but really not much else. And I love that minimalism! You can focus on one object and one line and it’s simple but energizing. I try to bring those same lines into my work and I think that not being surrounded by a million zillion things and buildings and people all the time gives me the patience or push or whatever to be minimal in my composition.
What inspires you for your recipe and photography? I love learning about my new town through their cuisine, which is very Scandinavian and vintage Church cookbooky, and I also love keeping my heritage alive in a place that otherwise wouldn’t really see Jewish or Middle Eastern food. Wherever I go, I love cooking with ingredients that I can’t find in my town. I was just in California and could not stop with the stone fruit and fresh herbs. And I’m on my way to Tel Aviv right now where I’m going to bath in a pool of tahini and make it rain za’atar. I like making recipes that are inspired by my travels and meaningful to the cultures that I identify with, and hopefully, through them, others can learn about those places and cultures too.
Any food photography heroes? If not any photography heroes? YOU, Donny!!! You’ve taught me so much and you are my greatest photography mentor and since I met you I’ve wanted to be on this site and now that I have I feel like I can sort of give up and move on and take up basket weaving or crayon drawing or something.
Toby Glanville is another hero. He shot the Rose Bakery cookbook, Breakfast, Lunch, and Tea, which contains the first food photography that I ever fell in love with. Look at it, it’s nothing too styled or precious, just understated beautiful food shown at its best, in its natural territory. It’s as if he just walked into the bakery, took a few stunning photos when no one was looking, and was off on his way. I love that so much. I tracked him down one summer in London right after college and basically begged to just be in his presence for a moment. We went and got lentil soup together on Portobello road and when we were served I got out my camera and took a few pictures. I could kind of tell he disapproved of this. When we finished there were our bowls left on the table with the remains of the soup that our spoons couldn’t scrape up and baguette crumbs scattered all over. He looked at the bowls and then looked at me and said, well, now, there’s your interesting shot. And that changed everything. Since that moment I’ve really valued the idea of keeping those human/imperfect/rustic elements that I might have otherwise freaked out about.
I’ve also recently gotten so into Summer Min’s photos, she is a queen of lighting and realness and I wish she’d blog more, and Renée Kemps, whose photos are so honest and bright.
Best meal you had in 2016 so far? Ron and Leetal from NY Shuk had me over to their house in Brooklyn last month and taught me how to make couscous from scratch. I had never had real couscous before, just the boxed stuff, and this just blew my mind. It was like a cloud of wheat. And there was some meatball wizardry that Leetal whipped up with the kind of spice and flavor that will ruin you for every other meatball. Even though the dishes on the table were new-to-me foods, they were instantly familiar and comforting. I want them to cook for me every day. Oh! And it ended with their homemade marzipan DUSTED WITH GOLD. I cried.
Why do you like cake so much? Cake is the ultimate symbol of celebration and happiness and making cake is like building an edible sculpture. So fun. The most fun.
*Please be sure to pre-order Molly's book, Molly on the Range, coming out in October.
All photos courtesy of Molly Yeh