As a trained chef and professional photographer, Jim Sullivan photographed the Parisian-inspired restaurant Jeune et Jolie in San Diego, offering a glimpse behind the food scene. He aims to use his imagery to tell stories based on culture and emotions.
How did you become a foodie?
Well, I’m a classically trained chef, so I guess that would make me a foodie. I’ve been in the restaurant business since I was very young, back when “foodie” wasn’t even a term. I started off as a bus-boy and dishwasher, then slowly worked my way up through the back door. Fast forward many years, I now focus my time and passion on capturing the world of food with my camera. I absolutely love what I do and always feel so blessed to be able to work with some of the best in the business.
They say that, besides children and animals, food is the hardest subject to depict. Is that true? What do you find so fascinating about it?
I think that some people would find it difficult. For me I guess I think of food photography as an extension of my eye. That probably sounds weird but I try to shoot the dish as I see it, without thinking about it too much. What I find extremely difficult are portraits! When on location, I usually have literally 10-15 minutes with each subject (chefs, bartenders). Trying to get that intimate emotion from them is so, so hard in such a short time. I struggle with this aspect constantly. So when I have a beautiful plate of food I find it a lot easier. Now that’s not to say all food is easy to shoot, because that would be an incorrect statement. Things that make food photography hard are different lighting situations within the same restaurant; having a dish that won’t stand up for more than a few minutes; or having another dish brought out to you before you’re ready.
Your images don’t just show food, but also how it’s embedded in the environment, and how it’s dealt with by the people preparing it. Is that your approach?
Absolutely that’s my approach. I’m always trying to tell a story with my work, whether on location in a foreign market or in the kitchen during preparation. My approach to photography is more on the photojournalist side. I’m less interested in taking the pretty food picture, and more about telling a story.
You quite often portray locations where people are dining. What message would you like to convey to the observer?
Almost all your pictures are in colour. Is colour indispensable for this genre?
I believe so. I mean there are instances where monochrome makes sense, but for the most part, as a food/cocktail photographer, you want to show off the colour, the vibrancy of the food.
In former times, food pictures were usually found in recipe books. More recently, food photography is considered an art form of itself. What are your thoughts with regard to your own pictures?
I would tend to agree with that statement. The guys from Art Culinaire have consistently put out amazing work by using food as a medium to produce beautiful art. I have always liked their work in particular, because they photograph the food in a non-intrusive way, letting it speak for itself, as opposed to manipulating the food with props to make it look more abstract.
In terms of my own body of work, I honestly don’t consider my work art. I would probably lean more towards photojournalism. Although I definitely need more years to get to a point where I feel comfortable with saying that. I will say I am most happy and in my element when I’m on location capturing moments around food (versus being in the studio or on set).
Why is food art for you?
I think food is like any other medium. You try and capture the object in its most pleasing manner. So whether it’s food, the human body or a still life, your eye dictates the kind of art you make.
You started working with the Leica Q. Later on, you switched to the Q2. What do you consider different about these models? And what do you find special about this camera?
The Q has always had a special place in my heart. When I got wind of the Q2 I was a little hesitant, since I’d already had the first generation; but, let me tell you, the two are worlds apart. They may look similar in appearance, but the image quality with the Q2 is insane! I am still blown away by the results. The new 46mp CMOS sensor with its new processor put the Q2 light years ahead of the original. For me the Q2 is absolutely perfect for travelling. I’ve used it a lot on location and it’s wonderful. The size alone coupled with its quiet (almost non existent) shutter noise, makes it an ideal piece of equipment for me. And the fact that it has a macro function makes it invaluable for my type of work.
Do you consider the Leica especially suited for food?
I think some may say no, but for the way I shoot and the look I go for it most certainly is. In fact, that was the specific reason I left my old brand. The look and feel I get with my Leica bodies/lenses is something you can’t replicate.
What is your approach to the single shot? And what might you change afterwards?
I approach every shot the same way – as if I’m shooting with film. I prefer film because it makes me slow down and think. Think about composition, lighting, etc. So when I’m using the Q2 or my M10, I’m really still thinking as if I’m using my M6. I never touch my film images in post-production, so when I get my digital images I only make minor changes. I really try very hard to keep the images as I see them and subsequently shoot them.
Which was the most beautiful food you ever shot?
That is a difficult question. Honestly I would have a difficult time answering it, because I love everywhere I’ve had the opportunity to shoot. For example, I did a shoot in a diner photographing burgers and found it to be a joy. Capturing the grit in a setting like that is extremely pleasing, especially on black and white film. At the other end of the spectrum, I have consistently worked over the years with my friends at Californios in San Francisco. This is the only restaurant in the US serving Mexican inspired food, that has two Michelin Stars. Chef Val Cantu’s approach to food is very similar to mine in photography: simple in appearance yet intricate in the detail. The way he places the food on the plate is always beautiful. In this respect one can say “artistic”, – always stunning.
Jim Sullivan is a chef and professional food photographer based in San Diego California. As a classically trained chef and graduate from the Art Institute, his ability to cook and understand food helps him portray food in a unique way. One of the main reasons why he loves photography is that he gets to tell stories based around food and his fellow chefs. He thinks photography and being a chef are very similar in that both require meticulous detail, presentation and require the utmost passion to push the boundaries.