Finding the time to PAUSE in order to acquaint you with some of the talented AWAY from the KITCHEN cookbook team and contributors is definitely a challenge. We all have other projects, husbands, wives, children, and animals to care for, not to mention our own feeding, dressing and teeth brushing. We just have to make the time and stop all this unintentional FBI, Interpol secretive nonsense and let you all know what we can, as often as we can.
Ok, we’re making good on yet another promise we made to showcase one of the gifted AWAY from the KITCHEN photographers – jump on the Ferris wheel and I’ll take you for a whirl with our East coast photographer, Russell French. Besides being an outstanding photographer, Russell has a refreshing zest for life, a genuine New England ease about him, and if you don’t start any shenanigans, it’s very easy to fall into an extremely gratifying professional relationship with him followed by friendship (again, if you behave.)
Chatting with RUSSELL FRENCH on LIFE BEHIND THE LENS
How did you come to photography?
Russell French: I wanted to become a painter, so I enrolled at the Maine College of Art in Portland. I did airbrush on motorcycle tanks. I did murals on vans. I created backdrops for the high school plays. I just loved creating stuff. I can remember in the third grade, I drew a horse, and the teacher made me go around to all the classes to show the kids how to draw a horse, I guess because I had the best horse. In college, I got to a point where I was drawing everything photo realistically. Everything changed once I picked up the camera – I was immediately hooked.
What appealed to you about photography in general?
Russell French: It just opened up a whole new world to me that I hadn’t explored before. I went to art school, but it wasn’t a technical school like RIT. I learned the process, but it was really about capturing the image. I used to go into the library and there was this design magazine called Graphis. I thought to myself, I would love to be able to do something like that. I slowly began to turn away from the painting and into the commercial stuff.
What was your career plan after you left school?
Russell French: I figured if I did anything else other than photography, I would be distracted and eventually not stay with it. I thought working with professional photographers, learning and seeing what they were doing, was the way to go. I did assist for quite a few years in Boston, although it was starvation wages, but it was fun. Then I started working for one guy who was specifically a food photographer, and that was eye opening.
You went from being an assistant photographer to developing your own business.
Russell French: I had started my studio and I was working quite a bit doing different things. There was a period of about two or three months where I did some soul searching trying to figure what meant something to me and how was I going to recreate myself in a way that would make my life interesting and fulfilling. I just came up with the idea that I loved photographing food. I thought it was creative, interesting, and I loved cooking. I still love to cook, but at that time, I was still learning.
Did that appeal to you more than other types of photography and why?
Russell French: I am not sure it did right away, but it was very interesting, and more difficult because you had to know about the food. I felt with food, I had matured to a point where I realized that it was something that was very much connected to life and culture and spoke a lot about countries, people and chefs. Food was more interesting because it had a wider, deeper reach. The style in which you present food is limitless. I think food photography is very difficult. I think with food it’s fun to do research and learn about cultures. I wish that they would teach history about cultures based on food rather than on the wars. If you go back to ancient Rome or Greece, where did they get their food? Where did they trade?
When you did the food shots for our book, Away From the Kitchen, did you do the set-up? To what extent were you the stylist?
Russell French: Actually, the chef set it up. He came into the studio, and I thought it was great. Why not have him? I set up the background, and he set up the food. It was a collaboration.
Have you experienced that collaboration with very many chefs or was that a unique shoot?
Russell French: I do that with just about all of the chefs I work with. Especially when they’re trying to create some sort of image for their restaurant. You have to collaborate with them, not just on the lighting and food presentation, but what image do they want to establish for their restaurant.
You seem very open to their suggestions rather than, “I am the photographer, please stay out of this.”
Russell French: I don’t find that interesting. You shut off all sorts of possibilities when you do that.
Have you taught yourself to cook or have you been able to learn from all the chefs that you’ve worked with over the years?
Russell French: I always pay attention for sure. When you’re with Rob Evans it’s a little difficult because his stuff is high-end technique driven and it usually takes 2 or 3 people.
You watch different chefs cook like Sam Hayward from Fore Street or Steve Corry from Five Fifty Five, you see how they’re paying attention to what they’re doing or why they’re paying attention to certain things.
Do you think that having some proficiency at cooking helps your food photography?
Russell French: I think it definitely does. When you’re photographing a piece of fish, having the knowledge of what it should look like will lead to the most appetizing presentation. I think you have to have a little bit of knowledge. You can’t just be a fast-food guy.
Can you name a specific shoot that was particularly enjoyable or satisfying?
Russell French: I’m thinking about a shoot I did for the Maine Cheese Guild and the designer that I worked with, Nancy Montgomery. She just said, “Lets go into the studio, and we’re just going to play around and see what happens.” Designers have two ways of designing things, one where everything is organized beforehand. They know what they want and they give you layouts, and they get you to do exactly what they want, and then there are designers who design after the fact, and this is what Nancy did with this Maine Cheese Guild shoot. She designed after the fact, and for two days, we just played in the studio and composed shots using all sorts of different setups. We left some room for magic. We received the Ad Club of Maine’s 2005 Broderson gold award for Public Service.
Name me a few of your sources of inspiration?
Russell French: Ultimately, I think nature is the inspiration for everything we do, but for me, I see the kind of lighting, like today in Portland it’s foggy, and it’s beautiful. No shadow light. It’s just saturated colors. You see these different things and you know it creates different moods so you absorb that and try to use light to create those feelings when you’re on the set.
My friend, Michael Sanders, my business partner in the book, Fresh From Maine, is a writer and he knows a lot of people, and we just came to a point where we thought there was a story that needed to be told about Maine. About how, as in a lot of places in a country, restaurants and chefs are so close to their farms or their fisherman, or whatever the food source may be. I think in some ways Maine is a unique place because of the seafood, and the fisherman, and even just the rural community that we have in Maine.
What are the most interesting or unconventional photography projects you’ve done to date and what made them so?
Russell French: I like going to the source of a food related shoot. I spent a day on a Maine shrimp boat photographing the crew hauling shrimp. I arrive at the boat at 3 a.m., spent the entire day taking pictures, and got off the boat at 6:30 that night. I was below freezing most of the day, but overall a productive shoot and a good trip.
I photographed the first woman astronaut to walk in space, Kathryn Sullivan. I had ten minutes, and it was on the third floor of a tin metal building that housed an enormous water tank for the astronauts to practice what they were going to do underwater prior to attempting it in space. Did I mention it was summertime in Alabama and about 110º F.?
Favorite photographer and why?
Russell French: I have a few, but Edward Weston was the first that I remember thinking his work was amazing. Irving Penn – got to hold a few of his prints when I was in college and really see the work up close – pencil marks on the back – the craft of the darkroom was always such alchemy.
Favorite places to photograph?
Russell French: City, country, etc. Around Siena Italy or anywhere in Tuscany.
Favorite food(s) to photograph?
Russell French: Seafood – naturally beautiful and we have so much great seafood in Maine.
Favorite public building display of photographs – permanent collection or show?
Russell French: Santa Fe, New Mexico has some great photo galleries, New York has great galleries – MOMA is inspiring. I like all types of art. It’s fun to find inspiration in many different disciplines. Early Dutch food still life is fun to reflect on and observe with respect to light.
Now you’ll want to direct your eyes to more “photography extraordinaire” at Russell French Studio: russellfrench.com
Another artist in the house, Russell’s wife, Mary Anne Lloyd is an illustrator: maryannelloyd.com