You know, I set my sights on this goal and that was gonna be the goal. So when I had to change everything up, I decided photography has been something of a comfort and something of continuing to explore while I was out there. And so I decided to try and give that a shot. And I was looking on Craigslist and I found a studio assisting job at a stock photo agency called Comstock and applied for that job and came back to New York for an interview and they were moving their operations out to Jersey. But they took me on and I was happy to have my first job in photography very quickly, and it was a great learning ground.
A camera had been placed into my hands by an artist friend. So it was always very, just sort of, you know, a lot about feeling and aesthetics and street photography, stuff like that. But I didn't know anything about studio photography, lighting, production, et cetera. So getting this job was a huge thing.
And I was working very closely with the studio manager, whose name is Brett Friedman, who is still a friend today. And he taught me a ton. He'd worked in film and video production before. Studio managing. He’s super funny. Really great guy. And we just hit it off. But I learned a lot on the job.
It was like paid graduate school because I was getting my salary, but I was also learning all these things that I'd never really been exposed to before. So that was kind of the beginning, getting into that world and learning more about it. Stuck around there for probably three years. 9-11 happened, you know, people changed.
Brett left and technology was changing too. I mean, digital was starting to become a thing. They were trying to update their systems to go incorporate more digital. When I started there, we were shooting all positive films, like slide films. So we would do these shoots and run them into the city, drop 'em off, develop it, you know, wait for three hours, take a look at like the first two frames, and then run the whole role for the next day.
So that was cool, you know, it was really exciting for me. I was just seeing that the whole world was totally new. It was really fun. Around 2003, I kind of felt like I'd run my course there. It was out in Jersey. I was tired of the commute and I thought it would be fun to be a photo assistant.
I still wanted to be an assistant. I still wanted to learn more, and I thought that that was the path. And I thought it'd be fun to go back to Paris and work as a photo assistant in Paris. So I took all my savings and I went out there. I gave myself like six to eight weeks or something like that.
And I made a whole list. I knocked on doors. I cold called people. And I was just trying to get my foot in. And I thought it would be easy as a quote unquote trained New York assistant. I thought I would be a valuable commodity, but I wasn't. I was just another guy out there and, you know, if they wanted to hire someone who spoke English, they could hire someone within the EU.
So there wasn't a lot of incentive and it took a while. Everyone was super nice. Everyone I spoke to was very friendly and gave me their time and had encouraging words, but it just didn't really work out that I found a job until the very last minute, really. I was about to pack it all in and I met this guy, Giacomo Bretzel, an Italian guy who had been living in Perth for 10 years.
And he just happened to be looking for a new first assistant. His first assistant was moving on and we had a coffee at his house. And I really thought it was just another nice meeting like all the other meetings had been nice and friendly, but it wasn't gonna go anywhere. So I was getting ready to get my bag and go back to the city when he said, okay, so you know, I have a shoot in Florence, Italy next week.
Are you free? And of course all I had was time. So I said, of course. And that started the relationship. I started working with him and became his assistant for about a year in change. And you know, stayed in Paris from 2003 to the end of 2004 and had a great time. I learned a whole other set of skills, which was, he loved working with older cameras.
He was very charming as a very gregarious Italian guy. Super charming. And I realized we had all these adventures. We would travel a lot. We would visit incredible places like wineries in Italy or hanging out with the Ferdo family, things like this. We went to the Grand Prix in Monaco, all these things that he loved and he could be around because of his camera. People hired him to photograph beautiful cars or photograph this beautiful hotel or an amazing restaurant. We went to visit the production of Iberico ham. All these things, you know. So I really began to see the cameras as this passport, and it would let you into sort of the backstage of all these worlds that were largely hidden, you know, if you didn't have a way to access them.
So I think I learned more about how to live in the world, maybe more than about photography itself, like technically. But it definitely left a huge impression on me and you know, we're still friends to this day also. I've been lucky enough to work with a lot of people who were very generous to share their knowledge and their experiences with me.
So in 2004, I left Paris. I knew that I wouldn't really be able to make my way out there by myself. My French was not perfect. It's still sort of a closed world in Paris, at least at that point, you know, so it felt like it would just be an uphill battle to make my way there. So I came back to New York and started working on my own projects and doing a lot of portraits of artists in their studios and was taking a portfolio around to newspapers and magazines and basically the New York Sun, which was a newspaper that was operating back then.
They took me on on a freelance basis, and one of the first assignments they had for me was a restaurant review. And so I did that and I realized that I had learned some of the skills to do that from working with Giacomo. And they liked it when I filed my photos. They liked it and I enjoyed doing it. And I started to become the regular person shooting the restaurant reviews.
Josh Sharkey [00:11:36]:
Do you remember what that restaurant was?
Evan Sung [00:11:36]:
I don't remember what the very first one was. There was the Italian restaurant in Park Slope on Fifth Street that's still around Osteria Al Di La. There's the other one that's a little further north, but it's been there for a while. I think it might still be there, but that was one of the early ones.
And then also David Chang's original Momofuku Noodle Bar was one of the first things I shot. I think that's so important that it was a Chang restaurant because basically that was the beginning of this whole new era in food and dining and restaurants and media because Eater, Grub Street were all just coming online. ChowHound had been around, but they were all these like message boards, right, like chat boards, but the birth of Grub Street and Eater as places where people were following like quote unquote news about restaurants and chefs and stuff like that along with photos, you know, to illustrate who this chef is or what this new restaurant looks like.
That was the beginning of this thing. And Chang obviously jump started or was the first real chef star that people kind of went crazy for and went crazy for his restaurants and went crazy to like to get into his restaurants and it started this new period and so I began to shoot more.
I was with The Sun and then The Sun was always like a training round for people who made their way to the Times or to the Wall Street Journal. So I ended up getting picked up by the Times not that long after. And started shooting reviews for the Times. I remember Chinatown Brasserie was one of the first time shoots I had, and I remember shooting Mercer Kitchen, which is no longer open along with Bong.It was like a twofer.
Josh Sharkey [00:13:17]:
Not a really direct path for you from photography into food. Sounds like you had a really deep past sans food before you got into actual food photography.
Evan Sung [00:13:33]:
You know, I didn't grow up with a lot of food knowledge in my family. I mean, my parents were immigrants.They came from Taiwan. They both worked. So we had like a housekeeper who would prepare meals, and so there wasn't a lot of talk about food. Although we would go out, we'd enjoy going out to eat as most Asians do, but there wasn't a lot of thinking about seasonality of food or food technique or food history or anything like that.
So photographing restaurants, it was a job, but it was a fun job. You know, it was getting to meet these chefs or go into restaurants, see amazing food and photograph it and on occasion taste it or things like that. You know, that was all exciting for me just starting out on my own. Even along that way, I was still assisting a bunch of other photographers and just trying to make a living doing it. But yeah, no, food was not a mission of mine. It wasn't an intention of mine. It was simply something that sprung up around me. I think now we're so used to seeing food media everywhere, but it wasn't really the case back then.
Josh Sharkey [00:14:27]:
Was there a moment that sort of galvanized for you that food photography was going to be your focus? You still bounced around a bit even when you started doing reviews and things like that. Was there one moment or one chef, or one shoot that was like, oh yeah, I'm doing this now for a long time.
Evan Sung [00:14:36]:
You know, shooting the restaurant reviews was a weekly thing and doing it for The Times and The Sun, it meant that I was seeing quite a few restaurants in any given week. So over the course of a month that I'd make these little postcards to sort of promote myself. So I'd print out the pictures and then sort of make a little graphic design on it with the name of the restaurant and send it out to different magazines. I think just seeing the sort of the body of work that I was accumulating quite quickly in this area was kind of cool, you know?
It was just, huh, that's interesting. I've seen all these places. I've had all these photos of all these places already, and it hasn't been that long. That's one thing, you know, just to feel like you're really getting to know a lot of the city through these restaurants. And then probably the next step was when Gabe Stuhlman hired me to shoot photos for the Little Owl.
And this was like back when restaurants didn't have websites, so they were at the forefront, you know, and I don't know if you remember that website, but I think there were like pages that would turn, like you would click it and like the pages would flip. And so he hired me and that was the first time any restaurant had hired me directly to photograph their food and headshots and the restaurant, et cetera.
So that was like, okay, this is growing into something a little bit larger. And then, you know, it just kept growing from there. Then I was working with writers at The Times. Melissa Clark connected me to a producer friend Lauren Dean. We did some jobs together for a production company that she had, and that eventually led to my first cookbook that she gave me because she was working on this TV pilot for Lifetime that had a food component and they wanted to produce a cookbook to go along with it. And so I shot that for them and that was another learning experience. You know, I shot individual dishes and stuff like that, but to eat a whole cookbook was a whole other experience.
And I was lucky because it was a big video production. So they had a food stylist and they had a prop stylist and I didn't know what those roles were.I mean it's still to this day when I talk to chefs or startup with a cookbook project, you know, a lot of chefs are not familiar.
People know about food stylists maybe a little bit more, but prop stylists people have a fuzzy grasp on. But I was lucky enough in my very first cookbook to have an actual food stylist who made the food look beautiful and an actual prop stylist who had great plateware, serving ware, glassware, and linens. All those things that you put on under and around the food to make it feel like it's a setting, you know, like a real place. So that was another step. At that point I was just kind of fully in it and freelance independent and just taking jobs wherever they came. Continuing to shoot for The Times, continuing to meet more people in restaurants. That was the beginning.
Josh Sharkey [00:17:38]:
It's so interesting because we've known each other for, I guess now, 10 years maybe. And I sort of had it flipped. I didn't realize that the catalyst, and in my mind I'm thinking Evan loved food, so he wanted to become deeper entrenched in food photography. And you said earlier that the camera is a passport to be able to go see all these really cool things in the world. And turns out it's almost the opposite, right?
The camera brought you to this food world. And then you fell in love with it and then that love became sort of deeper as you got into it because it's clear that you love and appreciate really good food. And I think to an extent you really just love the people involved in the industry.
From what I can tell. So I'd love to sort of, maybe we could just sort of like dig into a little bit of like your work and your style because you're obviously one of the most well-known, most well-respected food photographers and you've photographed every chef that you could think of from René Redzepi and Dominique Ansel and Paul Liebrandt and Daniel Bouland and name them that you've probably done a shoot for them.
And I'm curious, like how much does the love of the subject matter play into how well you photograph something? Or is it how deep of a relationship you have with that person or that place? How does that play into the quality or the aesthetics of what you do with your work?
Evan Sung [00:18:59]:
I mean, I think you're right when you talk about the world of restaurants, I mean it's even my photography. Like am I a food photographer? Sure. I shoot a lot of food. It's true. You know, I shoot a lot of plated food, but is it the thing that I love the most or that motivates me the most? Like, not really, you know, it's the whole world around food, whether that be restaurants or travel culture. The food itself is a cool expression of something.
But what is really motivating to me and interesting to me is like meeting the person behind that food. You know? And what are they thinking about when they created that dish? Or what in that culture made this dish happen or this particular thing come about? So I think along the way, when Paul Liebrandt opened up Corton, I think that was 2008, I had heard a little bit about him.
I was a little intimidated to meet him, and I was there to do a photo shoot, you know, for I think like Manhattan Magazine or something for the opening of the restaurant. I remember back then he was like, at Corton, you were not supposed to take pictures of the food. Like that was a dictum that I don't know how long that lasted, but I met him and I don't know I thought he was funny and interesting and he kind of gave off that intimidating vibe, but actually he just seemed like a fun guy and we hit it off and we were just having fun taking photos.
So we became friendly from that. And then I shot him for The Times and I shot him for other things. So obviously that repetition, that seeing the same person again and again, and having the opportunity to become familiar, not just like a one off, here you go eat the food and then take off. We became friends and I ended up working on his cookbook and really everything about fine dining I think I learned through him.
That was my first real experience with fine dining of that level. And it was incredible. It was an amazing restaurant. And to be able to be in the kitchen with him and listen to him talk about his food and, and understand what's unique to him was a big step for me in terms of understanding food.
Josh Sharkey [00:21:07]:
What were some of those takeaways? You said you learned a lot about fine dining from Paul. What did you learn?
Evan Sung [00:21:12]:
I mean, his precision and also, you know, the fact that he came from a style that was very elevated, but there were always like a lot of accompaniments to any particular dish. So I would go with family or something to have dinner and the table would just, they were huge, you know, white tablecloth tables and they would just get completely subsumed under this flood of like small little plates. Each course had three or four little sidecars around it.
And it was really impressive, you know, and it was just kind of this ricocheting of flavors and textures. It wasn't just like, oh, here's your plate of food. Here’s something much wider ranging and much more of a whole experience. The reliance on really good products. He's a very precise and intentional person, and it was really great to see that kind of focus.
You come from a world of working in that kind of framework, but for the most part, shooting a lot of the restaurants I had been shooting in New York, they were much more casual, much more familiar type restaurants. So that was a big step in my development.
Josh Sharkey [00:22:21]:
I think there's something about that world. It's been a while since I've been in it, although it's what I did for 10, 15 years. The commitment to excellence and the true sort of craft that bubbles up when you're in that world, it's just, it's unmistakable. I'm curious how much you sort of feel that when you step into one of these kitchens versus another. You certainly, as a chef, can step into a kitchen and know right away, okay, this is serious.
They're taking this really seriously, and it's more than just the food, usually it's how they're setting up their station. The way that the gait of how you walk in the kitchen, how clean your apron is, and just how you carry yourself, how you talk. Curious how much of that you notice, you've done so many photo shoots. Does that seem more and more sort of tangible where you can pick it out pretty quickly when you're in a kitchen?
Evan Sung [00:22:59]:
Again, I'm not a chef obviously. I am always cognizant of the fact that I am like an industry adjacent.
Josh Sharkey [00:23:06]:
Like you make good pasta Evan, and I will tell you that.
Evan Sung [00:23:09]:
Thanks, thanks. But one good pasta does not a chef make. I am around the industry, but I'm not in the industry. I wasn't raised in the industry and I have a lot of respect for the industry. It's true that what you were saying about the people, I mean, most of my social circle comes from that world more than the photography, art, or journalism side. I think most of my close contacts come from this world.
I just think that I have respect for anyone. Most people who are working in the field are dedicating a large chunk of their waking hours to making this happen. So I do have respect for any place I set foot into. Of course, I think you recognize when it's really on point, when it's really serious, when it's really focused, I think you just can sense that. You just kind of see that.
But at the same time, I certainly know chefs who would look around and kind of dock a place for points for this or that, and I don't think I'm that way. I mean, I'm pretty forgiving in terms of walking into a place and giving it the benefit of the doubt and just happy to be in a place and see what they're about. But when you see it at a higher level, of course you recognize that.
Josh Sharkey [00:24:19]:
Yeah, absolutely. And of course there's delicious food and far more verticals of the industry than just fine dining. But I think one thing that I've always noticed about you, and you know, I think about it because photography is so nebulous, right?
It's literally a camera and some subject that you're taking a picture of. For a lot of us we're like, how the hell is it different from one to another? And there's a lot of sort of intangibles there. And I think it does have to do with the person and their approach and their integrity and the things that they're considering when they're doing it.
And what I've always noticed about you is you have a deep appreciation for the craft and for like why in this case chefs do what they do. And a curiosity about it. That's sort of the first thing that stuck out to me when we first met was just you, you have this really genuine curiosity why chefs do what they do, why are we doing this? And how, and I think I have to imagine that plays into some portion of why your photography is what it is.
Evan Sung [00:25:14]:
Yeah. You have to ask other people, I guess. But I think the industry works a lot on trust and obviously there are circles of trust and circles of people who've worked together, come up together and kind of have bonds formed from working closely together in very intense circumstances.
And I think that for me, I'm fortunate to be shooting in the places I'm shooting. For me, the first thing is to establish trust with whoever I'm working with, whoever the chef is. And I've definitely been in shoots where, you know, the person doesn't know who I am or what I'm doing there.
And it can just be a shoot like any other, you know, very just kind of by the books and that's fine. It's work, you know, it is part of the world we all live in. There's food and it needs to be photographed and it needs to be transmitted out into the world. But I do want to establish a relationship of trust if I can.
And I think, I hope when people see how I am in a kitchen, you know, how I carry myself, how I kind of try to stay out of the way, how I try to be respectful to everyone from the porters on up. Like I think they just show that hopefully they feel comfortable that I'm there. It's not invasive or not overly invasive, and that I'm there to serve the vision that they have.
Sort of show that they're in the best light. So yeah, trust I think is a huge thing I do. As a psych major from college, I think people are everything. If you have good relations, if you can be professional, have fun with someone, and keep that level of trust going, I think that again, opens up so many more possibilities.
Cause at that point you can play around, you know, and say, Hey, maybe instead of plating it this way, if we played it that way, would that look even better? Or would that show off better what you're trying to do here? So, yeah, I think a lot of that is just being respectful, but also like being engaged.
Engaged with what they're showing me, and then how to make it look good. And in terms of how is food photography different from street photography, different from fashion photography or car photography? I mean, I think it's just sort of an innate feeling. I'm sure you can dissect it and break it down, but I think there is an innate feeling as to what looks.
Appealing and delicious as opposed to not. I mean, it is still kind of an aesthetic thing. So yeah, I think you do want to feel your way to what looks good.
Josh Sharkey [00:27:37]:
Yeah, that's huge. The trust is really big. I mean, I think as a chef we can all attest to someone coming into the kitchen and doesn't understand the dynamic of that there's a lot of shit going on and that we don't have a lot of space or time.
And being cognizant of that and respectful of that is huge. And obviously it's a small world in the food industry, so I have to imagine that plays a big part to have that sort of collaborative relationship and environment when you're doing a photo shoot that's important. How important is equipment, lighting, things like that? Like how much does that play into a great photograph?
Evan Sung [00:28:16]
It is very important. You know, when I started shooting for The Sun and then The Times and the very beginning, you know, I was just using natural light. So putting food by a window, and of course window light is great. Natural sunlight can be so beautiful and it has its own nuances. But the sun sets and then you're kind of screwed when it's dark in the restaurant and then it all looks like garbage. So I had to learn kind of early on that carrying around studio lights, strobes would be more reliable than just relying on the windows.
And especially you learn that very quickly going around the city, visiting different restaurants, they're all different. You have no idea what you're walking into. You've never seen the place before, and you don't know if there even are windows. So that's important. And you know, people in the kitchen always ask, you know, how do I get good photos? Because a lot of people are dealing with those fluorescent lights in the kitchen that are overhead.
And so you throw the shadows of your hands or your phone over the food, et cetera. I mean, lighting is important. You need to be able to control the direction and the intensity. So there's no question that to get good looking photos you need good lighting, whether that's a good natural window setting or a good studio light setup.
Josh Sharkey [00:29:32]:
What about the camera?
Evan Sung [00:29:33]:
Yeah, the camera is important too. I mean, everyone takes photos with their iPhones, and if you blow up a lot of those photos, they're quite grainy. I mean, the iPhone is incredible. All these cell phone cameras are quite incredible at this point. I was just having dinner with a photographer friend yesterday.
We're talking about how basically shooting video is for my purposes, shooting in a restaurant setting, or I don't know why I wouldn't just shoot any sort of video with my iPhone. So crisp and clean. Other than controlling focus points, of course controlling focus points, like depth table type stuff where you're really trying to narrow the focal range so that you zoom in on particular details and everything else is kind of romantic and fuzzy around it.
Of course, then you want a very high end camera. But for stills, I can't speak a lot to using different cameras because I've been a lifelong Nikon user. I basically use the highest end professional camera that they have. There's usually just like one or two at the upper range. People ask me, what cameras should I buy?
And I honestly have no answer for them because there's like 8,000 mid range cameras that all differ by one or two degrees. I have no idea what's going on with those cameras, but I know the camera that I use and it serves me well. They tend to be big and heavy, which is kind of a drawback. And now I'm using a Nikon Z9, which is still the top end pro level camera, but it's mirrorless, which was a new thing for me last year.
Josh Sharkey [00:30:59]:
What does that mean?
Evan Sung [00:31:02]:
It means it doesn't function the way cameras have functioned for over a hundred years, which is, you would look through the viewfinder, there would be a mirror that would sort of reflect what it saw through the lens. And then when you press the shutter, the mirror flips up to let the light onto the negative. And so all these old DSLRs up until recently operate on that same model. You look through the viewfinder into a mirror that looks out the lens, and when you press the shutter, the mirror flips up and it lets light onto the digital sensor and then comes down.
So when you set the shutter speed, that's how long the mirror stays up for. And that's how it determines in part how much light registers on the sensor so that it's not overexposed or underexposed. Mirrorless is just a digital viewfinder and you press the shutter and it automatically lets the light onto the sensor, but there's no mechanical mirror that has to flip up and down. So it's sort of done for you.
Josh Sharkey [00:31:58]:
Is that sort of automating that process?
Evan Sung [00:32:00]:
It's just a mechanical feature that was kind of grandfathered in. So kind of like how when cars that are electric make no sound and so they have to engineer sound so people know that it's running or that it's coming or that it's like starting or stopping.
It's that kind of thing where it's a mechanical leftover and you realize like, oh, maybe you don't really need it. You could do without it.
Josh Sharkey [00:32:20]:
That little thing is, that's the mirror sound that's going away.
Evan Sung [00:32:23]:
I had to turn that on. When I first got my mirror's camera, I had to turn on that sound because I didn't know that it was taking pictures. Because I was just so accustomed to hearing that sound.
Josh Sharkey [00:32:37]:
That's so funny. It's kind of like the fluoride and toothpaste, you know, like it's only there so that you know that you're actually cleaning your teeth, but it doesn't actually have any purpose, or at least that's what I've heard. I could be wrong about it, I’m no dentist.
Evan Sung [00:32:46]:
I thought it was for tartar control.
Josh Sharkey [00:32:48]:
Well, I'm sure there's part of that too. That's so funny. I didn't know that. Is there anything else that's better about that?
Evan Sung [00:32:53]:
It has allowed me to work a little bit faster because of the way that it can show the image on the LCD screen when I was tethered to my computer. I mean, this is technical stuff, but I was very reluctant to move into mirrorless, but it's been great. Honestly, I can shoot at slower shutter speeds because there's no mirror to make the camera shake because that is a physical thing. There's also your hand shaking, but it helps. It's been a great advance in technology as far as I'm concerned. So I think in terms of equipment, I think lenses are important.
You know, having good lenses is important for sure, because that is the thing that transmits the light. And so if you have good, sharp lenses, that's really important. Basically I'm just trying to produce good, clear, crisp photos, so I know that with my equipment I can achieve that for sure.
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Like what's the utility delta between like an incredible camera, like sounds like you have the mid range is part of it just a much better lens.
Evan Sung [00:34:49]:
Again, like I haven't used the sort of mid-tier cameras, so I haven't really done direct comparisons. But I think working with a brand like Nikon, I know that their top end lenses are extremely sharp and with the mirrorless there's actually less diffraction around the edges so that the pictures are more in focus, edge to edge than I encountered before working with the DSLRs.
And the lenses are manufactured in conjunction with these new bodies. So now I can put my focus points at extreme ends of the frame, which I wasn't able to do before, which is also really helpful. So yeah, these are all technical things, but you know, you could make a great photo of anything with a box, with a hole punched into it.
And some film stuck into it. Like, I'm not saying that the best photos are the sharpest and cleanest photos, because you could make a very evocative photo of, you know, a chef, or a dish, or a place or whatever that could be super fuzzy and black and white and kind of grainy and in some ways, quote unquote flawed. But it would be an amazing photo. So yeah, lenses are really important.
Josh Sharkey [00:36:04]:
Your Nikon has an incredible lens, I'm assuming. How good is the lens on an iPhone?
Evan Sung [00:36:07]:
Pretty good. I just think that there's a slight lack of control over it, and I don't really use my iPhone for professional purposes and I know a lot of other people do, so they could probably speak to that better.
But there's no question. I mean, iPhones can do a lot. If you have a good light setup, then they're really incredible and they're lightweight and they're easy to tote around. You know, there are times where I'm at a restaurant, usually when I use my iPhone for food photos. It's just like a souvenir.
Just so I remember that experience. And sometimes I'll have my professional camera with me or my street camera, which is smaller. But in a restaurant, if it's like someplace intimate, then I feel sort of intrusive bringing out my bigger camera and bringing out a light. So, you know, I'll just take a picture of my iPhone and that will serve my purposes.
Josh Sharkey [00:37:03]:
I was just picturing you going, sitting down at a restaurant and then just breaking out all of your studio equipment. Take a picture while you're eating.
Evan Sung [00:37:11]:
Yeah. Well, you know me well enough. I'd feel very, very awkward doing that.
Josh Sharkey [00:37:15]:
Well, it sounds like, and I could be totally wrong, but it sounds like you'll take really great lighting with an okay camera over an incredible camera with poor lighting. For sure. So it's like lighting is like what service to a restaurant, meaning like you can have incredible food, but if the service is terrible, you're not gonna have that good of an experience, but an incredible service with if there's some hiccup in the food.
Evan Sung [00:37:41]:
That's an interesting parallel.
Josh Sharkey [00:37:44]:
As a chef, I'm comparing lighting to service in the restaurant. That's how I'll remember that.
Evan Sung [00:37:48]:
Yeah. You know,obviously there's no photography without light. You can't see anything. So it is all in the quality of the light and how it looks, whether it's soft, whether it's hard. Are there shadows overhead? Is it back lit? Is it front lit? All these things create a sense of what looks appetizing, delicious, beautiful. So yeah, for sure. Good lighting, whether that be artificial or natural is definitely critical. And then having a camera that at least, you know, for my professional purposes, can produce a clean image is important. That's for professional purposes, as opposed to whatever other artistic intent the one might have. But yeah, light for sure.
Josh Sharkey [00:38:31]:
You can't have photography without light. Okay, so we can either go in two directions, we can start talking about the universe and how light reaches the earth. And black holes and neutron stars, or if that's not your expertise, then we can talk about the photo shoot itself.
Evan Sung [00:38:45]:
Are you saying it's not my expertise?
Josh Sharkey [00:38:48]:
I made an assumption. I apologize. You might be.
Evan Sung [00:38:50]:
Are you just baiting me now? I just don't want to go over your head.
Josh Sharkey [00:38:54]:
I don’t know about the origin of the universe or why we can't go faster than lightspeed. So do you wanna talk about that or should we start talking about photo shoots?
Evan Sung [00:39:02]:
Fine, we can talk about photo shoots.
Josh Sharkey [00:39:05]:
Okay, cool. So I wanna sort of throw it out there for one, not every chef in the world can use Evan Sung, although there's lots of photographers out there. But you've done so many of these shoots now, obviously we know your part, right, of building trust, being respectful, and then obviously just taking great photography and working well with the chef.
But what are, what are some of the do's and don'ts that make a successful photo shoot that the chef or the kitchen should consider when the photographers come in. What are some things that hinder a great shoot when you get to the restaurant and what are some things that you've seen in terms of how a kitchen or a chef prepares that have made things just much better?
Evan Sung [00:39:42]:
I mean, obviously the organization is huge. I mean, it's like any other cooking for a popup or cooking in general is just being organized. And it's true that a photo shoot is often maybe always the last thing any chef wants to think about on any given day. So I can understand that there might be a bit of putting that off to the last minute, but in order for it to go smoothly and go quickly and people can kind of move on with their lives, it's definitely helpful to be organized.
And I think that the restaurants are obviously more than just a chef. There are lots of layers of communication and so it's definitely happened when I show up at a shoot and maybe the chef isn't really aware. What is supposed to be shot, you know? And that's just a failure of communication at some level between PR managers, whatever, you know.
So those things can make for slightly awkward shoots because then it feels like a scramble and then no one's really happy to be doing it because it, everything just feels like a big headache. So I think it's important to have a sense of organization as to what's going on. And then also really like knowing what you want to get out of.
It's important. I often ask the restaurants I work with to provide a shot list because I think it's just useful. We have X number of hours, it's just useful to know, okay, well we got it, you know, and we have more time. We can do more, but at least we've got what you need to take the PR to put on the website or what have you.
And when it's really loosey-goosey and freeform, I think that can also be a little stressful, cuz you really never know. Are we halfway done or are we gonna get to that other thing that you wanted to do? Because you just introduced three other things that we had no idea we were gonna shoot. It's all about communication organization and then what, what you want to show.
And sometimes PR companies might say, oh, we just wanna shoot the whole menu. And I think that that's kind of a waste. Menus change, generally speaking, some dishes don't really need to be seen. You know, like it's more impactful to show what are the showstoppers or the signature dishes. I think it's more important to be focused about that kind of stuff.
Well it sounds like you're talking about mise en place. We should be aware of that.
Evan Sung [00:41:58]:
It's never so crazy. Obviously restaurants have mise en place prepared, but it is that initial moment, if no one knows exactly what is happening or what's getting shot, then I think it just puts everyone in a money mindset.
Josh Sharkey [00:42:13]:
Yeah, I was maybe referring less to like the noun of like the mise en place that you have on hand, but just the, the premise of being prepared have everything in its place. Sounds like that's one of the most important things. It's interesting tactically saying, I'm sure it happens a lot, and we might all be guilty of it, of saying, hey, let's just shoot the whole menu.
The worst feeling is when you spend a lot of time and money on a photo shoot and you have a dish, and then two weeks later you change the dish. And now you have this great shot that you're not using. So that's a good one too. Well, maybe we can sort of diverge a bit here and just talk a little bit about, like, you've done so many shoots.
What are some of the most memorable, challenging, rewarding, mind altering moments from your photo shoots? I mean, you've traveled the world to shoot all these cookbooks, and not just cookbooks, obviously just like getting into the restaurants or different projects. I'd love to hear a few stories that come to mind
Evan Sung [00:43:06]:
In terms of a challenging photo shoot. I mean, all photo shoots are a little bit of a puzzle solving process. But in terms of challenging, like quasi unpleasant, the only shoot I ever did that was quasi unpleasant was really like a people issue. And that was on a cookbook with a prop stylist that for whatever reason, like we didn't quite see eye to eye and didn't quite get along and it made that shoot really unpleasant even though the result was good and we got there.
But a good vibe and a good sense of relations and understanding is so critical to making things feel good. I mean, that seems so basic, but you wanna have a good time while you're there. I mean, it's true. Like we are all lucky, I think so. I'm certainly lucky to do what I do and then, but that's my life, you know? And so why should it be painful? That's kind of unnecessary.
Josh Sharkey [00:43:49]:
I thought you were gonna tell me, the shoot we did, how much of a pain in the ass that I was?
Evan Sung [00:43:54]:
It's just checking your ego the whole time. Took a lot of time.
Josh Sharkey [00:43:56]:
Yeah. I need it. I need you to tell me how good I am.
Evan Sung [00:43:58]:
But otherwise I will always go back to shooting with Paul Liebrandt. It was an amazing experience for me, and that was a long process. You know, we're shooting, not seasonally exactly, but we definitely did shoots over the course of several days, split up by several weeks because of restaurant service, et cetera. But it was just a unique experience to work with someone like him. And then the Senegal book I did, going back to this idea that food is fun and interesting, but when you get to travel for food and you get to see how that dish is made or why the dish is made that way, that to me is really fascinating.
And so working with Chef Pierre Thiam on his Senegal book, which was his second cookbook where we traveled to Senegal three times and really traveled all over the country, it was so unique because it was something so unexpected. I never thought I would go to Senegal. I mean, I'm happy to go anywhere, gimme a ticket to anywhere I'll go.
I won't think twice, but it was not on my radar. It was connected through a writer friend and she fell off the project, but I stayed on with Pierre and he's an amazing guy and ambassador for West African cuisine. And so to be able to travel with him was just like a once in a lifetime event and we're still in touch.
And, I just shot his fourth cookbook, which should be out later this year. But that was out in the Bay Area at his home just shooting West African recipes. But for sure, traveling throughout Senegal was incredible. As was traveling through Iceland with Chef Gunnar Karl Gislason for his cookbook. Again, this is going back to that idea of the passport and being able to visit these places and these producers, farmers, goat milk producers. You just look back on it and you're like, I can't believe I got to do half of it.
Yeah. It's so incredible using the camera as a medium to go see the world. I'd love to hear a little bit about the fermentation shoot. You know, that seemed like it was a pretty long one, right? That was a long one. I mean, it was very well organized. Going back to organization, David Zilber, who was the head of the Fermentation Lab at that point.
Josh Sharkey [00:45:51]:
Maybe we'll just clarify for listeners, that was the NOMA Fermentation book.
Evan Sung [00:45:55]:
Yes. I was asked to photograph the NOMA Fermentation book, which was published by Artisan. I really only met René and the NOMA crew in 2017 when they did their popup in Tulum and did some photos with them and met René and somewhere along the way I think I was blown away by the whole operation and the organization of that whole team.
I was so kind of moved by the diversity of the people there and how they had created this amazing space in Tulum that I basically photographed every cook and chef there. Like just did a quick portrait, but just sort of everyone who had come from everywhere, you know, Italy and America, Japan, and just everywhere.
I thought that was really inspiring. Anyway, somehow that relationship was established and I was asked to photograph the Fermentation Book, and David Zilber was the head of the department at that time, and he was very organized. He wanted to capture it in as real time as possible, so he timed out all the ferments and so I would be there for like the first stage and then I'd come back for it in X number of weeks.
But he had to also staggered them so that I could shoot something at the inception and then, you know, roll right into something that had already been going for two weeks or what have you. And it was just trips back and forth to Copenhagen based on those schedules that he had set up. And then they were, they were in the midst of transitioning, transforming into 2.0.
So they were doing the NOMA under the bridge dinners at that point. But we were just shooting in the NOMA offices and it was a thrill, of course, it was a thrill of course, to be working with all of them. It was definitely primarily working with David. René would come by every once in a while to check in on things and hang out and chit chat for a bit.
But it was definitely just focused on capturing this process. And I have a lot of respect for how David planned it all out. And it was so rigorous about it. He didn't wanna fake anything or he really wanted to be a true working document of what these processes looked like and the time it took. So it was a very interesting process for me.
It was not exactly the book I thought I was going to shoot necessarily when I was asked. But I obviously have a lot of good memories and working with the co-writer Martha Holmberg was a lot of fun. And yeah, it was, it was a really great experience and I, I love traveling and I loved that sensation of just dropping in to Copenhagen and getting right to work and then, you know, having little free time to explore.
Yeah, it was super unique and I look back on it and obviously I'm super happy and proud to see it at so many places. It was always intended to be really like a textbook, you know, a modern textbook for people. And I remember they talked about the weight of the paper. They wanted it to not be a heavy book.
They wanted to pick a paper weight that would make the book useful because it would not be so heavy to carry around and people could really use it. So yeah, it was a really special project and since then, having been able to go to NOMA and experience it and see a lot of that core team that I've been there for years, just a side effect. That's really lovely.
What are some ingredients of a great cookbook shoot? Obviously you're not writing the book, so I won't subject you to getting into the whole process. But for chefs or folks that are looking to get a cookbook, what are some things that you've learned that you've found helpful now?
Evan Sung [00:49:46]:
I mean, I think it's always beneficial to at least entertain the possibility of stylists, whether it's food stylists or prop stylists like a chef book. I know food stylists don't make a ton of sense necessarily because there are lots of hands, usually already. Some of my favorite images that I've done are largely due to working with prop stylists because I think they just add so much color and texture to an image.
And I think that a lot of chefs don't think about that necessarily because they're very focused on what they should be. They're focused on what's on the plate and not everyone's thinking about what's around the plate necessarily. I mean, maybe they're thinking about what the plate itself is, but even then, you know, it's nice to have different textures and surfaces to work on.
Beyond that, I mean, I think I've either done chef cookbooks or I've done author cookbooks. I think in both cases they come with a pretty good sense of who they are and what they're about. So I see it as my job is to kind of communicate how you translate that restaurant experience or that chef's mindset into the visuals aesthetically what seems in line with their aesthetic and their feel. So I think the good ingredients are organization, a sense of perspective and voice, a good story to tell.
Josh Sharkey [00:50:52]:
Maybe also just generally, it's been a long time now that you've been doing this. And what do you know now about your work that you wish you knew when you started years ago or would've been nice to know.
Evan Sung [00:51:12]:
There's no way that I could have predicted Instagram or TikTok or any of that stuff. If I knew that was coming back then, then I'd probably be a millionaire now. You know, the world has evolved in a completely unexpected way when it comes to food media and, and what people are interested in when it comes to consuming restaurants or information about restaurants and travel.
So I don't know if there's anything in particular that I feel, I wish I had known that back then. I was very happy to kind of learn from place to place and every encounter was some new piece of information to feed into this idea of how do I function in a photo shoot? How do I function in a restaurant? How do I function around chefs? How do I function when I'm traveling in a culture that might not be my own? The pleasure was in learning that and being receptive to that.
Josh Sharkey [00:51:59]:
Yeah. That's interesting. It's almost like part of the joy. Is learning as you go. And maybe if you knew these things ahead of time, it wouldn't be the same.
Evan Sung [00:52:13]:
Definitely. If I knew TikTok and Instagram were coming, then sure I would've arranged my business model completely differently. But you know, it's part of the world now. And I think any photographer, professional, quote unquote tough photographer is wrestling or understanding how to coexist with reams and reams, mounds and mounds and photos of everything, you know, a lot of, which is great. If you scroll on Instagram, there are amazing photos out there of this dish or that dish or great portraits of the chef or that chef from people who are not necessarily professionals, but in the right place at the right time or have the nice light or what have you, you know?
So yeah, photography is funny. It can happen at any moment. I think I wrestle with that too. I want to be organized and prepared and I want my mise en place to be in place, you know, but sometimes you wanna be really flexible and free and like, you know, oh, grab what's going on over there. But I'm kind of set up in this one corner and trying to balance that flexibility with what I think my photo set up what I want it to be.
You know, that can be tricky too. That's why if you have a phone and a, and a small light, you can just run around all over the place and be super flexible and get a lot of great content. So yeah, it's different. The idea of what content is is also very different than what it was back then. I remember when I started shooting for The Times, it was just one photo.
I would shoot probably for like an hour or something in a dining room, knowing that they would just run one photo of a warmly colored, blurry in a sense of people blurred, dining where we shot. And that would be the photo that ran with the review. And then along the way, during the Bruni period, they started doing those slide shows and Frank Bruni would talk to Pete Wells and they would narrate the review, kind of talk about the review and they would run over this slideshow of other photos of food and a portrait of the chef or what have you. That was all new to me. You know, I've been shooting for the times for probably like a couple years just shooting that one image and then they started to request, okay, so when you go to the restaurant, you're gonna get a shot at the dining room, but also these dishes and et cetera. And that was again, a reflection of this slowly growing hunger and interest in more visuals around food.
Josh Sharkey [00:54:34]:
Yeah. Any mentors or people that have inspired you along the way?
Evan Sung [00:54:44]:
I think I mentioned a lot of the people, you know, all those people that I've been lucky enough to work with who really did share their world. I mean, Giacomo and Brett are two people who I definitely would not be where I am today without them.
Those are the people that really gave me permission to say, hey, I don't know how to do this. I don't know how this works. And they would teach me, you know, in terms of the craft of photography for sure. Then the guy who put a camera in my hands in the first place, Shelton Wall Smith, an artist that I met working at a bookstore in college, I owe that to him as well.
I remember all those people who were the steps in this whole evolution. Yeah. Fager Brown was the photo editor at The Times who hired me for the first restaurant review. So all those people I'm eternally grateful for. And then inspiration, I mean, I think I am really, really in awe, I suppose, of the restaurant world, you know, and I always want to learn more about it.
I am inspired by the people I see working all the time. And if I'm lucky enough to get to know them a little bit, then that's even better. Yeah. When I see people doing something that feels really personal and really special and you know, I've been spending a bit more time in Paris. I have friends out there and I see what they're doing.
It's really incredible. I mean, they're business people of course, but they're also artists. Finding a way to break that gap between commerce and, and artistry. I find that enormously inspiring. I feel really excited to get to work with them.
Josh Sharkey [00:56:28]:
I think part of the beauty and benefit of being a photographer is that intersection of art and commerce. Other than like, of course you're dining, but you know, not every diner will understand, or maybe there's other things going on but you're there, you're hearing the story and telling the story through the medium of photography. And so I'm sure you see that more than many, you know, the why behind it and the art, as much as it is a craft, it's an art for so many.
So that's a cool experience to be able to do that. Any books that have inspired you or that you go back to or that you recommend? Not necessarily it needs to be relative to photography, but just that has sort of helped shape some of the ways in which you think.
Evan Sung [00:57:05]:
I dunno if I have an answer to that question. I loved reading when I was younger. I mean, I love movies and I love going to museums. I mean, I think visually like museums are always inspiring. Even very vernacular photography, like, you know, I was reading this interview with Stephen Shore in The New Yorker. All those photos that sort of look like snapshots but actually have a lot of power and subtext to them are really interesting.
And it's a reminder to me, because I always need to be challenged, I think, to take photos that are not related to my work and I want to play with that more. So it's inspiring in that sense to look at artwork that exists for its own sake. I think, you know, as opposed to my work, which I think is definitely in service of a person or whatever, you know, there's a utility to it, a lot of it in. In addition to documentation and all of that. But yeah, I think I am challenged when I go to art exhibitions about producing visuals that are purely satisfying unto themselves.
Josh Sharkey [00:57:57]:
Any exhibitions that come to mind that you maybe you've seen recently or even in the past that stand out?
Evan Sung [00:58:02]:
I was just in Dallas and I just went to the Fort Worth Modern Art Museum, and the first floor collection is really fantastic. It was just the experience of just taking time to look was really nice. I haven't done that in a little while. I just had a bunch of free time that day, so I'm not in a hurry and I could just kind of leisurely stroll through the galleries and look, and that feels refreshing, you know, it feels refreshing and inspiring and kind of restorative.
And then reading that Stephen Shore interview, I think there is a new book out, but I would like to dive back into that again. Y And then movies I think are great inspiration for both personal connections, like stories about people, but also really interesting visuals and different ways of looking at the world. Funny books. I haven't read books in a while.
Josh Sharkey [00:59:03]:
So I asked this to them myself all the time. And then I'm now asking everyone here, if you had unlimited time and unlimited resources, what would you create? What would you, what would you like to build? Or what would you do with your work?
Evan Sung [00:59:23]:
Yeah, to be honest, I mean, we don't have unlimited time, unfortunately. It's never gonna be the case. I'm really quite happy with the things I have built up until now, like the life that I've built for myself and the people I have around me are, I don't know that I need more than that. I would probably support, actually, if I had unlimited resources, I probably would like to invest in friends restaurants or, or concepts or things like that because I love seeing that happen.
I love seeing those take shape and be able to, to participate in that and that way would, would feel satisfying, you know? But yeah, I think. The thing that I built all along these years and the people I find myself surrounded with, that's how I wanna spend my time. You know, that's how I have spent my time and I'm very happy with how I've spent that time.
Josh Sharkey [01:00:08]:
We're close to wrapping up here, man. This was awesome. Is there anything you wanna share that we didn't talk about for yourself or listeners or colleagues, friends?
Evan Sung [01:00:08]:
I mean, I've been working with my friends Julia Cuthbertson and Tiffany Collins. They have a company called Aguas Mansas Imports, and they're importing mezcal to the US from states outside of Oaxaca, other than Oaxaca.
And I've been going down well with them since about 2021 exploring and visiting these Masco producers. And I'm hoping we'll see, but I'm hoping that some of the photos that we've done together can end up in a show in Mexico City. A friend of ours has a shop with a little gallery above it, so I'm hoping that that could come together and.
Sure. If that happens, I'll be very excited to do it and get the word out. That's something I'm looking forward to. It's been really amazing to visit these producers and all these different parts of Mexico, so it'd be nice to celebrate all of that with an exhibition I haven't had one in a while.
Josh Sharkey [01:01:08]:
Very cool. You love mezcal, that's for sure. There's a lot of it to love. Well, this was awesome. Appreciate the time. Yeah, I know you're busy. Thanks for taking your time. Where are you headed next, by the way? What's the next trip for you?
Evan Sung [01:01:15]:
I'm gonna go to Seoul for the first time at the end of March, just for a few days on the way to meet my family. My sister and her daughter are in Taiwan. They're doing a school trip to Taipei, so I thought it'd be fun to go out there with my nieces, but along the way I figured I'd see something totally new and I've always wanted to go see South Korea so a few nights in Seoul, and then probably like a week and a half in Taiwan.
I'll be back. April 14, 15, 16, 17 for the Philly Chefs Conference, which is a great conference. And I'm gonna be talking on a panel about food with photography with Melanie Dunea and Clay Williams. And so I'm looking forward to that. That's why I'm getting back. It's a great conference and happens every year. I'm excited for that.
Josh Sharkey [01:02:03]:
Very cool. All right, man. Well, thanks again.
Evan Sung [01:02:08]:
Thank you, Josh.
Josh Sharkey [01:02:29]:
Thanks for tuning into The meez Podcast. The music from the show is a remix of the Song Art Mirror by an old friend, hip hop artist, Fresh Daily. For show notes and more, visit www.getmeez.com/podcast. That's G E T M E E Z dot com forward slash podcast. If you enjoyed the show, I'd love it if you can share it with your fellow entrepreneurs and culinary pros and give us a five star rating wherever you listen to your podcasts.
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