The greatest gift I ever received was a Canon AE-1 SLR camera from the 70s. My uncle gave it to me when my mother, brother and I left Vietnam in 1983 along with photographs he took of us and all our family together so that we wouldn’t forget them.
I remember looking through the photographs every day as a child because I missed my family from Vietnam so much. I remember diving into them and smelling the cinnamon from my grandmother’s bun bo Hue scented skin to the tabaco stench on my grandfather’s shirt. I heard the laughter from my aunts and felt the fur of my kittens. Photographs were all I had of them.
I used to hide in the darkroom when I was thirteen. At first, I had no idea how to develop pictures nor use the camera properly. What did the numbers mean around the lens and body? I asked my art teacher but she didn’t know either so I went to the library and I began reading the most important book in my life by David Bailey on what it all meant.
That was when and where I found my place in the world. As a teenager, I didn’t think I ever took very good photographs. Not good enough to be works of art nor did I have the capacity to “see” properly. All I knew was that I loved it and that was all that mattered.
I came home stinking of too much stop bath solution or my shirt would turn green or orange from the developing tank and my hands swarm in the fix solution to the point where skin would fall off the sides of my finger nails. I didn’t care. I loved being in the dark and I loved seeing the image peer through, as if coming alive. There was truly nothing more satisfying than finding the perfect filter for your print and seeing the silver unfold on beautiful Ilford photographic paper.
I never took photography further. I never felt that I was ever good enough to see like my photographer heros and ventured into film making because I loved stories.
Nowadays, my beloved Canon AE-1 faces me every morning and I look neglectedly into its eyes like some old abandoned lover that I never take into my hands and I haven’t seen through its viewfinder in years. It taught me everything, that beautiful old dignified camera. Today, I take pictures with my iphone and instagram it or if I am taking a serious picture, my Nikon DSLR has become an easier, faster and eager wing man. Every day I am sad for my loss of celluloid.
The studio. Props by Jo Harris.
When I got a publishing deal for my cook book, I intended to do the photography for it but like when I was a teenager, I now have no technical ability in digital photography to make the picture the way I want and nor do I have the experience in still-life and food photography (other than everyday blog photos). I acted like a diva when told that I had to have a photographer and didn’t like that idea at all. But I succumbed and chose a photographer. I chose someone with the least commercial clients listed on her website and probably the youngest but one I thought lit all her pictures more perfectly. I am old school after all. Its just me, my camera and the daylight usually and I wanted to work with someone with the same artistic idea. I would be the food stylist.
In Clare Winfield, not only did I find my eye’s soul mate but a concise, determined and direct partner. She was someone who soon knew exactly what I was thinking because she was thinking it herself and where I was coming from because she’s been there too. When I laid the food down, she felt the mood and atmosphere of the recipe itself. She was someone who was also out to play and be a little daring to make something as beautiful as it can be but also modern and poetic. It was as if we were cut from the same piece of cloth. I totally love her!
Photography for the book took 10 days in total over 4 weeks. I am lucky enough to have a publisher who maintains a picture for each recipe. Phew – as I never look at the ones that don’t have pictures. So we did 50 recipes and over 20 chapter openings and extras. In the days when I entered the studio until the moment I left, I had the best time of my life working on the book. The best! I left everything at the door or in my car – my troubles in love, in life and down the park. The work was hard and intensive but I had my wonderful mother helping me cook and Rosie Birkett who assisted with prepping, shopping, tea making, opinion giving and general great support and laughter. I could go and do this every day for a very long time with my team and live and really happy life. Once again, I found my place in the world.
tried using miniature models but they were too small
I couldn’t resist- who doesn’t dream of being massaged on a bed of salty chips
sardines in coconut water
the plate was really wrong, we tried to make it right but it was still wrong
one of Rosie’s jobs was to hold up props
Thank you Clare Winfield, Rosie Birkett, Megan Smith (Ryland Peters & Small), Jo Harris (prop stylist) and my beloved mum. We can’t wait to show the pictures. The book will be available to buy in October 2013.
Please note that the photographs in this post are a documentary of our photo-shoot and not actual photos of the book.