Photographer Todd Selby’s latest book, “Edible Selby,” which was picked up as a column in T, The New York Times Style Magazine, as he researched it, may show more of his subjects’ personalities than your standard collection of photographs. Questionnaires and handwritten recipes from chefs substitute as captions, scrawled over beautiful shots of food and restaurants around the world. Handmade watercolor paintings by Selby, 35, mimic his photo images. “Edible Selby” is out this month.
Q. What makes an effective food photographer?
A. I think in food photography there’s a lot of people that kind of over-light everything and over-prop everything and mess with everything. It’s a spectrum and I’m very much on the side of more reportage style. Like, I consider my book very much a journal of the past few years of my life in the food world, pictures of people and their spaces and what they do. It’s very casual.
Q. Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco writes in the introduction, “Early on in a Selby session, the line blurs between creative intensity and workmanlike setups, between serious artistic exploration and just [messing] around.” Do you rely on that spontaneity in photo shoots to produce magic like improvisation can in music?
A. When I started doing photography, everything was very formal and I used large format cameras and I used so much lighting and everything had to look a certain way. And after a few years of doing that, it becomes apparent that all your pictures look exactly the same and it’s really boring. As I’ve gotten further along and gotten more experience, I realized that you have to embrace the differences in a photo shoot and really let the subjects collaborate with you and come up with ideas and the crazier, the better, because that will make it different. There was a lot of stuff in the book where we were very collaborative.
Q. How did you choose your subjects?
A. The vast majority of them were kind of word of mouth. So I would shoot one person or one chef and they would tell me about another chef or someone else doing something really interesting. It’s just talking with people with good taste. There’s some very famous people in the book but there’s a lot of people that foodies won’t know about.
Q. You seem to have been looking for people who strongly put personality into their food and spaces.
A. It’s one of the things that really attracted me to a lot of the people I shot. The whole book is very personality-driven as opposed to, “This is the best food in the world.” These are the most interesting and creative people working in food right now, who express themselves visually and with food.
Q. Speaking of personality, why did you include watercolor paintings, questionnaires, and refrigerator magnets?
A. When I was working on my first book, “The Selby Is in Your Place,” I started getting into illustrations and I feel like the illustrations in “Edible Selby” really give it more of a handmade feeling and more of a personal feeling and not so formal. I think that that helps build up that vibe, the personal humanity of it. The last thing I wanted was something where it’d be all stainless steel kitchens and fluorescent lights and full-bleed images and close-ups of chefs chopping vegetables. It was all to make it kind of personable and also intimate, so that’s where I think the Q&As come in and the handwritten recipes. Everyone filled out the little questionnaires while I was on the shoot and then the chefs or food artisans would fill it out in their own handwriting, do little drawings, and I think that’s a fun way to learn a lot about a person.
Q. What will readers take from the book?
A. I want people to get inspired by all these creative people that are just doing it themselves. It’s a real DIY aesthetic and concept about making your own creative vision and being a leader. And I think that can inspire a lot of people outside of the food world.
Interview was condensed and edited. Glenn Yoder can be reached at email@example.com.