Food and photography may be two of the things that have risen in popularity the most over the past decade, and it’s hard to find two fields that have transformed more. Clay Williams started shooting food full-time four years ago, and has found himself in the very eye of this hurricane for the last half-decade.
He’s not just snapping shots of plates, he’s throwing himself knee deep into this smoldering world of steaming pans, ambitious chefs, and shiny sauces. He’s in there to explore and investigate as much as he can, whether it lands him on the back of a food truck in Paris, or an ostrich farm in New Jersey.
Read our interview for an inside look at food and what it means to shoot it.
How did you get started in photography?
I studied black & white film photography back in high school, then started playing with digital cameras as they got better through the years. Over the years, I got more serious about it and went full time four years ago.
What attracted you to shooting food?
I like to eat. Really, that’s it. I love food and think about it all the time, so shooting it is just an extension of that.
You go to a lot of restaurants and more specifically kitchens, which tend to be high energy and sometimes high stress environments. How do you enter this environment as a photographer?
Carefully. I’m a big guy and kitchens tend to be pretty tight. I can’t do anything about that, but my goal is always to respect the work that my subjects are doing, so staying out of the way is always a priority.
You follow the food process quite a bit; visiting farms, butchers, kitchens, and finally tabletops. What does it mean to you to photograph the full cycle?
I like to know where things come from and how they come together. It’s my main motivation as a photographer: to document the process behind how food happens. Food is magical. It’s all about transformation, how could I not want to see how that comes together?
What interests you most in a kitchen, the people cooking the food or the food itself?
The people. Definitely. They make it all happen.
There is a growing rockstar perception of chefs these days, do you get a sense of that extra rockstar aura verses maybe shooting another craft, and if so how does it affect your photos?
There’s definitely more attention than there used to be. The upside is that people are interested in good food and are more knowledgeable about the work that goes into it. The downside is the hype. Things can get overdone and the chatter in the social media echo chamber can become exhausting. Still, you can find plenty of originality and creativity if you look hard enough.
From your time shooting the food world from the inside, have you noticed any changes, trends, evolution?
Absolutely. Expansion and corporatization is everywhere. Some of it is natural and great, some is a little dangerous, I think, to everything that brought the food world to everyone’s attention in the first place. All you can do is support the folks who are doing it right and hope others do, too.
What was the most fun you ever had on a shoot?
It’s hard to say. Fun can just be working with chefs who I get along with, cooking, shooting and eating great food. More interesting may be which is the most memorable shoot I’ve done. That’s a toss up between photographing ostriches in New Jersey, hanging off the back of a gourmet food truck in Paris and documenting the slaughter and dressing of a pig in the Hudson Valley. All were a bit wild, some a little challenging, but it all helped shape me and my work.
What is your favorite recipe to cook when you want to treat yourself?
I get most interested when I can try out techniques that the chefs I cover use, like rendering fats for confit or making my own stocks to use in braises and sauces. On of these days, I want to get my hands on an immersion circulator so I can do my own sous vide.