I didn’t seriously consider photography as a career until A-level time at school. I studied Geography at the local college which is when I first came across the art faculty.
My photographic background is conventional but one that stood me in good stead. I studied photography for four years and then assisted many photographers in London on and off over a six year period ( interspersed with travelling ). Only really exceptional people survive in photography who do not follow this traditional pattern, although I do think assisting is on the whole a much more valuable experience than going to college. I would think that two years at catering college or studying anthropology at University before assisting wouldn’t do you any harm.
Getting started is certainly the most challenging aspect of the industry. It took a lot of perseverance and there were certainly dark times when I thought it would never happen. When you have a folio which is not great there are not many people who will take a chance on you, especially without commissioned work to show. Cash flow was a massive issue, sickening credit card debt became a feature of the next few years and what little you do earn goes straight back into the business. I think it was about 18 months before I could begin to see regular work coming in and fortunately ( barring only a couple of blips ) I have been very busy ever since.
My first really important break was discovering that the picture editor of what was then ‘ Food Illustrated ‘ magazine was someone I had known at college. I had been testing some food stories so gave her a call and took along a pile of contact sheets ( I didn’t have much of a folio at that point ). My pictures seemed to go down well and the following month I was off to Kentucky to shoot a feature on American whiskey. At this point I was still assisting to keep the cash coming in and it was a weird feeling to be flown on a private jet to the Jack Daniels distillery as a photographer and then two days later to be making coffee on set as an assistant. I still continue to shoot for Waitrose magazine some twelve years later.
It’s a cliche but variety is very much the spice of life. If I’m working on a big project that keeps me in one place for a week or two I get twitchy very quickly. My ideal week would include a mixture of location, studio and travel. Undoubtedly though the most rewarding aspect is meeting those special people who really make the job worthwhile. I work with a chocolate maker and beekeeper who are both exceptional people and those relationships have developed far beyond the first few shoots. There are certain chefs who just knock you out with their flair, drive and passion but sometimes it is the lone egg producer or biscuit maker who really inspires you.
The last ten years have been brilliant for me and I have achieved more than I certainly would have expected at the beginning of my career. The question now though is how to stay enthused and challenged. One interesting recent development has been the crossover into film for many photographers with the advent of new equipment and this is something I have embraced whole heartedly. In ten years time I would love to be able to look back at all the exciting food documentaries I have made ! The internet has really opened up the potential for showing films that wouldn’t get aired on conventional outlets.
Working away from home is essential. I love coming home and being at home but I appreciate it all the more for all the travelling, especially to far flung places. I am always appreciative of what an amazingly interesting country the UK is to work in, despite it’s small size.
I can safely say that no cooking talent has rubbed off on me, I’m a disaster in the kitchen and find preparing food quite stressful. Luckily for me my better half not only grows her own vegetables but is a fabulous cook. I’m quite good at washing up. As a vegetarian it is still not easy to find good prepared food and we tend not to eat out much. Denis Cotter’s Cafe Paradiso in Cork is our idea of heaven and it seems that really inventive vegetarian cooking is a seriously overlooked genre. For any chefs reading this, please take the butternut squash risotto off your menu.
For me, food photography is about making a lovely photograph of food rather than a photograph of lovely food ( although of course you can do both ). I’m more photographer than foodie and try to look at the picture as a whole rather than thinking only about the dish. I also try whenever possible to avoid unnecessary propping.
If I had to give advice to young people trying to become food photographers then I would I would say you need to think quite carefully. It is hard to overestimate just how much time, effort, money and especially commitment is required to get into photography. Without an unquestioning belief that this is all you want to do it is best to forget it. There are too many talented and driven photographers already working. That said, food photography is a friendly business and there will always be people happy to help. Work experience would be the best way to begin but most London based commercial photographers don’t start shooting until their late 20’s or early 30’s so there is plenty of time for college and assisting.
Cristian Barnett was born in Newcastle on April Fool’s Day. After studying photography at art school he spent the best part of seven years travelling around the Middle East, north Africa and eastern Europe, periodically returning to base to work as a photographer’s assistant. Since setting up on his own, food photography has been one of the staples of his commercial life. His first big commission was for Food Illustrated, shooting in the bourbon country of Kentucky and Tennessee, and he regularly contributes to the glossy food monthlies as well as to Country Living and House and Garden. His real passion, however, is photographing people doing their jobs. Cristian’s website is at: www.crisbarnett.com