Washing Dishes and Making Lunches

My Dad has always loved photography and he bought me a plastic red Halina camera when I was young. I used to follow him around taking pictures when we went out for the day. I remember feeling confused about where to start but I’d just follow my Dad. I eventually saved up for my first SLR and my Dad taught me how to use it.

My favourite subject at school was art and when I realised there was a tiny darkroom I started spending a lot of time there. There was only one other child there who used the darkroom and he was a few years older but he helped teach me some basics. I left school and went to College where I did a BTEC and A level in photography. At this point I asked my Dad if we could build a darkroom at home and he was excited to do so. I then taught him what I had learnt and we experimented together.

I went on to do a BA at Nottingham Trent University. The work I did there was very conceptual because that was the nature of the course and a great time to experiment. When I left University I moved to London and began assisting photographers. I’d been told that only the students with a first class degree would get a job in photography so I was disillusioned at this point even though I got a 2.1. Now I realise how ridiculous that advice was considering you don’t even need a degree in the first place! But after almost going for an interview at the advertising agency my brother was working at, I realised that I had to give photography a try, at least.

I was unsure what area I wanted to work in so I started assisting photographers in all genres. I worked on still life, fashion, cars and corporate photography as well as food. It was quickly obvious that food was where I wanted to focus. I love cooking and I’m very passionate about food so it was a natural progression for me to specialise in this area.

The time I spent assisting in all different areas of photography helped me greatly to get a good, wide ranging grounding because if you can light a car then you can light anything! I did however prefer food photography and even the mundane tasks of washing up dishes were fine by me, but cleaning a car was torture. I also loved to spend time in the kitchen with the food stylists making lunches with their guidance. It got to the point where we began keeping a food diary of the lunches we made together.

When I was assisting, there was an art director at Marks and Spencer called Caroline who continually told that I should show her my work when I was ready to go out on my own. I didn’t contact her until I’d been shooting on my own for about six months because I was nervous about getting it right, but after taking her my portfolio she immediately gave me a shoot and I’ve been working with her ever since. Twelve years down the line and M&S continue to be one of my strongest clients. I do a lot of in-store posters and shop windows for them.

I enjoy all different types of shoots and the variety is one of the things I love the most. I love working on beautiful books where we shoot very relaxed and real food and I also love shooting the perfect burger that has taken hours to shoot but is beautiful in a different way. I love to shoot in daylight but I also get really into big setups and I love to indulge my techie-geeky side. My friends find it amusing that I love to read a manual. I do a lot of shoots for HSBC and the still life subjects are always an interesting lighting challenge.

urrently I love the clients that I shoot for but I’d also love to work on some books that include travel, and I would love to go to New York. I lived in Shanghai for 3 years and loved shooting travel work there. It would be great to incorporate more of this into my work.

I have a live-work apartment in Hoxton. It has two separate shooting and living areas and the division is very important (I recently moved here because my previous studio, although big, wasn’t separated enough). I’m often working in the evening so sometimes it’s hard to stop. I live with my partner Diana Simpson who is studying for a Masters in design products at the Royal College of Art.

I love cooking food and having friends around for dinner but recently we invited some friends over and asked everyone to bring something. I imagined that we’d end up with 20 salads or some repetition at least, but it turned out very successully. A Spanish friend arrived with ingredients to make tortilla, Australian friends brought a home-made dukha with roasted veggies, a Polish friend made a traditional Polish cake, Korean friend made dumplings and a tofu salad, a Dutch friend made a polenta cake, a Turkish friend brought hummus, an English friend made a stew, I cooked slow pulled pork and my partner made foccacia. It was the best dinner we’ve ever had!

My favourite markets are Borough Market and Broadway Market. We’re now closer to Broadway Market and often wander over at the weekend. I also love Columbia Road Market even if we’re not buying plants or flowers – the food stalls and atmosphere are inspirational.

I recently had an amazing six course tasting menu at the restaurant Viajante, in Shoreditch, but I’m also really happy in a small cheap restaurant as long as the food is well sourced and there is passion in the cooking. I love Viva Mexica because the people are really friendly and theMargarita cocktails are delicious. The chef is the aunt of the owner and she makes a mean mole. It’s hard to beat the Rivington for a great steak and they are dangerously close to us. We are surrounded by Vietnamese restaurants and I regularly go there for fresh spring rolls and pho soup.

Our favourite delicatessen is The Grocery on Kingsland Road. They do amazing tubs of salads and the food is local, organic and fair-trade.

The trend in food styling an photography at the moment is very relaxed and I think this really works. I don’t see a big shift in this philosophy for a while as there are still a lot of people who need convincing to relax! With the advent of great iPhone apps, people are able to have fun shooting food from their own perspective without spending a lot of money on cameras or learning too much about the technicalities. I think this is wonderful because it makes it all about the food. I think at the other end of the spectrum we can have more fun with High Dynamic range photography.

I’d encourage anyone to take up photography because it’s a fantastic career. It’s tough to get started but if you get assisting work with some good photographers and work really hard then the rest will fall in to place.

Further information

Karen Thomas www.karenthomasphotography.com

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