By Cindy Atoji Keene
When is a slice of cheesecake viewed as a complicated still-life composition of color, form, and texture? When it’s being shot by food photographer Andy Ryan, who says that a photo of a cheesecake slice should evoke the same visceral response as if you actually had the dish in front of you. “There are a lot of complex flavors in the engineering of food. A good photo visually calls out a food’s characteristics and presents them in their best light while at the same time being cohesive and believable,” said Ryan, 48, a Lexington and New York City-based food photographer who has shot photos of sizzling burgers, frosty grapes, high-end wines, restaurant interiors and more, for commercial clients such as The Cheesecake Factory, Barnes and Nobles Cafes, Starbucks, as well as Food and Wine, and other publications and websites.
Ryan, who also does architectural, engineering and corporate photography, got started on his career path at age 5, when he won a local art competition with a photo shot with the family Kodak instamatic, followed three years later by a Polaroid sx-70 won through a bank raffle.
Q: How many photos do you typically have to shoot before getting the “right one”?
A: The tweaking of ingredients and camera position are a bit like golf. Sometimes I nail it; sometimes it’s a birdy or a boogie. Then there are times when nothing is working but this is what makes a good photographer – anyone can get a good photo, but can you do it every time, in any condition? That is what makes a professional.
Q: What’s the most challenging photo shoot you’ve been on?
A: It was in Korea, and the photo shoot location was 120 feet underground in a Jules Verne-type cavern that was being excavated for a subway line extension. Water was cascading everywhere, and I had only a few minutes to set up my lights before the Korean official and his entourage showed up. I shot them in these outrageously difficult conditions, blending the light with a strobe because I wanted an eerie lighting effect. I got 10 shots, and then went back to the airport and flew back home.
Q: What’s the total weight of the equipment you generally have with you on a shoot?
A: My camera bag weighs about 45-50 pounds, and I have a tripod, which is another 7-8 pounds, as well as 10-pound computer, cables and hard drive; a 30-pound bag for lighting stands, umbrellas, gels, and other grip gear and two 80-pound bags of power packs and lights. It all adds up. I have to bring all this stuff since I never know what will come up.
Q: What tricks of the trade do you use, if, for example, you need to take a photo of ice cream before it melts?
A: I know there are all manner of tricks, such as using lard instead of ice cream, but for me, what you gain in control is lost in authentic visual flavor values. When I shoot ice cream or cream cakes, I shoot the real thing. It’s extremely challenging, because the “nose “of the cake melts before the heel of the cake has even lost its frost. I work with dry ice to isolate that front end so it stays cold while the heel thaws.
AQ: Who are your favorite photographers?
A: It’s kind of changed a lot over time. These days I’m into Robert Capa, known for his images of the Spanish Civil War, and Berenice Abbott, an American photographer best known for her architectural images of New York City in the 1930’s. I’ve also been influenced by the French photographer Eugène Atget whose images of Paris created just after dawn are exquisite. But my greatest influence is Boston College professor Charlie Meyer, a photographer and filmmaker. He is my mentor. He taught me to go with a flow but still make it happen.
Q: Do you take photos with your smartphone?
A: I do. I have an iPhone and I have to admit I’m compulsive about taking photos with it. It’s crazy what it can do, and the quality of the photos is improving all the time. I love to use the Postagram app, which turns mobile photos into real postcards and then mails them to anyone you like.