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Sarah Shatz, food52 Photographer

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If you've spent time on food52, you're already familiar with the beautiful photographs that Sarah Shatz shoots week after week. The site (and the book) simply wouldn't be the same without her. Now, in the Q&A below, you can get to know her a little better!

  • Sarah Shatz in Fortaleza, Brazil Studio
  • Sarah shooting in Fortaleza, Brazil (left, photo by Tomek Sierek), and Sarah's workspace

Where did you study photography?
I studied art history in college. My degree was in Fine Arts and was specifically in modern and contemporary art & film. I learned photography by picking up a camera and shooting, with my father early on as my first teacher. I learned a lot about the craft and business from photographer friends and colleagues.

Your background is in portrait photography, not food, correct?
Correct! My focus has been environmental portraiture: shooting people in their spaces. These definitions are different for everyone. For me, the portrait can be a single picture or a series of that person doing what they do. For example -- a pianist at the piano. Or, a pianist in the studio talking with producers, looking at the score, playing the piano, making notes, etc. The portrait could be twin brothers standing with a truck they are restoring. It is also a collection of pictures that tells the larger story and details of where they got the truck, what kind of restoration they are doing on it, the barn it is stored in, the season and location, and how it fits into their community.

How do the two compare?
It's really not the difference between the genres -- it's more how I approach whatever I photograph. I need to be challenged to shoot what's outside of what I "normally" do. It keeps me on my toes and thinking in new ways. I apply the same questions I would to a portrait of a person to the ingredient and final dish shots. I ask A&M what they'd like to focus on, what's the most important part of the dish to highlight, what kind of mood are we going for, etc. Based on what they have in mind, I experiment with different angles and color temperature in order to convey the "personality" of the dish.

If I'm going to get groovy here, people, food, nature are all living things with personalities. I try to give everything I shoot the same care, attention and interest regardless of its leg count. Making a portrait of a person is more psychologically involved, so shooting certain fish or pigs feet can be daunting sometimes. When photographing food starts to inch over into the more 'human' realm -- when there is a set of eyes, for example, or when muscles are clearly defined in a cut of meat -- it can be challenging and even strange.

There are phenomenal professional food photographers out there and I don't call myself one. I have great respect for those photographers - and stylists. I cook at home and when I try to shoot what I've made it NEVER looks the same as when I shoot with Amanda & Merrill. 

The ingredients for a great shot: a beloved recipe, someone to cook it and then style it, plate it, and fuss with it until it looks just so.
Who's your favorite person you've shot?
My niece. Others, to name a few: Sophie Freud, granddaughter of Sigmund. Will Lee, an aircraft restorationist at the Smithsonian Museum. The actress Lynn Cohen. The people of Greensburg, Kansas, a town destroyed by an F5 tornado (and later rebuilt).

Who is the one person you would most love to shoot?
I would have liked to do a portrait of one of my heroes, the painter Alice Neel, in her studio. There's a long list of people who have passed that I wish I could photograph now, like my paternal grandfather. As that's not possible.. I'd like to do portraits of Russell Banks, Alfred Brendel, Geoffrey Holder and Carmen De Lavallade. An Amish community, building a barn, in daily life. I'd love to shoot stills on an Almodovar movie for a million reasons. His art directors, set designers, costumes, cameras -- all brilliant use of colors, composition. All his frames are incredible pictures.

What's your favorite final recipe shot from food52?
No favorites. There are elements in all that I like. For example, the color of Rivka's Rhubarb Curd Shortbread with the confectioner sugar sprinkled on top. Hot Spiced Drunken Apple Cider by Cordelia -- it's a challenge to photograph liquid -- and this felt successful: festive, pretty, and showcased the ingredients down to the detail of the spices. Oaxacan Cinnamon Chocolate Macaroons (pictured below) by robinbeth -- simple, elegant, straightforward and rich chocolate color.

I'm in awe of Merrill & Amanda: week after week they create these gorgeous ingredient shots. They are inventive and inspired when assembling flour, spices, vegetables, butter, meat -- you name it. The arrangement is always a lovely composed still life.

What have you shot lately (other than food)?
Laceworkers & seamstresses in Fortaleza, Brazil. A Yellow Barn Music Festival concert with pianist Leon Fleisher. Twin brothers & a vintage truck. A ranch in Telluride. A costume fitting for a movie I'm going to shoot stills for this summer. (Note: I'm taking a mini break on Food52 -- but will be back!) A portrait of a journalist friend.

Describe an early food experience that has influenced the way you think about food and/or cooking. Did you grow up in a family that loved to cook?
My family loves to cook and eat. Mom is a great cook and so is my brother. Both are food52 users, although not enough (hint hint).  Dad has always been an intuitive and prolific gardener, and wherever we've lived there has always been fresh fruit & vegetables, herbs in the backyard. People with whom I grew up know that my brother, before he became a journalist, was a sort of child chef and so there was a lot experimenting, a lot of cooking and eating in pretty great restaurants. But I always preferred eating at home. That's where the best meals were.

What is your idea of comfort food?
Every meal my mom makes. My dad's scrambled eggs. Roast or grilled chicken. In the summer: anything I can drink through a straw.  

What do you cook when you're home alone?
A variety of quinoa dishes, salads.

What's your least favorite food?
Ones that are appallingly unhealthy like a "recipe" for Bacon, Doughnut, Egg Burgers. I'm fascinated and mortified by food that can kill you. I just wish it wasn't glorified on the internet and TV.

What's your desert island meal?
Can I change the question to simply "island meal"? Whatever is on that island -- local food. Non oil-contaminated fish, please.

  • Macarons Garden
  • One of Sarah's lovely final recipe shots for food52 (left), and her dad's garden