Q&A with Signe Birck
Photo by Lee Edward
These days, with myriads of foodies tweeting photos of restaurant dishes and bloggers featuring ever-increasingly sophisticated photography, it seems that everyone wants to be a food photographer. And yet, when you look at the stunning images of Danish photographer Signe Birck, you quickly realize that she is the real deal. Not only is she passionate about shooting food–as evidenced by her crisp, clean images (with no clutter to distract from the food itself)–but she's also an avid home cook herself. Birck divides her time between Copenhagen and NYC and has shot numerous cookbooks and editorial spreads. She's worked extensively with chefs in Copenhagen to document the New Nordic movement and was recently in NYC to shoot Noma co-founder Mads Refslund and his Soho restaurant ACME.
I owe my brother a depth of gratitude for introducing me to Birck. They met serendipitously in NYC last Thanksgiving (it's a great story I'll have to share one day!) and he instantly knew that he needed to connect the two of us. I had the pleasure of collaborating with Birck in October–she shot a fall storytelling dinner party here around the yellow table, and thanks to her mad skills, my food has never looked more beautiful. We met up several more times during her time in NYC and started brainstorming about future collaborations. Though we can't reveal any details at the moment, let's just say a cookbook may be in our future...!
Birck is back in Copenhagen at the moment, but we chatted (via email) about cooking, dinner parties, her philosophies behind food photography, and some of her very cool projects–past and present. My fingers are crossed that she'll be back on this side of the pond soon...we have many more projects ahead.
Where were you born?
I grew up in the very southern part of Denmark, near the German border. Our house was surrounded by fields, and was located next to a big forest. It was ideal conditions for raising children, and I spent all my time tending to my horses. I loved it growing up, but I'm not sure if I'll ever move back to the country. Big city life works very well for me.
How did you get into food photography?
Growing up, I remember how I would always arrange my dinner plate with great attention, and tell my parents: "Look, it's like a food picture!" Maybe I already knew at the age of 7...
During my time in the photography industry, I have been in touch with many different genres. In the beginning I thought I would get into fashion, then while I was a student I worked at a studio that mainly handled furniture and interior design photography. On the side I would sometimes assist a food photographer, and I was very impressed with the beautiful work she did–it was so different from what I was used to. During my training, I worked solely with studio flash equipment as my light source (which I am grateful to have been taught). But I found it fascinating to observe how she was able to control daylight to perfection, no matter the conditions she was working under. And suddenly I began to "see" food–and how amazing it can look when photographed. After graduation I was employed at a studio, working primarily with food clients. This was somewhat of a coincidence, but I soon realized that this was my calling.
What do you love most about photographing food? What's the hardest thing?
I think what I love the most is the ability to–through something as simple as a photograph–speak directly to the most basic needs and desires of human existence. A beautiful food photo will make you hungry! These days the debate of sustainability, organic meat and produce, obesity vs. starvation, and the general focus on healthy living is highly present. I find it fascinating how the awareness of environmental issues, combined with a heightened focus on animal rights and the wish to support your local farmer, as opposed to the big bad mass produced food industry, is growing day by day. I don't mean to go all political about this, but to me, these issues go hand in hand with the way I look upon my work. I'm able to combine my love for beautiful photography with my need to participate in continually raising the awareness of food being not only something you eat, but a Global "hot potato", really. Working in the wake of The New Nordic Movement, I'm being confronted with these matters all the time, and I admire how modern chefs and food producers seem to take this very seriously.
I love working alongside chefs and stylists who share my excitement, to feel the set is vibrating of ideas flying through the air. I know it's super nerdy, but it's great to be able to discuss whether this peppercorn should be on the left or the right side of the plate, with someone who won't find you weird!
What is the coolest project you've worked on so far?
Well, there has been quite a few, but if I have to name one, it would be a cookbook project I worked on with the food photographer I mentioned previously. I was actually assisting her, as she was 7 months pregnant at the time, and she needed me to manage all of the physically challenging aspects of the job. Make no mistake–photography can be extremely tough at times!
The job was a book being created in collaboration with a cook book developer, and the topic was "Woman–claim your coals!" Basically it was meant to inspire women to kick their husbands away from the grill, as it seems that men always turn into master chefs, whenever there is a BBQ involved...! The book was being created in a beautiful summer house, and it just turned out to be a great week. We were four women involved, and it was hilarious. Ideas were exchanged, lovely food and pictures were being created, the location was gorgeous–the ocean just outside the windows. It was a lot of fun, and I remember this to be a turning point for me, in terms of the photographer I would like to become. You don't need a big expensive setup, truckloads of gear and a crew of 30 people. Put a bunch of passionate women of different age in a summer house for a week, and creativity will have the best of conditions.
Any upcoming projects you'd care to share?
Currently I am working on a number of different projects. Unfortunately I am not able to reveal anything about them just yet. These days, tendencies shift so rapidly, and what may seem as the greatest idea today, could easily turn out to be "yesterday's news" tomorrow. I actually find this very motivating, as it keeps me on my toes.
One project that I am looking so much forward to, though, is the book you and I are planning on doing together. I just love how the idea spawned from a mutual interest in making a difference, and the fact that we are on the same page in terms of the inspiration we would like to bring to home cooks everywhere–this is the ultimate definition of a dream project. I can't wait for us to start turning this idea into reality!
What type of food do you prefer shooting?
This is a very difficult question, actually, as it all depends on the story being told. I take on every task with the same amount of interest, as it is my job to make everything I work on as perfect as possible.
Of course some foods, by nature, look better than others. Baby greens, sprouts, flowers and seafood tend to make beautiful pictures, almost every time. I find "brown" food, like roasted meat and gravy for instance, a lot more challenging. But these can also be very beautiful in the right setting, with the right props and photographed in the perfect light. I rarely enjoy "rustic" food myself, but I enjoy the challenge of making it look appetizing and pretty, and to my experience, it often seems to turn out very nice, because it has been given that extra attention.
What are you ideal shooting conditions?
In terms of lighting, daylight is always preferred, whether I work on location or in the studio. I set up my table by the window, but pulled into the shadow, avoiding direct light. I prefer the weather outside to be overcast, because it makes the color tones cool, and the highlights beautiful. The shadows will come out soft, yet intense. A piece of white card board is placed on the opposite side of the object, to bounce off a bit of light into the shadows. I always strive to emphasize the highly unique Scandinavian feeling in my pictures, and I prefer my images to be presented in a colder tone. If it's a sunny day, and the light is super bright and slightly warm, keeping away from direct light will do the trick, and it's generally just easier to control. If I for some reason must shoot after sunset, I create a daylight-feeling using flash light bouncing off of white walls or big styrofoam panels. This will work as a decent substitute, but I'm not a fan.
What kind of camera do you use? Favorite lens(es)?
I work with different kinds of camera types, according to the conditions. Working at the studio, I prefer a Sinar–a so-called technical camera–with a Phase One digital back. I also use Hasselblad in combination with the Phase One back. This allows me to hook up the camera to the computer, for immediate view of the image.
Working on location, time is almost always of the essence, and I find it easier to bring "Old Faithful"–my old Canon. It's handheld, no computers or wires, and it allows me to work faster and more efficiently. However, this calls for a little more post work in Photo Shop afterwards, as I will need to make up for the lack of control that I otherwise have, being able to see the image immediately on the monitor.
How would you describe your photography style?
I find it difficult to describe my own style, but I guess it would be feminine and simple–extremely simple. I like for the object to stand out and communicate on its own, not drowning it in a lot of props. Props are perfect–and necessary–as a way of building a universe in which the food can come to life, but I try to make it nothing more than a subtle, understated hint.
Being raised in Scandinavia, I am of course influenced by the tradition of simplicity and "clean" expressions within design, art and cuisine. I find this to be evident in my style, and also in my life in general. I actually don't go to a whole lot of trouble in creating this ambiance in my work, but for some reason it just always seems to turn out that way.
This being said, I am constantly under the influence of what I see, read and hear, so who's to say what my style will be like in a couple of years? I am quite convinced it will forever stay relatively simple, though.
Do you like to cook? If so–what sort of meal would you cook if a few friends were coming over tonight?
I love to cook! I like to experiment, to open my fridge and make something nice from whatever is in there. I call it the "fridge-shake-down", and - for the most parts - something edible actually emerges from the pots and pans. I'm a vegetarian, so my cooking consists of a lot of vegetables, sometimes with eggs and dairy. I'm not vegan, and it's not a result of ethical or religious view-points. I just don't like meat...
When I have people over, I like to create a meal that we can sit and enjoy for more than half an hour. As a result, I prefer making a number of tapas-like dishes, that invite people to relax and engage in good conversation, while slowly eating and sipping wine. And also, these dishes can easily be made in advance, which means that I don't have to be tied to the kitchen while my friends have a good time in the next room. I believe that food must be homemade–it's healthier and it tastes better!
I guess I would serve some nice freshly baked bread, along with homemade hummus, pesto and different tapenades of black olives and sun-dried tomatoes, along with a selection of cheeses. Salads are required, and I would probably put together a green salad with hearts of artichoke, slices of Parmesan and roasted pumpkin seeds. Very simple. I would like to serve something hot as well, which would probably be mini-quiches with spinach and feta cheese. For dessert we would have "monkey meal", basically a fruit salad served with a vanilla custard and coarsely grated dark chocolate.
If I was short of time, as would probably be the case on a week day, I guess I would just put together a nice pizza of potato, rosemary and goat cheese.