Read about this year's Best of L.A. Food & Drink issue here.
When renowned food photographer Anne Fishbein started shooting pictures for the L.A. Weekly food section in the 1980s, it was a black-and-white world with little dimension. Since then, and with the advent of color and the digital age, she has become the darling of the Los Angeles restaurant world, beloved by chefs, and longtime sidekick to the late Jonathan Gold.
Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal and glossy magazines and is in the permanent collections of museums around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Her publications include On the Way Home, a collection of black-and-white photos documenting Russia in the 1990s.
“The way I shot back then was all black-and-white film, and I shot medium-format square,” Fishbein tells L.A. Weekly from her backyard oasis over homemade scones dotted with chocolate and oolong tea.
“The way I shot was so different then — I almost never shot the food. We would only run one photo. This predated critical reviews and before Jonathan was even writing about food. Those reviews were about new places opening. It was a different era. Some of the pictures were just nice and artistic, with a nice light and shadow with maybe a server in half-shadow. It was just one random picture to accompany the writeup.”
Things transitioned with the move to color, which was a small window before the advent of digital, which led to the website and created a demand for slide shows.
“I used to drive in the one or two prints into the office. And now all of a sudden it was more than just a signature image to accompany a story but 15 or 20 images. At that point it became about the food,” Fishbein says with her gentle pure white bull terrier, Ivy, at her feet.
She looks back at the journey fondly, especially the years with Gold.
“A really significant thing that happened along the way was that notorious exposé that [KCBS] Channel 2 did on restaurant cleanliness, which led to the rating system,” Fishbein recalls.
“Before then — pre–cellphone photography and pre-Instagram — I would go places with Jonathan and often it was a place where they didn't speak English. I would go with him and he would just order a bunch of stuff and I'd shoot it. Nobody knew who he was, nobody knew who I was. I'd shoot while I ate, which nobody did back then. It would get their attention, but they wouldn't care until that exposé came out. Then suddenly we'd show up at places and they thought we were from the health department and started becoming more reserved. 'Who are these people? This big white guy and that lady with the camera don't belong here!'?”
The duo's journey reflected all of the trends from what restaurant writing used to be, to social media coming in, to the internet. All these things affected journalism; they affected food writing and food photography.
Fishbein says that once social media kicked in, people stopped paying attention to the fact that she had a camera, which she finds liberating. She could just be a social influencer or some Yelp-obsessed diner. Foodie photos are so standard at the table now, it's easy to fly under the radar.
And while the assumption would be that all those Instagram photos by civilians are taking food out of the mouths of professional photographers, Fishbein says it's quite the contrary. Instagram and social media have led to a greater interest in visuals, which has led to more work for the people who do it professionally.
“You do get the people who think that anyone can do it, and they'll try to get you to work for almost nothing,” Fishbein says. “I won't do that. And then you get the people who have realized, it may be social media but now they want to up their game. That's why they hire professional shooters. That's been kind of great. The work is definitely out there.”
And just as the most beautiful women in the world want to be shot by Ruven Afanador, top L.A. chefs and restaurateurs like Suzanne Tracht of Jar insist on Fishbein for their own needs and when a publication reaches out for a story.
“Whenever I see a photograph of food and it's beautiful, the first thing I do is look for the photo credit, and it's usually Anne's,” Tracht says. “She's the reason my social media feed makes everyone so hungry.”
Tracht says Fishbein will go into the restaurant and staff will just start bringing out the platters of food — steaks, chops, fish. Then she starts moving them around, looking for the best light, capturing each dish in that way that you can practically smell and taste them.
“One of Anne's favorite things to do is to come to Jar for dinner, and everyone here considers her to be a member of the family,” Tracht says.
“She'll photograph our cooks, bus boys and servers and bring out their personalities in the best way. She can even get our chef de cuisine, Preech Narkthong, to smile. She brings her laptop, sits down at the end of the bar, signs into our Wi-Fi, orders dinner and starts editing her images. She has made it perfectly clear to all of us that she wants to be left alone while she's editing. I love that level of seriousness.”
“Anne is a very special soul with a deep appreciation of food and people who cook,” says longtime friend Mary Sue Milliken. “She notices absolutely everything and is expert at revealing, through her photos, how chefs are delighting their guests in every kind of setting L.A. offers. She’s one of a kind.”
But Instagram is still a double-edged sword for photographers, and it has affected food photography. The Northwestern grad says that certain tendencies have become popular on Instagram, so some clients ask her to shoot in a way that's trendy, like the bird's-eye view shot from overhead down on a dish (a technique she hates).
“I'm a photographer, so it can bug me when I'm asked to do something based on someone having studied what gets a higher count on Instagram,” Fishbein says, as Ivy disrupts our interview by bolting to chase a squirrel.
“That's when I start hoping that people research the relationship of social media enough to know the correlation between Instagram response and profit. To what extent do they intersect? I personally have fallen for products which I discovered through Instagram and then realized they were great at social media but don't deliver a result,” she says.
Fishbein's advice to budding photographers rediscovering the camera: Get to know your ingredients. It's all about craft and technique. While some people are comfortable with automatic prepackaged food they can heat up in the microwave in seconds, others like to shop for the ingredients and cook it themselves.
“The most important advice is to learn the fundamental principles of photography, primarily how aperture and shutter speed work,” she says, whether it's black-and-white or color. “They both profoundly affect how the photograph looks. Then always shoot in manual exposure mode in order to carefully select both of those settings.”
You won't find that level of control on your camera phone. And the difference is obvious.
“The way she shoots food is like a hawk circling its prey,” says close friend and chef Sang Yoon from Lukshon. “She always eats all the food at the end, so it's kind of a pre-ritual dance from all angles that happens before the dinner. It's pretty fun to watch. She doesn't look at the food the way a photographer looks at its subject — it's much more intense and intimate and devilish. Anne sees it from the perspective of someone who is imminently going to eat it.”