If you've followed the still young but successful career of photographer Todd Selby, then you probably already know the surprising pleasures of seeing him try his hand at culinary photography. If not, you've got some catching up to do. Selby has been globetrotting for years now, sticking his lens in the homes and creative spaces of a wide range of stylish and cultural types: fashion icon Karl Langerfield in his studio in Paris, Guy Blakeslee of the Entrance Band's ramshackle abode in Laurel Canyon, producer Pharrell Williams with his art collection in Miami, artists Garrick Gott and Terence Koh at their studio in New York City.
For the past couple of years, though, he's been shooting Edible Selby, a series for the New York Times T Magazine that takes a similar photographic approach to culinary destinations and figures. He's collected that work into his second book, Edible Selby, which will be released tonight in conjunction with an exhibition at Jackson Fine Art.
Food photography seems to be everywhere lately, filling up Instagram and Facebook feeds as much as magazine pages and blog posts, so it is not a light compliment to say that Selby's approach to food photography feels original. His work is less interested in capturing that ubiquitous "perfectly plated dish" (though he includes a few of those, too) than conveying a sense of place and character. The result is a project that recognizes and taps into the creative, artistic motivations that drive culinary work. The chefs and wine makers and food professionals of all sorts feel on equal footing with the artists and designers and musicians that defined his earlier body of work.
I took a look at an early copy of the book a few weeks ago and was struck by a number of things. The first was entirely selfish: I wanted to treat the book like a checklist, a global bucket list of places that I must eat and drink at before I die. After I was able to get over the intense desire to max out my credit cards to buy plane tickets to all of these places, though, I was able to actually take a real look at what Selby was doing there.
He has a knack for making any place feel comfortable and human. At Noma in Denmark, which is probably the most celebrated, expensive, and hard to get into restaurant in the world right now, you get a voyeuristic but entirely relatable glimpse into what it would feel like to sit down at a table for dinner there. A photo of four cooks from behind, their backs hunched over while delicately, exactingly plating dishes, is a quiet but precise expression of the sophisticated focus that goes into their food.
He also has a notable skill at seeking out obscure but fascinating characters. One set of photographs come from an afternoon spent fishing in San Francisco with the "Sea Forager" Kirk Lombard, an urban fisherman and sustainable seafood advocate who also happens to be an champion at fishing the elusive monkeyfaced eel. His obscure, amusing fishing spots (which include a nearly invisible hole in a sidewalk) and catches are absorbing.
His eye for details is consistent and sharp. Little, telling items, like the handwritten labels on jars at Rockaway Taco or the lines of the Mondrian-inspired cake at Blue Bottle coffee in San Francisco, attract his attention and he eloquently fits these images into his edits, texturing the experience of each place.
Not long ago, I gave Selby a ring to talk about the book. I was surprised to find out that he didn't have a whole lot to say about the project. Photographers aren't necessarily loquacious people, of course. Their job is, often, to quietly blend into a background while others act. Still, after shooting Next in Chicago, the short lived M. Wells, Hartwood in Mexico, a punk rock izakaya in Japan, and so on and so forth, I thought he'd be eager to talk and talk about his experiences. It wasn't that he wasn't interested in the project, it's that he talked about all this culinary globetrotting with the casual generalness of someone who had walked down the block to drop in on a friend. That attitude, perhaps, makes him the photographer he is.
Edible Selby, featuring photographs by Todd Selby, opens at Jackson Fine Art on Thursday, September 13 and runs through November 17. The opening reception tonight begins at 6 pm.