By Emily Churchill
Settled into a deep chair covered by a thick fur blanket, Ashley Sears relaxes after a long day of work. A food photographer, she has spent the day planning shoots and on lengthy calls with potential clients, discussing their visions for their food. She has recently finished a cookbook for a prominent baker, whose name she is not yet allowed to share.
Her passion for her work – not only the photography, but also the people, the stories and the food itself – drives the conversation. She jumps easily from discussing her thoughts on the Instagram “food porn” world to the importance of sustainability in the industry.
Her apartment in Chinatown doubles as a photography studio, with pottery in every hue stacked neatly along windowsills and across tabletops. Bottles of fancy whiskey left over after a job fill a back bar table. Boxes of crackers and nuts from her most recent shoot sit on a kitchen window ledge that peeks out into the living room, waiting to be consumed.
“I live in a prop house,” Sears laughs, pointing to the layers of silver spoons and empty glass bottles arrayed under her window.
Now, however, it’s time for dinner. She has two usual options – cooking with the leftover cheese and charcuterie from her last shoot, or takeout. Today, a nearby Chinese restaurant is calling her name.
Joe’s Shanghai, a NYC staple, is just down the street in Chinatown. Sears orders Shanghai noodles and beef, along with several smaller sides. She walks down to pick up her food and, back at home, shakes her head with happiness as she opens the small white takeout container.
“I could eat this… every day?” she says, eschewing a plate and digging right in with a fork.
She says that she still loves cooking — even after she spends so much time around food for her job. She laughs, saying that she is too impatient for baking. But she loves cooking for people, and she especially loves cooking without guidelines.
“My food is more than visually appealing,” she says. “There’s a creative component. I don’t use recipes.”
In contrast, Sear’s photos are minutely detailed, extremely close-up and crisp portraits of ingredients in cleanly lit sets. The ingredients are the star, set on rustic cutting boards and in pristine mis-en-place stations. Color plays a distinct role, with browns and tans filling baking shots in a warm hue, as contrasted to the bright arrangements of meats and vegetables. The rough hands of chefs are often in play, and the faces that rarely appear are beaming.
“These images are a direct extension of me as a person,” she says. “There is a lot of me in every job. People come to me to get me to capture their vision, and if I don’t do everything I can, it’s a direct reflection on me. It’s what drives me to do better and be better.”
A fine arts photography graduate from the University of Montana, Sears took a number of years to land in New York City. She traveled around the country and the world, filling odd jobs. Her dreams of being a photographer landed her in Brooklyn six years ago, where she worked in the front of the house at high-end restaurants on the side to make ends meet. As she learned more about restaurants, people she worked with learned about her photographic skills.
Her first photo gig in New York City was a backstage beauty coverage series for 2011’s New York Fashion Week. Her first culinary photo job was shooting for the Crimson Sparrow, an electic American restaurant in Hudson, New York. She soon began shooting for Raven & Boar, a family-based charcuterie company in the Hudson Valley that raises heritage pigs.
“The reason it made sense to me was that I’m connected to an industry that I’ve been deeply committed to,” Sears says. “I’m going and connecting with a chef and I actually genuinely care. It gives more value to the end product.”
Sears’ particular fascination is with the process of food production. She has even connected interested chefs and restaurants with Raven & Boar’s business.
“We so easily get disconnected with where things come from and how they are made,” she says. “I want to pay homage to where things come from. It’s not just people putting things in front of you, it’s the people, the blood, sweat and tears behind the scenes.”
Sears’ shoots are generally broken down between in-the-field shoots – she excitedly speaks of plans for a barbeque she is going to throw and photograph for a meat company – and on-set shoots in her home. She shoots projects that range from advertisements to cookbooks, from images of farms to images of back-of-the-house.
The process is extensive and expensive, she says, listing the team she assembles, including food stylists and assistants. Originally, she worked as a “one man band,” and occasionally still does, but sometimes, she says, she is “managing as many as 10-15 people on set for days of weeks working to bring something to light.”
“I believe in the value of genuine long term partnerships which may start out small, and take a little financial sacrifice,” she says. “But I’ve seen first hand how that loyalty can pay off in ways you could never expect.”
She brings her own loyalty to the table and to behind her camera lens – an appreciation for the hard work that her clients have put in and produced.
“It needs to mean something to me,” she says. “Whether I’m with the restaurant industry, purveyors, butchers, farmers or chefs, I am just as personally invested in what they are doing and I am just bringing it to light.”
Twirling her fork in her hand, she scoops up another steaming pile of noodles and bites down.Tags: ashley sears, chinatown, dinnertime, farm to table, food photography, photography, raven & Boar