Yesterday evening at the 92Y TriBeCa, photographer Todd Selby presented his just-released book Edible Selby and took part in a discussion on his artistic process, as well as the world of food. Selby has become known for photographing artists, musicians, and designers in their creative and private spaces, but for this, his second book, he shifted his focus to characters in kitchens, coffee shops, and gardens around the globe.
Joining him for the talk, which was moderated by Lucky Peach EIC Chris Ying, were several subjects that appear in the book: Chad Robertson (Tartine, San Francisco), Caitlin and James Freeman (Blue Bottle Coffee, San Francisco), and Danny Bowien (Mission Chinese Food, NY and SF).
The evening started out with Selby alone onstage walking through a few chapters of the text. If you couldn't already notice from his get-up, which included a purple t-shirt with cats on it and a shiny white jacket emblazoned with the California bear flag, the man likes to keep it casual in both life and art. He spoke of embracing a DIY aesthetic and gravitating towards subjects that are "doing their own thing and carving out their own path." And so behind him on screen flashed images of the Mast Brothers hand-cranking chocolate in their Brooklyn shop ("They're almost puritanical), the chefs at Noma foraging in the wilderness and working in their test kitchen ("They've challenged fine dining"), and a California fisherman practicing urban fishing ("He kept catching stuff from a hole in the ground in the middle of the street"). These are but a few of the subjects Selby photographed over the two years he traveled the world putting together the book.
The trademarks of Selby's chapters are intentionally playful, primitive watercolor drawings set against a white background. These complement the photos, which instead of being printed as full, coffee table book bleeds, are assembled as if part of a collage. The ultimate goal is to give a candid but full picture of each subject. In each installment, there's also a handwritten Q&A — Selby writes the questions before the shoots, determining how much space each person has for their answer — that includes an "inexact, anecdotal" recipe. It's informal and it's childlike, but there is an unmistakeable method and consistent hipness to the work. "It's reportage but also constructed," said Selby towards the end of the evening.
As he explained in the discussion that followed his introduction, he became interested in the people making his food a few years ago, when he met the Uruguayan-born New York chef Ignacio Mattos. Mattos, then of Il Buco, later of Isa, introduced him to several interesting characters and provided a window into the nature of the craft. He also introduced Selby to Chad Robertson, who facilitated a great deal of shoots by vouching for Selby. Robertson ended up writing the foreword to Edible Selby.
The group conversation dealt mainly with the subjects' experiences shooting with Selby and how the world of food has changed over the last two decades. Ying remarked that a book like this one, which considers chefs as personalities, craftsmen, and even celebrities, "probably wouldn't have been possible fifteen years ago." The panelists shared stories of the first time they identified a chef as a celebrity, from watching the Galloping Gourmet (James Freeman) to eating their first fancy meal at Emeril's in Universal Studios (Danny Bowien). There was also talk of food as art, of course, and the importance of building a community of chefs.
As Selby revealed in the chat, his artistic process used to be far less laid back. He'd insist on bringing more gear and having perfect lighting. "It was basically Dutch," he said. So, a more casual turn fit this project well. "That kind of photography, with a big set-up, is a nightmare for a kitchen," described Robertson. Taking things a bit further, James Freeman remarked that "these days we are constantly faced with the question of whether we are going to document an experience or have an experience. Looking at Todd's photos, it seems like he doesn't have to choose."