The Food Photographer

— William Pei Shih

I’ve requested to sit on the upper floor, a table for one. The stained glass windows over the crowded cobblestone streets below provide a lovely backdrop. I order the mussels with white wine, mussels with cream, with garlic. One by one, the dishes arrive. When the waiter asks if I would like the fries I say, “Of course I would—along with the fish croquettes.” Then I add, “S’il vous plait.” I also order the soup of the day, which is onion. Then 50 cl of the Brugs Blanche, and the Grimbergen Brune, a glass of Duvel. The restaurant is tucked along the Rue des Bouchers. It’s been in existence since 1892.

My waiter brings me a basket of warm baguettes. I already have my camera in hand. I snap a picture of the mussels. I snap another of the beer glasses, capture the wetness of the condensation. I focus in on the golden amber color of the drink. Focus in on the croquettes. Snap, with flash.

Before long, an hour has passed. I am almost satisfied. The light has changed ever so slightly but in my favor. And only when the waiter arrives is the spell finally broken.

“Is everything okay?” the young man says, unable to hide the concerned smile that passes over his face.

I snap a final picture. “Oh, yes. I’m about done here.”

“But Madame, you haven’t eaten a single bite.”

“Take it away, garçon. Merci beaucoup.”

My name is Emma Mai. I photograph food. But these days, anyone can call themselves a photographer—let alone a food photographer. And they do. Still, I’ve been taking gastronomic photographs for nearly twenty years. I’ve built a loyal clientele. After all, I wasn’t nominated (twice) for Food Photographer of the Year for nothing.

This time, my assignment is in Brussels. It is winter. The days are gray and cold and wet. They are short. But I think I can still make something special out of a Belgian waffle sprinkled with powdered sugar beneath the glow of the antique lamplights. Or a paper cone of Belgian fries, as they call them here, dripping in andalouse sauce. Later, I am standing in the middle of the Grand Place. There is a Christmas tree, though Christmas is over—being just the day before. In fact, I had been on a plane. Work before pleasure, as some might say. Now the four-hundred-year-old Gothic buildings of gilded gold stare back at me like a brilliant garrison. There is the Hotel de Ville. There is the King’s House. I consider taking a few more photographs. I might send them to friends, some of whom I haven’t spoken to in years, but would be glad to hear from.

As one might expect, all around me, people are already taking their own photos. There are hordes of tourists; they prevent me from capturing that perfect shot, the money shot. Everyone has their cameras out. I can’t help but cringe. I see un-proportioned selfies. Photos that lack composition, a sense of symmetry. Even focus. All they seem to want is something Instagram-worthy, perhaps something that might go viral. It sounds all too much like a disease without a cure. Needless to say, I’m after something that will last a little longer, that might stand the test of time.

I sit for an espresso at one of the cafes; I have to catch my breath. Beside me, I notice the couple trying to take a picture of the macarons on their plate. Pink, chocolate, pistachio. I shudder at the thought of the lighting; there is too much shadow, too much obscured in favor of the obvious, the trendy, though neither of them seem to notice nor care.

When they turn to me, I look away. I don’t mean to stare. “Excuse me,” the young man with the baseball cap says. “Can you take our picture?”

I think, of course I can—as in, I certainly know how. But it also crosses my mind that I might tell them what I do for a living and that I usually charge, a lot.

Nevertheless, I take the phone. It is, after all, the day after Christmas. I say, “On the count of three.”

When I reach three, they both say, “Cheeeese.”

But I have to admit, it is a beautiful time of year in Brussels. I visit the Saint-Michel Cathedral, the grounds of the Place Royale. All of the bright and blurred lights recede and fade into a kind of dream-state. And these are the instances when I might think of someone who I’d like to share the moment with. I’ll think of Jasper. It doesn’t matter that we’ve been divorced for years. In fact, he has a family of his own now, a husband, kids. But he had once been a large part of my life—and still is, to some extent. That is, we’ve remained friends. Good friends. Not everyone can say that about their exes. There are times when we still meet each other for dinner. Jasper fancies himself a kind of connoisseur. He will know all the best restaurants in New York for steak. Where to get the best Peking duck. Ethiopian is his go to cuisine when he’s looking to impress his colleagues (he is a professor of linguistics). I simply take the pictures.

When I show Jasper my photographs, he will say to me, “It’s as if I can taste each page, Emma.” And then, “I’ve always loved your photos.”

At times, it’s the best compliment a person can ask for. “Why thank you. I do it without the use of filters. I don’t use Photoshop, little to no airbrush.”

“You don’t say.”

I still don’t think that he knows exactly what I mean, but I let it go, like so many things I’ve let go by the wayside, in order to avoid the pitfalls of bitterness.

Afterward, I am at the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. I photograph the chocolates in the shops. The pieces are delicately shaped, made by hand, and I long to capture their intricate and dainty details. One of the salesladies sees me. She asks if I would like to try a piece. At first, I say no. After all, I’m on the clock. But she insists. “Why not just one? Or two?” I don’t want to seem rude. Instantly and surprisingly, I taste the sweetness of the chocolate melting in my mouth.

The next thing I know, I am sitting down for a cup of hot chocolate. Let me just say, I am no chocoholic. But it is supposed to be one of the best in the city, according to the same saleslady. I can see from her name-tag that her name is Odette. I can’t help but think of Swann’s Way. Furthermore, it would do me some good to warm up. My fingers have become reddened and numb, and I am losing my grip—on my camera, that is. But by the time I am done taking pictures of the hot chocolate, the drink has already gone cold. I leave it be. It is, after all, one of the pitfalls of the job.

These, I suppose, are some of the misconceptions about food photography. For instance, the idea that I’ll get to eat all that I photograph. One might think that it’s a perk. But of course, there is so much that I’ll have to do to a dish in order to keep it photogenic. I use wet paper towels over bread to keep it moist. I use a makeup sponge to add height to a burger. The moment I finish capturing a hamburger, the bun will have begun to dent and dry out. The blood of the meat will bleed all over the plate as it relaxes, so time will be of the essence. The lettuce will inevitably wilt. Needless to say, rarely can I indulge. I consider myself a consummate professional. And I am of the belief that the hallmark of true professionalism is knowing when to refrain, when to hold back. Therefore, I hold back. C’est la vie.

I head to the Christmas Market along the Place Sainte-Catherine. It is filled with crowds. There is a band playing, a carousel. The traditional wooden chalets sell an assortment of holiday staples. In short, I am in food photography heaven, as those in the know might say. Pretzels, onion soup, smoked salmon, sausages, crêpes, various pastries, maple syrup, oysters, cheese, more mussels, waffles at every corner. It’s as if my assignment is taking care of itself. At one of the stalls, I buy a cup of vin chaud. There is the aroma of cinnamon, the vividness of the lights, the music of Mozart. I capture what I can.

And then I have a bit too much. I’d only meant to have one cup, but I am on my third. I think of the time when I was on a flight to Hong Kong for an assignment on wonton noodles and dim sum. Think siu mai and roast pork buns. Think egg tarts and sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf—staples from my childhood, while growing up in Flushing, Queens. But there was the man who had sat behind me. This was on the plane. I presumed that he was traveling alone. I didn’t even get a good look at his face, except to know that he was likely tall, and likely dark haired. I had already decided that I was not prepared for disappointment, or even more so, disillusionment. In short, it was enough.

When he got up to use the bathroom, I looked away. I pretended to be asleep. We had both taken off our shoes. At first, it had been an accidental brush, his foot against mine, nothing more. Only he had left his foot there—as if he himself had fallen asleep. I had left my foot where it lay as well, like an invitation of sorts. But also, I was afraid that the time for an appropriate moving away had already passed. For a while, we were both still. The touch of his foot leaning into mine all throughout the flight was akin to a warm embrace. Mind you, the flight was ten hours.

It is still one of the most intimate moments of my later life. Sometimes I think that this is some of the feeling that I try to convey in my photographs. What is essential is invisible to the eye, as the saying goes.

I have been told that I am up against some stiff competition: he is from Chicago, and I know that his name is Dimitri. He’s only been photographing food for a year. But his rise has been exponential, hailed a kind of wunderkind. I suppose that there are those who manage to get a leg-up or two in life, leaving the rest to wonder if only. Perhaps it’s already enough to be seen, to be noticed. But I’m no philosopher. We are both up for the cover for Food Photography Magazine: The Brussels Issue. I know that he is already somewhere in the city. I imagine that he had arrived before me. I imagine he is at a bar by the Manneken Pis. It would be his sort of place, to be among all that is overrated. I’m only kidding, of course.

I’ve only glimpsed through the said photographer’s portfolio once or twice. I’ve done so during the late hours in my hotel room. I couldn’t help it. My hotel is only a block from the Louisa metro stop. The photos aren’t bad, per se. Photoshop does do wonders. All the filtering seems to work in a kind of cohesion. People have referred to what he does as food porn and that is exactly what it is: at first tantalizing, but ultimately cloying to the senses. I don’t even know if that’s an actual compliment.

Furthermore, I have heard that this photographer brings his own lights. He brings an entourage too. His own food stylist, a personal assistant named Mimi, who together, he calls: Team Di-Mimi-tri. His stylist is someone who isn’t afraid to use every trick in the book—no matter how crude. Let’s just say that his ice cubes are made of acrylic. Let’s just say that instead of milk, he favors the use of glue. Deodorant to make his plastic fruit look evermore lustrous. Where is the realness? Where is the search for transcendence? A sign of the times, I can’t help but think.

And yet I, on the other hand, try to treat my photos like the still-life paintings of Ensor. I suppose I am a bit of a traditionalist, always have been—someone who doesn’t like to put the cart ahead of the horse, so to speak. I like to leave a little room for the senses to run their course, for interpretation, to allow the viewer to make something of their own, the collaboration of one mind with another. For me, food photography is like walking a delicate tightrope. It’s the navigation of that which is involuntary pressing against what is voluntary, giving in. It is, I think, a convincing enough reason for me to suspend disbelief, which is to say, to really live life to the fullest.

It is the dawn of a new day. From the window of my hotel room, I can see the decorative roofs of the Art Nouveau buildings. Though the sun rises later this time of year in Belgium, it has finally begun to come out.

I have breakfast at a bakery near my hotel. Café au lait, an almond croissant. Of course, I take photos of them both. Today, I have a bit of a headache. The wine from the previous night is still getting to me. I’m a little hungover. I think of one of my pet peeves—when people use one of my photographs but don’t credit it to me. One instance comes to mind now, the time I did a series on gourmet ice cream in Paris, and I was referred to as simply: The Food Photographer. That hurt.

In addition, I have my health to consider. Just this morning, I fell in the bathroom. The floor had been wet. It wasn’t a nasty fall. There were no broken bones, no sprains. But it only further confirmed for me some of the limitations of my own body. I think of how it’s taken a great deal of effort for me to make it to Brussels. I had flown a red-eye from New York. The point is that I’m not exactly a spring chicken anymore (no pun intended). Be that as it may, there are actually more things in life to savor. All I need is my camera and a bit of good lighting. The rest, as they say, is gravy.

Later, I spend some of the afternoon at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts. The Green Christ, Gauguin. The Death of Marat, Jacques-Louis David (why did I think that this painting was in the Louvre?). I find that I love how the chaotic scenes of Bruegel the Elder reveal something about the absurdity of everyday life, and at the same time, the staying power of one’s own existence; it doesn’t have to last forever. It seems to corroborate something in me that’s like a belief, like something that I’ve known all along but words continue to fail to make meaningful enough. I don’t know.

It is in the Peter Paul Rubens room that I receive the email from the upper echelons of Food Photography Magazine, CC: the Editorial Board. I have to sit down. They decide to pass on me for the cover this time. Not to worry, I’m assured. They’ll still use some of my photographs for the feature. And there will be other opportunities. They’ll keep me in mind, in the loop. The Tokyo Issue is coming up.

Later that night, I come upon a photograph of myself. I am in my room, having ordered room service: a mushy pepperoni pizza and flat soft drink, stale potato chips, vanilla ice cream, melting away. New Year’s Eve is already upon the horizon. I’m going to miss it. I sigh. If I had more time, I would use it more wisely. For instance, I would visit the countryside, the forest in the south.

I had been scrolling through the photos on my phone when I came upon it—the photo of me. It must have been years old, five, ten. Even more. I couldn’t help but imagine what someone else might have thought of that person. I was smiling. I was wearing my favorite cheetah-print rimmed sunglasses, but you could still see my dark eyes. It was at a hot pot restaurant in Queens, near my apartment. I think my good friend Tameka took it. When I looked more closely at the photo, I thought I saw someone who could no longer communicate effectively with those around her. Someone who may have lost touch. (This was not so long after things had ended with Jasper.) It was like looking at someone who had lost out for good, someone who already couldn’t play the game for much longer, who was already weary of it. All of the people who she wanted to be with and to know were now somehow out of reach. Many were gone too, which was another kind of out of reachness. And even those who were still in her memories were now ebbing away. At the same time, it only made me think of how much the present continued to chip away at the store of what one remembered in order to clear a path for other diminishments. It was also the photograph of someone who sought to maximize and fill what was left. One only wanted to do it more right—more correct.

I don’t know what made my thoughts take such a downward turn. I’m not usually so morbid.

The next afternoon, I give in. I am at another restaurant on the Rue des Bouchers. My first choice had been too full; I didn’t call ahead to make a reservation. At my table, I take out my camera. Then I think, to hell with it. I order a feast. I am overcome by a feeling that I’ve been refraining for so much of my life. So at this moment, no more. Bring on the mussels with fries. Bring on the soup of the day, a bottle of the finest Belgian beer, wine too. I take a nibble. I have a drink. Of course, I don’t finish. I don’t even come close to finishing. It’s all too much.

It feels as if all of my efforts have culminated in this one instance, something like seeing the near future unfolding right before my tired, heart-bruised eyes. All of my hopes, all of my fears. I feel the tears welling up, though I try my best to will them to go away. Away, away. Finally I tell myself, these are happy tears.

“Is it the food?” the waiter asks me. “Do you not like it?”

“Oh no,” I say, shaking my head. “It’s quite the opposite actually—it’s absolutely delicious.”

He places a hand over his chest and does a slight bow. “Thank you.”

I reach for my camera, move several of the dishes into place. The waiter clears what I don’t need and even brings me an extra candle. It looks perfectly centered.

“Dessert?” he asks. “Cheesecake? Waffle? We actually have some wonderful pastel de natas in the house.” Then, “Maybe you’ve already had enough?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” I say.

“Perhaps then, one of each?”

A sky, overcast, tides of gray. The dense forest before me. It is a welcome relief from the languid throngs of the city. Solitary hours through wooded acres, the start of a new day, offering only the promise of advancement, a chance to cover more ground at greater and greater speed. I breathe in the brisk air, cut across pastures, follow meandering rivers, like the wellsprings of being, of bliss. To never feel lost. Nor found, exactly. Undiscovered. And yet it feels like a returning. I pick up on the scent, the sound of the changing seasons, like sparks of possibilities, all of it striking at me, as if at once. So long as whatever continues to thrive, so long as I am able to realize it all over again. Life will always find a way, reveal itself to be exquisite.

Read more from Issue No. 25 or share on Twitter.