It’s safe to say that Per-Anders Jorgensen is the most interesting photographer in the food world right now. The founder and Creative Director of Fool magazine is fast becoming official photographer to the stars of the high end food world with his high profile, innovative and often startling photographs of Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz, Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana and London's Young Turks. On the day that the 50 Best Restaurant Awards are due to be unveiled (with many on the list shot by him) we asked him what it’s like to photograph the most important chefs of the 21st century.
Jorgensen was given his first camera, a Konica T4, around the age of 15 and joined the local camera club in Ystad, Sweden (also home to fictional detective Wallander). His early determination to succeed was evident in his attitude to photography. “My parents wanted me to get a proper education and study law. I wasn’t interested in the slightest – when they gave me the camera I knew what I wanted to do. Being from a small town my grandmother had an image of how hard photographers worked, not much money etc: - like chefs back then! It wasn’t an occupation you’d choose. I struggled and I wanted to do it. I was a very determined young man!”
You worked for the local paper but by all accounts were deemed "too creative"
I did sport and I did it well but it didn't fit in so I went to bigger papers where I had freedom to show a different side and capture what I thought was the essence. Back then (mid 1980s) newspapers allowed you a lot of freedom. And I began to develop a personal language in the dark room as well. That was vital. It was also borne out of necessity. The paper printed pretty badly and you had to adjust to that! I really enjoy black and white contrast and that’s definitely something that dates back to the newspaper era, because if you didn’t print harsh contrasts, black and white. There was no way the photograph would stand out.
Was there a moment when everything clicked?
I was selected photographer of the year when I was 23 – by far the youngest. Then even my grandmother gave up! My parents said, ‘you’re on TV! They made a documentary on you! I said (rather meekly) Yes, I know. Then they went all quiet.
But almost as soon as you won the award you turned your back on that kind of photography. Why?
I was in so much conflict - even back then. I so wanted to do my own stuff. I was only 23 but felt like I had already done this. I couldn’t do it anymore, it wasn’t interesting. I was repeating myself and being sent to the same events, year after year and after a while I couldn’t really care less. So I went freelance and started working with advertising and portraits and reportage for magazines - which was far more rewarding.
The food world is full of incredibly single-minded characters with a huge determination to succeed; did you find a kinship there?
I’ll tell you what happened: Fifteen years ago I received a call from Swedish Gourmet magazine which back then was a very upmarket food magazine - lots of creativity and new ideas. They wanted a fresh approach to food photography. They contacted a few people like me who didn’t know how to do food. People who weren’t destroyed by the idea of how food should be. I said no way I can’t do this. But they persisted and after a few phone calls the art director came down for a shoot and we had a great time and I enjoyed it very much. I was surprised by how much fun it could be to shoot food and the people involved in that world. The working method to me is the same. It’s about passion for the subject - may it be a person or a plate of food. I have to be interested, almost in love with it in one way. Not being myself is the hardest thing for me to do. The only photographer who seems to be himself is Juergen Teller who I so admire for his work. In the fashion industry the picture standard today is so poor I think he stands out. And I've always been a fan of Anton Corbijn's deceptively simple pictures.
The chefs in your photos are almost gladiatorial, there is an element of sport, combat even to proceedings - often they are 'armed' with the tools of their trade, blades and saws
Some of the more stylised photos are almost more like caricatures. I find the objects that define a person in the portrait. That’s one thing. People are generally happy when I work with them because I try to bring out some kind of honesty and look beyond the stereotypes. You hear it so many times by so many photographers 'Oh I’m looking behind the mask.' Of course I try to do that, of course I put on a mask for them but hopefully it’s a mask they like. It’s the proudest moment when these people phone up and say 'wow'!
Your chefs often look alone in their often crowded working environments. In a way they are almost landscape photographs
You’re so right. These people are quite lonely in a way, most of them. The best chefs just think in a very different way. A lot of what I do is subconscious. I like doing these things a bit differently too. I actually enjoy the difficulties in bringing that out. It’s very hard but I enjoy it. For one shoot I ordered this glove all the way from Germany it cost £140 just to do this. That’s typical for me. I’m very meticulous and I really want to do it the right way. So that’s what the whole idea is about. Like most high-end food restaurants it’s a very constructed thing - it’s about the idea.
Even at this ridiculously high concept level chefing is essentially a harsh world. We imagine you can’t push these people around too easily
No, I push them around all the time! My wife always says 'you push people so much.' Again, it’s subconscious. I can’t stop. The hardest thing is when people like René at Noma and Andoni at Mugaritz - the people I adore the most - are the people who are the hardest to shoot because I like them so much. I really want to do them justice in every way. And I maybe push them a little bit too little so that’s a bit of a problem sometimes. I have to take a step back and go in there and do them the same way I would do any other chef. It’s all about collaboration. I’ve photographed them a lot of times and they know all my tricks basically!
So how do you go about shooting Andoni Aduriz?
There is one big complication which bugs me every time. I don’t speak Spanish. And he doesn’t really speak English! I’m always asked how do you do your portraits and I always say it’s 80 per cent psychology and communication and if you can can learn that you might be a good photographer. Anyone can be trained to operate a camera. If you can’t communicate with the person you’re photographing you’ll never get close to the person within. So instead I spend time with Andoni and we get there. When I do portraits it’s like creating a theatre play. I have a stage, it could be chalk marked with boundaries. I want to move well within these boundaries and create something together. Because I was in so early with Mugaritz and honest we showed our passion and our understanding and they trusted us. They were very unused to people coming down - like they say in the book: they had time for some curious visitors from the north!
For you is it more about the search to find the new creative chef as good as Andoni or René or is it something different that drives you to find the subjects you shoot?
Oh dear, good question. I think for me it has very little to do with photography now. My wife and I have started a food magazine of our own. Fool, the title, is a play on food, foodies, foolishness. Playfulness is an ingredient that is very important to the best chefs. Our inspiration comes from the best fashion magazine and classic picture magazines such as Life. It’s about discovering people who have stories to tell and who are conscious of teaching about life, about humanity – about how to be better consumers, better people and also one hell of a cutting edge chef. So many people can make perfect food or select the perfect dishes but very few do it with this attitude of giving back to other people and reflecting what their cooking does to nature. Most people couldn’t care less to be honest. It’s about promoting these people who care and make a difference. In the magazine we try to do things very differently. It’s not about developing a style. I think about embracing photography history in a way and trying to do things in an interesting way. Not running in the same direction as everyone else. It’s the only way to do it I think.”
You can see more of the incredible photographs of Per-Anders Jorgensen in Mugaritz, available in the online store now. Click through our gallery above to whet your appetite. And check out his magazine.