Bodies of Work

With David Williams

  All photos courtesy of David Williams

All photos courtesy of David Williams

“Bodies of Work” is a recurring Newest York feature in which we sit down with a local artist or writer to hear in their own words what influences and animates them. This month, we're talking to photographer David Williams of Sunset Park, Brooklyn. He’s a vegetarian of ten years whose images of food (bacon festival included) have been published in the New York Times, The New Yorker, and Village Voice, among others. He also photographs humans and animals – most notably, men and their cats. He and his wife have two of the latter.


1. The Work of Martin Parr

Martin Parr, the photographer, has shot a ton of food stuff. I have a ton of his books. I feel like he has food in every single one of his books, even if it's not a food book. Think of England (2000) had a lot of food in it and that's definitely the first book that I ever saw of his. Then later on he released a book called Real Food (2016) that's just food photography, like what he's done over the years. I love all of his work, but his food photography has always jumped out at me. It's poppy and colorful and campy.

I got involved in shooting food totally by accident. For one of the first assignments I ever got, I want to say in 2015, I went to Connecticut and shot this woman who lives in a nunnery and makes cheese. There's a great PBS documentary that they did about her called The Cheese Nun (2006). I went there just to shoot a portrait, because that’s what I shot at that point in my career – it's weird saying career because it's only three years ago – but then I also shot some cheese. I shot it how I would shoot my portraits, with one light, just a bright strobe, and then I turned those images in. A month later, the same magazine hired me to shoot this food column for them, which was kind of weird foods, so I went and shot these sea urchins for them at the Greenpoint Fish & Lobster Company, and they said, "Just shoot it how you shoot your portraits." So I showed up, a camera and one light, and put it in some sun to give it this poppy look to it, and they loved it. It just went on from there I guess.

2. Filmmaker Les Blank

My biggest influence in a lot of my work and a lot of food photography is this documentary filmmaker named Les Blank. He made a lot of docs in the '70s and '80s, many about musicians and jazz musicians, but then he did a bunch of food stuff as well. He did this one called Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers (1980), which is just a documentary about garlic, and then in the '70s he would make these short documentaries – I think they were for a poultry company – about the start to finish of where chicken comes from. They're very colorful and fun, and the subject matter is similar to like what I like to focus on in terms of all of my personal work and my food work as well. He made another one called Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking (1990) and one that I think is called In Heaven There Is No Beer? (1984), which is a song too, and it's about polka music but there's a lot of food and sausages involved in it. Visually his style has always jumped out to me. He was along the lines of Errol Morris, another filmmaker who made The Thin Blue Line (1988), him and Werner Herzog – they're all kind of buddies I suppose.

3. HIS FAVORITE CHINATOWN RESTAURANT

Me and my friend Dan, we go to this restaurant called Buddha Bodai. It's in Chinatown and it's an all-vegetarian kosher restaurant. We try and go once a week but it's hard with our schedules, so I'd say we go maybe once every two weeks. The reason why we love this place is – the food's fine, it's like your run-of-the-mill vegetarian, fake meat Chinatown spot – but there's a giant mural in the back of the state capitol building in Denver, and we're both from Denver. I've asked everyone that works there why it's there, and none of them can really answer except, "Maybe the person who built this liked it." We're definitely regulars there. I had my bachelor party there before my wedding. It's a BYOB spot so we just showed up with a bunch of kosher wine and hung out. It's a really great place that has a very good lunch special – it's like seven bucks – so that's the place that we go and talk and hang out, and it's by far my favorite place to go to get that kind of food at.

4. VINTAGE COOKBOOKS

I'm somewhat influenced by cookbooks, particularly older ones. The issue I've always had with cookbooks is that people will say, "[This photo of yours] looks like a cookbook from the '80s or '70s," and I feel like those cookbooks are crazy over-styled. I know they're supposed to be that way, that's what that look was and they have that campy feel to them, and I guess that's what I like about them – that they're overly styled. But I don't try to style anything that I shoot.

5. WALTER LANG'S 1945 MUSICAL FILM STATE FAIR

I'm obsessed with three-color Technicolor film, which was popular in the ‘40s and ‘50s. The Wizard of Oz (1939) was shot on it. There's this film called State Fair, which is a musical from 1945, and there's a ton of fun food things in there. I've been shooting this giant food project about state fairs. I did five state fairs last summer, just capturing the state fair but strictly through the food. My goal in shooting food is always that I care as much about the environment as I do about how the food looks, which I think is why I get hired, because I very rarely work with a stylist and I very rarely even have an assistant. I show up and want to make interesting, colorful pictures and a lot of the time that involves the environment of the food. When I go shoot a restaurant, I want the restaurant to be at full capacity, I want it to be as busy as it possibly can, because I like the energy of restaurants and shooting them at that time. I feel like every time I ask a restaurant, "What time should I come?" They’ll say, "Come on a Tuesday at three, we won't be very busy so we can focus on making sure the food looks perfect for you," and I'm like, "Well, that's not what I'm interested in capturing." Like I never shoot food in the studio. It's always, "Go to this restaurant and figure it out.” That's kind of my approach with the state fairs too. I'll go for two or three days and just walk around for eight hours and look for interesting people.