Editorial Photography

Working for Bon Appétit

February 22, 2018

By Holly Stuart Hughes

In October 2017, Adweek praised 14 innovative magazines, and named Condé Nast’s Bon Appétit the hottest food magazine. In commending its “minimalist covers and youthful art direction,” Adweek noted that Bon Appétit had managed to grow its newsstand sales and its readership among millennials. Elizabeth Jaime has been the senior visuals editor at Bon Appétit since July 2017, having previously served as senior photo editor. She manages a department that includes two photo editors, a photo assistant and two staff photographers. She helps produce shoots for Bon Appétit, bonappétit.com and its two offspring websites, Basically and Healthyish. We asked her how she works with the photographers she hires and how the photography in Bon Appétit distinguishes it from other sources of information on cooking and food.

© Alex Lau

Elizabeth Jaime. © Alex Lau

Elizabeth Jaime
Senior Visuals Editor
Bon Appétit
Condé Nast
1 World Trade Center
New York, NY 10007

PDN: What’s the mission of Bon Appétit, and who are its readers?
Elizabeth Jaime: The mission of the print magazine is to cater to both the long-time reader of BA and the new readers who have come on since the rebrand in 2011 [when editor Adam Rapoport, previously style editor at GQ, joined Bon Appétit]. A lot of the readers of the websites are people who come through the search—that’s what they tell us. I imagine those to be a younger generation of people who use the internet for everything and are looking for recipes.

Basically  (www.bonAppétit.com/basically) is geared towards millennials who want to cook but don’t know how. The mission is to teach them. Everything is super instructional, there’s a video or GIFs for each step, there aren’t a lot of weird ingredients. We want to approach it with minimal propping, keeping it super straight and to the point.

Healthyish (www.bonAppétit.com/healthyish) is directed to people who live in a very healthy way but don’t mind indulging here and there. We want it to be very California, sunny and colorful and current.

PDN: There are a lot of sources for recipes and articles on food or entertaining. How does the food photography help distinguish Bon Appétit?
E.J.: We like to approach our photography not in a traditional food-photography way. We’ve always tried to commission photographers who wouldn’t ordinarily shoot food and will approach it in a way we might not have thought of. Our longtime creative director, Alex Grossman, wanted to pioneer the idea that you shoot food very simply from above in natural light because that’s the best way to see food. Now I feel like everybody has started to do that. So, in the past year and a half we’ve had conversations among the photo editors and creative team at the magazine, asking: What’s the next thing? Finding that is a challenge. We could go the route of Gather Journal or Lucky Peach [which closed in 2017] and shoot food in a more conceptual way, but our editor reminds us that we’re a national food magazine, and it’s questionable if our readers would respond to that. So it’s been about finding a middle ground.

PDN: I should ask about the use of photos shot on the iPhone.
E.J.: In March 2016, the theme of the issue was Culture. Alex Pollack, our old photo director until last summer, had wanted to shoot something with the iPhone for a while because it seemed like that’s how many people shoot food, and the Culture issue seemed like a good fit for it. Peden & Munk shot the cover—that was not shot with an iPhone. But the entire feature well was. When I approached photographers about shooting different stories [with the phone], everyone was pretty excited. There were some challenges—because we couldn’t crop into the photos—but I think it turned out well. Apple was not involved in that, it was just something we wanted to do. I thought it was cool and it felt relevant, because the iPhone is such an important part of how people shoot and share food these days. In May 2017, the only thing shot with an iPhone was the cover. We partnered with Apple to produce and shoot the cover [with the new iPhone 7] in its new portrait mode.

PDN: Are you looking for new photographers or relying on a stable of contributors?
E.J.: We definitely have a lot of photographers we’ve worked with hundreds of times, but we do like to look for new work and experiment with new photographers. There are certain stories we assign to Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott, and Peden & Munk, our go-to duos. These are complicated or expensive shoots, so we go to the roster we know and trust. But with smaller features that we want to shoot in a specific style, we’ll often commission a photographer who is well-versed in that style. And then for smaller shoots for middle and front of book, we’ll use new photographers all the time.

PDN: Where do you look for photographers?
E.J.: Honestly I look on Instagram a lot. I do look at every mailer people send me. Yes, every one.  I get a lot of emails and I may not read the whole email but I’ll click the link in the signature. I’ve found so many photographers that way.

A year and a half ago, Wes Frazer reached out to me via LinkedIn. He had won some honor, or there was something that made me look at his website. He didn’t have any food or travel on his website. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama, and all his work showed his friends in bars or just out and about having fun, but the way he curated his website—and his style—were fun and interesting. He shot a Nashville drinking story for us. Earlier this year, he shot a road trip for us. It was all barbecue places, Mexican places and desert landscapes. None of his work reflected that when he first reached out to me, but I liked his style. It was candid, he often used flash. He could capture moments in a young and fresh way. He ended up being a good fit for us.

Layout © <i>Bon Appétit</i>. Photos by Ted Cavanaugh

Images shot by Ted Cavanaugh for the Simple issue of Bon Appétit. Layout © Bon Appétit. Photos by Ted Cavanaugh

PDN: What skills does a photographer need to have to convince you to trust them with an assignment?
E.J.: It’s rare that I hire new food photographers, because a lot of food photographers are shooting food in a traditional way. What I want to see is: What is their composition like? If they’re not shooting with natural light, can they light well? We’re experimenting with less natural light these days so I’m looking for interesting ways of doing studio lighting. What we’ve found is that hard flash doesn’t always work for us—sometimes food doesn’t look appealing under a harder light. So we’re looking for someone who can light in an interesting way but not in a way that makes the food look unappealing.

The August issue was the Simple issue, and I think it’s a good demonstration of us trying to do the more conceptual still-life look. We work with Ted Cavanaugh all the time but for this we asked him to try things a little differently. He said: Of course. It felt like a new thing for us, though we were using a photographer we use all the time.

When it comes to travel work, I tend to look for photographers who are doing travel work in a fine-art way but are willing and open to approaching it in a more editorial way. I think a lot of travel photography can look very commercial and my answer to that is to find someone doing locations in a more artful way and then saying, “I love your fine-art work but we’re a magazine and we need to have people in the shots.”

We shoot a lot of restaurants. For that, I’ll usually hire someone who can shoot in a studio, because if they show up at the restaurant and the light is terrible, they’ll know how to make it work. A lot of photographers shoot restaurants as they are, they don’t bring their own lights. But what if the restaurant is great, but has a terrible tabletop surface? I want someone who will know that they have to lay out a napkin or put the dish on the restaurant’s tiled floor because it looks more interesting, or take the chef out of the kitchen to make a more powerful portrait.

PDN: Do you like to see a photographer’s personal work?
E.J.: Yes. I’ll often go to a photographer’s Instagram to see what their just-for-fun work is like. At the end of the day, food is something everyone experiences. I want to know how they capture moments when [photographing food is] informal and not professional.

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