Aaron McLean is a food photographer for magazines and cookbooks. He recently set up and published the first edition of Stone Soup, a free publication that covers a wide variety of issues around the production and provision of food, and food culture.

The photos in this interview are flasher than usual because he supplied them.


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” The way that I shoot food is really simple, anyone could do it. I basically plonk a plate next to a window and take a photograph of it.”

–Aaron McLean


Interviewer

Do you have a business card?

 Aaron McLean

No.

 Interviewer

Do you have a job title?

Aaron McLean

No, not really.

Interviewer

So when people ask you what do you do what do you say?

Aaron McLean

I try to avoid answering that question. I look to my feet and then I usually say, I take pictures, and then they say, ‘What do you take pictures of’, and I say, ‘Food’, and then they say, ‘That’s a strange thing to do’.

 Interviewer

You sound like a poet.

 Aaron McLean

Do you think so?

 Interviewer

Yeah. Poets like to avoid saying they’re poets, because it sounds pretentious or something.

Aaron McLean

If I could call myself a poet and still be able to eat, I’d say it with pride.

Interviewer

How long have you been taking pictures of food for?

 Aaron McLean

Probably about 12 years or 13 years, quite a while.

Interviewer

How did you come to doing this?

Aaron McLean

I had worked in restaurants since I left school, then I decided out of the blue that I wanted to buy a camera because I’d fallen out of love with playing the guitar badly. So I got the camera and went around the world, then I studied in Sydney.

Actually, I didn’t study, I went and worked in a restaurant that was in the basement of the Australian Centre for Photography so that I could be in that space and use their facilities; the dark rooms and the short courses they ran.

Back then, Sydney had a pretty robust food culture and Australians were further down the food path than we are now.

Interviewer

What do you mean by that?

Aaron McLean

In terms of their food culture, the understanding and enthusiasm for good quality food was greater, people were more interested. As a by-product of that interest there were a lot of food photographers and they were held in very high regard. I was exposed to them in the restaurant I worked in, and it seemed a nice way to get out of restaurants and tie what I knew into my new-found pursuit of photography.

Interviewer

So you’re a self-taught photographer?

Aaron McLean

Yes.

Interviewer

Is that what most photographers are?

Aaron McLean

There’s an industry in pumping out photographers these days, but most of the people I know who make a living from photography are self-taught.


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Interviewer

Did you have any photographers in your family?

Aaron McLean

My uncle made movies, so I guess it seemed possible, that you could do things with pictures. My cousin and both my sisters worked in film, but I was never drawn to film. Then, after I started working as a photographer, my mother told me that both my grandfather and great-grandfather had been photographers, which is a story I had never heard previously. So it’s in the genes, I just didn’t know until I’d picked up a camera.

Interviewer

What does your working day look like?

Aaron McLean

I go and take photographs, usually at the house of a food stylist.

Interviewer

So those photographs happen in their houses?

Aaron McLean

Yeah. In the era of budgets, people used studios. When I first came back to New Zealand, compared to what I was seeing in Australia, the aesthetic was still very 80s, still very entrenched in the studio.

Interviewer

What year was that?

Aaron McLean

2000-ish.

Interviewer

And it still seemed 80s?

Aaron McLean

Back then it was more about the photographer in terms of ‘look at how many lights I’ve used,’ and less about the food. Then it changed so that there was a movement towards a more photo-journalistic approach, using natural light and trying to represent the food as being real, rather than hyper-real; something that you would like to eat. So it made more sense to shoot at people’s houses because you’re using natural light and the food stylists don’t have to pack everything up, and of course publishers were even more enthusiastic about that because suddenly they didn’t have to pay for all of those things that went into doing a studio shoot.


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Office shoot


Interviewer

So what does a typical working day look like?

Aaron McLean

If you’re shooting a feature for a magazine, well it’s gentleman’s hours – you turn up at ten and you’re out of there by 4 or 5.

 Interviewer

What about getting the pictures ready to use?

Aaron McLean

Yeah, I think the move into the digital realm takes up more of your time after the shoot, because if you were in the studio you could be more efficient, editing as you go, but with digital you go back home and you’ve got all of these images to deal with.

You create a selection for an art director who then chooses what they want to publish, so they come back to you with their selections and from there you prepare the images that they’ll print.

Interviewer

And do you digitally manipulate the photos?

Aaron McLean

You colour grade the photos. You do this to give it a particular feeling, but it’s not heavily retouched because food, unlike a bikini model, wants to be real. People don’t want to eat stuff that doesn’t look real; they might aspire to other things that look better than reality.


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Set-up for a shoot


Interviewer

Do you see your photos as being an art or a craft or do you not draw that distinction?

 Aaron McLean

I think of it as a craft. I don’t think you should even attempt to put the art label on it; it’s a form of communication which is executed through craft.

When I came into photography a lot of people were lamenting the death of the craft of photography and it felt like they were all a bunch of old wankers.

 Interviewer

Why were they lamenting that?

Aaron McLean

Because technology makes things easier, and of course that’s still happening, so maybe I’ll join the chorus because it really is pretty easy to take a good picture these days. Cameras shoot acceptable photographs in the dark, the software makes things look pretty good. Some of the favourite photos I’ve taken have been on my iphone, but that’s good in that it’s a democratization of image making.

Interviewer

I read that David and Victoria Beckham’s eldest son is shooting for some fancy clothing label and there are a bunch of professional photographers up in arms about it. And the fancy label said, well yeah, he’s got a million followers on Instagram so of course we’re going with him.

 Aaron McLean

Yes, well, there’s two sides to it. Photography used to be the domain of rich white men because you had to have a lot of money to buy camera equipment. It cost me a lot of money to buy enough equipment to even walk in the door of a publisher and ask if I could work for them, and that’s still true to a point, but these days if you have some talent you can shoot on your phone, show people and you might get a break.

The flip side is that people are getting traction through their following on social media which might be the byproduct of being a very efficient narcissist, rather than being good at what you do. If you’ve got ten thousand followers you’re in, even if what you do is crap because publishing’s about eyes rather than the quality of your content.

Interviewer

Do you think that Instagram is for pictures of dinner or of cats?

Aaron McLean

Well, that speaks to the downside of the internet doesn’t it – the way it reinforces our own world view so if you’re obsessed with cats you’re only going to see cats. And the rest of us are going to see food.


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Cats or food? (credit: Aaron McLean)


Interviewer

So do you like Instagram as a method of communicating?

Aaron McLean

Yeah I do. What I like about it is that it’s a visual medium that operates like a stream of consciousness, and because it isn’t work I can be cheeky and more reflective of who I am.

When Instagram came along it was a nice opportunity to take pictures on your phone that you took little care over. It’s a way of having a conversation with people all around the world who share your interests, which is a good thing about social media in general and an antidote to some of the conversations that happen on twitter.

Interviewer

Do you think there are attributes that a photographer should have?

Aaron McLean

There was a Magnum photographer who said you should photograph the things that you love.

The way that I shoot food is really simple, anyone could do it. I basically plonk a plate next to a window and take a photograph of it. I am moving away from natural light though because it gets boring doing the same thing all the time all day. Also, there’s a shit load of people coming in and shooting like that and so there’s a conscious effort to push back towards craft, but predominantly because it gets boring. I don’t want to do the same thing everyday for the rest of my life.


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Seeds (credit: Aaron McLean)


Interviewer

Do you have a favourite food that you like photographing?

Aaron McLean

I like two extremes – I like simple, bold, still-life imagery and that could be of a vegetable that’s just been pulled out of the ground. Last year I did a series on seeds from my garden.

But then I also like what I’d call narrative photography, where you’re giving people a sense that they’re part of an occasion – a feast, with any kind of food.  And I’d like to do that in a less aspirational way.

Interviewer

That would be good. I’ve had a response to certain food magazines where I’ve actually thrown them across the room because of those pictures.

 Aaron McLean

Yeah, fuck you with your $300 plate and your $500 cutlery set.

 Interviewer

Yes, and that they’re are these very happy people, everything’s just so marvellous for them and they’re eating outside and they haven’t got any food on their shirts and no one looks harassed.

Aaron McLean

Yes, I would like to have it look more like the people that I actually entertain or have dinner with, because we like food and eat it too. But that goes back to the advertisers. We’re making content for people who can buy the Audi that’s in the ad. So we’re not making content for the people who are eating dumplings for ten bucks on Dominion Road, even though they love food just as much.

Interviewer

Do you like photographing people?

Aaron McLean

Yeah, and I’d like to do that more. I did do a phase of travel photography and that was probably my favourite thing. That’s where Stone Soup comes in, I really like stories about people and place, and food. Those sorts of stories aren’t being commissioned and I wanted an opportunity to be able to tell them.

Interviewer

Is that why you created Stone Soup, to tell those stories?

Aaron McLean

It came out of multiple things – it came out of the state of publishing and the fact that there is a whole bunch of talent that’s either idle or under-utililised. People don’t get to tell the stories that they want to tell. Instead they’re commissioned to create sponsored content and, you know, not rock the boat – don’t write about free range chooks because Rangitiki is owned by Tegal and they might not advertise with us anymore or what have you. So, we’re trying to create a platform for that sort of discussion.

Interviewer

So there’s a political intention there also?

Aaron McLean

Yeah. What was fascinating to me as somebody who went into a kind of social media political vortex is you can talk about economics endlessly, and economics are so explicitly at the root of most frustrations, and it falls on deaf ears except amongst the wonks. But food – beyond what you’re posting on Instagram of your dinner – really seems to resonate, particularly with young people.

The greatest and most positive interactions I’ve had and the real life friendships I’ve made have been around food. But not what restaurant’s hip; food security, food sovereignty, the effect of food production on the environment, our right to land to grow food…. Young people who might otherwise be politically disinterested gravitate towards it as a lens through which to make sense of some of the madness and also as a path to empowerment, a space outside of the market. It taps into the root of many real issues. And so I decided to create a platform upon which to tell very positive stories about people who think and act in that space, under a thin veil of being of the ‘food media’.

Interviewer

So who are the people you’re talking to?

Aaron McLean

They’re people who that I’ve worked with for a long time – contributors, writers, photographers – people who work in publishing but they’re all a little hamstrung by present conditions.

Interviewer

That’s a general consensus then – that these people are feeling hamstrung?

Aaron McLean

I think so, there’s varying levels of frustration. It’s not like an existential crisis, but they just think – well it would be nice to write about this and I haven’t got a platform for it within the media that I’ve found myself entrenched in because they don’t talk about those things anymore. Particularly in food where it’s become about what you can cook in five minutes on Wednesday night or what you can cook for fifteen bucks, so the food media which used to tell and which internationally still does tell more robust stories about how we produce our food and who produces it, and the environmental impacts on the production of food, the social impacts, that’s totally missing from NZ food media.

Interviewer

Do you think more of those stories are told in international media?

Aaron McLean

Yes, definitely. I don’t think it’s some sort of conspiracy so much as a self-taming, and I don’t even know that it’s conscious in a lot of instances, it’s just part of the power dynamic that exists within a publishing industry that’s desperate to hold onto its place. The advertising has disappeared. APN is in the red, these companies are only still functioning because banks don’t want to foreclose on them, and so there’s lots of pressure.

This is part of the inspiration for Stone Soup, but also it’s for me a desire to participate more in the curation and the telling of those stories rather than waiting for the phone to ring and saying yes I’ll come and photograph that lamb chop for you.

 Interviewer

Do you photograph many lamb chops?

 Aaron McLean

Well, I’ve done far too many over the years, I don’t know who gets to eat them cause they’re quite expensive these days.

Interviewer

What did you want to be when you were seven?

Aaron McLean

A ski-racer. Which, in fact, was what I was.

 


Stone Soup is on Instagram

May 2016, interview by The Invisible Writer.

 

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