Photographers in Publishing is a series of interviews that aim to gather insights from those who balance making and publishing photography.
Interview by Victoria Cagol –
I virtually sit down with Steve Ryan, founder of Root+Bone magazine, a quarterly publication offering insights to London’s food and drink culture, to ask him a few questions on his career as food photographer and his later move into print.
Victoria Cagol: Why food photography? How did you come to it?
Steve Ryan: Food photography was a complete accident. I skipped the food and still life modules in college as I was determined to be a music and documentary photographer, and subsequently spent my first few years shooting mostly portraiture and documentary which I loved. It was only when I moved from Berlin to London in 2010 that I did my first food shoot. It was with one of my long term clients, Movember, who were working on a cookbook project. It was great fun. There was elements of portraiture, reportage and of course food. I was getting into cooking at the time and so the opportunity to gleam some kitchen skills and cooking tips from each of the chefs was an added bonus. Lots of other food related work in London stemmed from this project but it was only later that year when sending out Christmas cards to all my London clients that I realised I was now a food photographer. I wasn’t sure how to feel about it at first. It wasn’t what I had set out to be, but I enjoyed every aspect of it and could bring my own style to it. Believe it or not, photographing your food wasn’t fashionable yet and instagram had only just been founded that year so I didn’t really know what I was getting myself in for.
VC: Which photographers inspired you early on?
SR: The first photography books I fell for were Robert Frank’s The Americans and Stephen Shore’s, Uncommon Places. They got me excited about photography and made me want to not just take beautiful photographs but go out and document my world and be a storyteller. What I love about food photography is that everyone eats. There are so many ways to explore food.
VC: How did the Root + Bone idea come about?
SR: Once I had acknowledged that I was a food photographer, I focussed my attention on only pitching food magazines. I shot for several over the next few years only to realise that they were all quite similar and were aimed mainly at my mom’s demographic. I would ask the chefs that I worked with which magazines they read and the answer was usually none or it was now defunct. I was meeting so many interesting people in food yet every story I pitched was turned down because it didn’t fit with the demographic of the magazine. I was still working on projects with the small team that made the Movember cookbook and so we decided to throw caution to the wind and make our own one.
VC: What was the hardest challenge starting out with the magazine?
SR: Looking back on it the challenges didn’t really come at the start. Maybe it was the bright lights of a new adventure that distracted us from the challenges but I recall it just being fun at the start. We didn’t have huge aspirations and none of us were quitting our jobs so it was just all a bit of fun at first. Most challenges are now a funny story like when I had 5,000 copies of issue two delivered to my house not really expecting what that would physically look like. We did start a magazine at a time when advertising was shifting away from print media into digital and native advertising. This is something that we are continually addressing and building into our business plan.
VC: What advice would you give to anybody exploring a similar idea?
SR: Gather together a good team. A magazine is not one person but a team effort. Mark, Alex and I are equal parts in this project and Root + Bone is the synergy between us.
VC: How has Root+Bone evolved since it was first founded?
SR: We printed just 2,000 copies for issue 01 and distributed through our favourite cafes, bars and restaurants nearby. It’s grown organically since then. We’re now printing 35,000 copies an issues and have 500 stockists around London and the UK. Root + Bone is now an agency with the magazine acting as our business card. We work with food and drink brands through consultancy, content creation, events and branding. Clients include Guinness, Tabasco and 40FT Brewery.
VC: How do you balance your role as contributing editor with you job as photographer?
SR: As a photographer it is important to do test shoots and always be working on personal work. I’m in a very fortunate position in that I have an outlet for my personal projects and take time out of working on commercial work to shoot something that I want to explore for Root + Bone. This then has an outlet through the magazine and sits in my personal folio also. My photography agency, JSR, are very supportive with this approach as I’m constantly learning more about the food industry which keeps my work relevant.
VC: What’s been your favourite or most interesting up to now?
SR: Edible Ink will always have a special place in my heart as it was the shoot that launched for Root + Bone. The concept was to take a pork belly, tattoo it with squid ink, cook it and eat it. Many tattoo artist tattoo pigs skin for practise but it’s not advised to eat the ink. This would be an edible art piece. This was the first shoot that did collectively as a Root + Bone project. It wasn’t just shooting a dish in a restaurant, it was exciting to be able to tell a story through food photography.
VC: What next for Root + Bone?
We have our themes outlined for our next four issues, we are launching a new website for regular content and we are working on some exciting projects with some great brands. I’ve focused a lot of my work in the UK and Ireland recently but this year I’m looking forward to traveling further afield for some food photography projects.