True To Me Too: I read you were a chef before you got into food styling.
Niklas Hansen: Yes, I am self-taught. I went to an arts school and I had planned to be an artist when I was young. Then I dropped that dream and I started to study medicine but after two and a half years I felt that I didn’t want to do that anymore and I had to find something else. I started to work in kitchens and after awhile I worked my way through and started a small restaurant in Stockholm, more like a deli lunch restaurant. I had some regulars that worked in the industry at commercial agencies and they asked me “please Niklas can’t you help us at a photo shoot”. This was about fourteen or fifteen years ago. So that’s how I got the idea that you can do food for pictures and make that into an art form. The job wasn’t that common back then, I only knew one person in Sweden that was doing it at the time.
How was the transition from being a chef to a stylist? Do you think that having that background was helpful?
It helps in that I know how to cook anything. I know how to handle any ingredient, even gross ones. I’ve always been extremely interested in food so of course that helps me. In meetings with clients when they want ideas, what can we do? What can we use? How can we make this more posh or more everyday or more Asian or more winter or more German, whatever it is I have no problem understanding what to make and how to make it.
I spoke with National Geographic underwater photographer Brian Skerry about getting started and he said you can’t just put a sign on your door saying you’re a photographer and people will line up. How did you go about getting your first jobs and building your portfolio?
(Laughs) That’s really true, you can’t do that. I sort of set up a game plan or goal, I said this is what I want to do within the next two years and I really stuck to that and realized that I needed to get more new pictures from different photographers. In the beginning you have to see that through and reach your goal. You can’t be greedy and feel like you’re not earning enough. I was peeling onions in the night working catering jobs to be able to participate in my first few photo shoots. I think you have to know what your dream is and you have to be hungry, you mustn’t be afraid of working. On the other hand I also got some advice early on in my career, they told me to never ever do anything for free because that will not pay back. In a way I think that’s true because at the beginning of my career I did some work for free just to get the experience but that didn’t really give anything. Even if I only asked for fifty dollars it was better than nothing.
What were some of your goals during your two year plan?
In the beginning I had a list of different companies and different magazines that I wanted to work with and a few different photographers that I dreamt of working with. Not every goal on that list worked. It’s very important to not be let down by no, because even if you get a no there is something to learn from that no. There is a small step you can take by getting in there showing what you have and trying to get them to listen to your ideas. You’ve won something little by doing that. After a couple years a lot of the assignments I got were from people I met in the first six months. You mustn’t give up if you believe in it.
From what I’ve read it sounds like food stylists use a lot of tools to make the food look perfect, what kind of tools or instruments do you use?
I have many different types of (makes pinching motion with his hands) what do you call that in english?
Tweezers! Yes, tweezers. I have many different sets of tweezers, scissors, knives, razors, glue, needles, pencils to dip in oil or water. I’ve got 20 of each, they all differ a little.
When you were starting out did someone say hey you should get all these tools or over the course of time did you think oh maybe this tool would help on this job and you slowly accumulated all your instruments?
When I started I got one tweezer, one pencil, one knife, one pair of scissors, and that worked fine for many years. But my kit sort of grew with all the projects.
You don’t shy away from difficult textures, the picture of the smeared butter and eggs are very beautiful and messy but it’s obviously a controlled mess, how do you go about working with these complex textures?
I love food and I’m a passionate eater and passionate chef. With the butter I had this idea of the butter that it’s so fantastic to sort of taste it when it’s cold, taste it when it’s warmer, and you can whisk it and it gets white. I was wondering about how to try to show all this in one picture and that was the idea behind that picture. Of course I used kilos of butter to make that picture, I tried and tried, I’m never afraid of starting to create a picture and then starting over again. Even if you’re tired or you want to go home, it feels a lot better to try one more time or two more times. So that’s how it went with the butter. Sometimes with different pictures, working with food stylists, the food is sort of there to make the pot or the kitchen look better or make it come to life and sometimes for The Gourmand or other magazines you can actually use the ingredients like a painter uses paint. I love to have that opportunity and variety.
Obviously the food is the star of the photo but how important is the background setting or the props surrounding it? How do you go about designing everything around the food?
My way of choosing objects I think shows that I consumed thousands of movies and thousands of fashion magazines during the 1980s. I try to create a question mark or a story or something that helps embrace the food. Tell a story, raise a question, embrace the food, it has to be one of those. Sometimes the brain completes the picture because the eyes can sort of grip the picture, what am I seeing here? I’m trying to get at these ideas. I try to think like that at least and that’s how I choose backgrounds most of the time. That’s a huge inspiration, movies, old fashion magazines, even new fashion magazines.
If it’s a steak I usually start off with what are the first obvious accessories to the steak and then I try to clean away some of them. Sometimes it’s good to have one of the obvious ones but not only the obvious ones. Then I go through the second circle, third circle.
You’ve worked in both commercially, where you are trying to make a product look good for advertisements and artistic mediums where you seem to have more artistic liberties. What is the difference between working in these two fields? Which do you prefer?
In one way they don’t. It’s an assignment and you have to run up that hill. The difficulties are different from each other but there are difficulties in both. Working on commercial assignments I can’t really listen to anything but the client and the brief and I have to put all my effort into interpreting what they want and figure out what they’re after. You need to be prepared if they say there will be maybe some bird in the picture and then I have to be prepared because maybe they’ll change the bird to a fish and I’ll have to have the fish up my sleeve.
The artistic ones are difficult in another way because you don’t want to sit around thinking oh I’d like to do that or that would be great but it’s much different to actually do it and compose it. I always work together with the photographer, you need to collaborate when you do that. This work is a lot about collaboration, a lot.
You’ve been working with Gustav Almestal a lot for The Gourmand, what is the relationship and process like between photographer and stylist?
Gustav and I start together on the idea, we start with a white piece of paper. That differs though, it’s not always like that when you work with a photographer but that’s how Gustav and I work. We usually brainstorm together about whether we should go into poetry or find something biblical and try to figure out what the main scene is. That’s how it was on the last series we did for The Gourmand A Bird’s Odyssey, I said no nothing biblical this time, but something poetic. We went off and after awhile Gustav said “I like feathers Niklas, what about that?” and then I said we should do something with birds. That’s sort of the process in short.
I imagine sometimes you’ll get hired and a photographer gets hired and you show up separately and meet on set. How do you make the most out of working with someone you just met?
You have to be good at reading people and sometimes when you come to the set and meet the photographer or the art director. When you have to start working with them you might feel like maybe I’m not very fond of this person but you have to put all that to the side because you’re there to collaborate on an assignment. I sort of like that part, I don’t mind it, I sort of enjoy figuring out how to make the most of it that day.
How many people are usually on set?
If it is a commercial it could be up to forty people and if it’s commercial pictures it’s usually between one and three from the client, maybe one or two art directors, photographer, an assistant, me, sometimes I have an assistant, so around eight.
What does your assistant do?
It varies. Sometimes it’s only working errands. But since I like the collaboration part of it I try to sketch this is my goal idea with this upcoming project in two weeks, let’s make a mood board on the wall so we can look at that while I’m working on my current project. I’m always open to other people’s ideas.
Do you think that being an assistant is a good way to learn the job and get into the industry.
Oh yah! Because it’s extremely important to know what it’s like during the photo shoot. I would say every photo shoot you participate in is good for you. I think for myself after I had done 100 different shoots I sort of came to the point that I could be comfortable in any shoot or any location, it didn’t matter, and that’s a huge strength for me. If I had the opportunity to be an assistant I’m sure I could have minimized that time to 80 or 75 shoots.
You’ve also done a variety of television commercials where the food you have styled is being moved and eaten and filmed from different angles, what are some challenges in working with film? Is it much different than doing still shots?
Many people think that film is more challenging but it’s actually easier than doing stills because when the camera is moving you never see the details. The motion itself helps the food, so it’s actually less work. The stills you really need to work with the tweezers and small tools under the lights while the salad is dying and you realize that in two minutes you’ll have to start over again. You don’t have to be that much of a perfectionist when you’re doing film. On the other hand you have to be more prepared because if you’re doing a commercial for roasted chicken then you have to have two prepared and fifty almost prepared because you can’t have a crew of twenty people standing around waiting for you. That’s the biggest difficulty but you don’t need to treat the chicken the same way you would in in stills, you don’t need to use the pencils or apply oil here and there or maybe tilt it two degrees. It’s not like that.
Some food styling tries to make the food look better with photoshop. How important is it to be transparent and show where the food is coming from, acknowledge the steps of how it’s made and embrace the process?
I think that’s a trend, to show it and embrace the whole process. That was one thing I wanted to play with when I did the bird and took it that far, even showing the bones from the chicken and this golden picture with fried chicken legs to see the crispy skin. I think that’s a trend and I think we’ll see more of that.
How do you deal with the changing trends and try to stay fresh?
You never know if you are fresh and you never know if the job you did last week was fresh. You sort of know after awhile how people are looking at it. I think it’s extremely important that when I feel like I am repeating myself that I’m out of the league in the sense of staying fresh. There is really nothing wrong with it, you can make a career doing the same thing over and over and build a trademark. I think that you shouldn’t repeat yourself and you should dare to dare. You should not be afraid of working with a photographer even if you all of a sudden feel uncomfortable or insecure, that could be a part of the process.
Do clients ever hire you and say this is a trend, this is popular, can you to do this for us?
It happens. A client will double check if it’s a trend and if we do it. Can we do macaroons to sell this kitchen machine? No macaroons has been done and shown in every food blog all over the world for five years so that’s not the way.
What are some of the perks of the job? Do you get to eat a lot of food? Do you get to travel?
I try to travel as much as I can and try to visit a couple of new places every year. A month ago I went to Tokyo for the first time, it was great fun. At home I hardly throw away any food but to me when I’m at work the food I work with is sort of contaminated (laughs). I touch it with my fingers and use maybe a needle or it’s under the lights for three hours and I can almost see that the meat is growing. To me the food in the studio is always contaminated, I never ever taste my food there. I cook a lot in my spare time, I love to stand in front of the stove stirring my pots, I can’t imagine anything better to do on my spare time.
What are your thoughts on the whole food porn trend? It seems like everyone is instagraming their dinner and starting their own food photography blogs? Everyone seems to think they’re a food stylist now.
Everyone felt like they had to show what they were eating. I feel like those Instagram pictures of dinner or on Facebook or Twitter or whatever is more to show who I am, to say “I’m here”, it doesn’t matter if it’s showing that I’m buying these shoes or I’m having this dinner. I can’t lie, in the beginning, a couple of years ago, I really thought “shit is this going to be a threat, is this what’s going to take me?” But today? No. I’m actually happy that people are so picture obsessed today. More people today are interested and asking questions like how did you do that? It’s more common today, people have started to look at food pictures in another way since they started to take ten of them everyday. I think it’s great.
So you’re into everyone taking pictures but you aren’t threatened by the quality of them?
No. But I’ve seen some people starting off like that, there is proof that it works. I would say that if you do only that it probably won’t get you started in the business. You can do that as an extra practice but I wouldn’t say that you would ever get an assignment by saying here’s my Instagram or my blog.
You’ve been very busy recently can you tell me a little bit about what you’ve been working on?
One of the assignments lately has been for a company that is releasing a new line of top of the line kitchen machines. The assignment has been to make pictures for upcoming promotions, headliners for the web, pictures for the cookbook, shooting commercials for the web. This has been a very fun assignment because it’s for a top of the line product, I think the cost for a regular person would be like 1.2 million Swedish Krona so that’s like 140,000 Euros. There hasn’t been any question of cost, no one’s asking how much the fish or the paint is, they have only been interested in delivering quality pictures.
It has been stressful due to the fact that I’m not doing one assignment at a time. I have to prep for my next one during the night and I’m shooting something else during the day. I have assignments booked for the next six weeks. So I’m prepping tonight for the one I’m shooting next Monday and I have post-its with what I’m doing this week and then next week the marble is coming from Italy and where are the plates? Will the mushrooms be delivered on time?
Do you source your own stuff? You mentioned the marble.
Most of the time it’s like that. Sometimes, but very rarely, the photographer or even the client will have someone do it but most of the time in the assignment I have to organize the background, show them different options, I can’t show the same marble piece every time. When I started off I was only doing the food but then later I was doing the food and maybe the plates and it sort of grew that I’m now taking care of the entire picture. I started to take care of the paint on the wall or different tables and chairs. Sometimes I still work together with a set designer on an assignment so I’m taking care of what’s on the table and someone else is taking care of what’s in the room and a fashion stylist is putting clothes on the people.
Do you have a dream project?
I want to do an old Danish company that does porcelain china, called Royal Copenhagen and that company has been around since 1770 or something. I would love to do something for them.
Do you have any final advice for someone looking to get into food styling?
Don’t get stuck with the sweets. I see a lot of food stylists today that do the cupcakes and the macaroons. Don’t get stuck there, that field is full.