Evan Sung: Chameleon in the Kitchen

Seyine Park /

Perusing through photographer Evan Sung’s work, you’ll recognize his versatility in style, lighting, composition, subject, and more – all of which stem from his profound ability to adapt to any given situation and translate that into a beautiful image. With the natural gift of blending flawlessly into his environment, Evan captures the most intimate moments whilst magically staying out of view. Read on as he tells us his thoughts on collaboration, the importance of adapting, and what other photographers he would like to sit and have a beer with. We don’t need to remind you to stop and enjoy the photos, do we?

Please tell us a little about yourself.
I was born in Manhattan, to parents who emigrated from Taiwan in the late ’60s. Both my parents were creative and aesthetic in certain ways, interested in fashion, style, and interior design. But I actually had almost no exposure to photography until college. I do remember my grandfather was very into photography, but we didn’t see a lot of him since he lived in Tokyo.

I first laid hands on a camera towards the end of college at NYU. An artist friend showed me his old Twin Lens reflex camera, like a Rolleiflex, and it seemed like a magical thing – the way it reflected and flipped the world around in that ground glass screen. He invited me to go shooting around with him and his girlfriend, and it became the foundation of a deep friendship. He is a real artist, dedicated, multi-disciplinary, and was a great inspiration.

Evan Sung

Self-portrait. © Evan Sung.

I did it purely as a hobby for a while, and it was only in 2000 that I decided that I wanted to pursue it as a career. Then, I worked in Paris for 2 years as an assistant to a photographer named Giacomo Bretzel, who shot a lot of travel, food, and lifestyle. I think I really started to enjoy and understand food photography in that period.

Evan Sung

Pine sautéed redfish salsify, pine tree sauce, and burned butter vinegar by chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason at DILL Restaurant. © Evan Sung.

Evan Sung

Burned rutabaga apple cider dill by chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason at DILL Restaurant. © Evan Sung.

Describe your personal and professional style/aesthetic.
I’m always so much more comfortable to let my work speak for me, but if pressed, I’d say that my own style tends towards a natural, clean, crisp style.  I’m lucky enough to work with a wide range of talented people, and I think I am generally adaptable.  But I like my work to have a bit of story to it, a certain looseness and spontaneity.  It’s always important to me that when I shoot food, the colors and textures of the food really show through.

Evan Sung

Wild oyster, whipped cream, fermented kohlrabi, seaweed and herbs by chef Frederik Berselius at Aska. © Evan Sung.

What do you think makes your work unique?
There are so many wonderful, talented photographers out there, but I think one of the things that I’m proud of – that I bring to the table – is a sense of collaboration.  I really love working with talented people, talented chefs, cooks, stylists.  I was a psychology major in college, and I think I’ve always been sensitive to what other people are thinking or feeling.  So, I think I really attune to what a chef, for example, is trying to communicate with their food or plating. I try and capture that in the image, and I think people respond to that spirit of collaboration.  I’ve also been lucky enough to work on cookbooks in all sorts of places – Iceland, Senegal, India. I feel an openness and curiosity towards the world and the people I meet, and I think that opens doors to me that might sometimes be closed to others.

Evan Sung

Razor clam, almond, and pickled garlic by chef Matthew Lightner at Atera. © Evan Sung.

Do you take any extra or unusual steps to control your work environment?
Working for the New York Times for almost a decade definitely trains you to make the most of any environment, and adapt to the situation.  But when I can, of course, I try to create an environment where I can control the light.  I’m generally put off by strange color casts, and always try to get pure, clear colors out of my images.  I’ve shot in all manners of weird environments, and you make it work.  It’s a big part of a photographer’s job, I think – problem solving and adapting.

Evan Sung

Tennessee truffle honeycomb for Regalis Foods. © Evan Sung.

What other photographers today do you admire?
There are many, of course!  I often think of who I would want to have a beer with and maybe not even necessarily talk shop with.  I really respect the work of Eric Wolfinger, Peter Frank Edwards, Ed Anderson and more.

From your work, can you please select some projects you are most proud of and tell us the story behind it?
I’m really proud of a new Senegalese cookbook coming out in September by Chef Pierre Thiam from Lake Isle Press.  Just the experience of spending time in such an amazing country, a place it had never occurred to me to visit,  but a place I ended up really falling in love with – was great.  Really special.  I think it will be a fun, dynamic book that will hopefully expose more people to West African cuisine.

Evan Sung

Restaurant staff in Dakar huddle around a plate of thieboudienne. From chef Pierre Thiam’s upcoming book Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes from the Source to the Bowl, September 2015. © Evan Sung.

Evan Sung

Harvesting salt from Senegal’s Pink Lake. From chef Pierre Thiam’s upcoming book, Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes from the Source to the Bowl, September 2015. © Evan Sung.

But of all my projects, I’d have to say my collaboration with Chef Paul Liebrandt (“To The Bone“, with Andrew Friedman, Clarkson Potter) was the most significant.  Chef Liebrandt is a towering talent and chef who makes challenging and surprising but truly delicious food.  We met at the opening of his restaurant Corton in Tribeca, NYC.  I was immediately struck by his plating and his natural gift for it. We started collaborating there and it led to this book. Out of that working relationship developed a real mutual understanding and friendship. Actually, both Chef Liebrandt and his co-author Andrew Friedman are staggering talents and great people. I’m happy to say that that project led to a book I am immensely proud of and invaluable friendships with both men.

Evan Sung

Rhubarb, strawberry, and cucumber royale by chef Paul Liebrandt at Corton (closed). From his “To The Bone” cookbook. © Evan Sung.

Evan Sung

Duck leg torte, carrot, and meyer lemon by chef Paul Liebrandt at Corton (closed). From his “To The Bone” cookbook. © Evan Sung.

Evan Sung

Smoked caramel and pomegranate by chef Paul Liebrandt at Corton (closed). From his “To The Bone” cookbook. © Evan Sung.

What are you working on now, and what’s next? Any personal projects?
I’ve got a few cookbooks on deck, including one that will shoot in August with Food & Wine‘s Best New Chef of 2015, Chef Katie Button of Curate, in Asheville, NC.  I’m excited for the impending release of a cookbook from Chef Alexander Stupak and Jordana Rothman, that I think will stimulate an exciting conversation about tacos and Mexican food in general.  I recently completed work on a book with Iron Chef Morimoto, which was an amazing and fun experience.

All my work feels so personal – I guess I take it all pretty seriously. I’m always on the lookout for projects that will take me somewhere new.  I’d love to discover the Middle East. It would be great to do something in Taiwan as well.  To reconnect with my own heritage in that way would be really gratifying.

Evan Sung

Portrait of tuna cannery worker in Italy for chef Michael White’s cookbook, “Classico e Moderno”. © Evan Sung.

Best tips for taking a great food picture?
Start with a great chef! Ha. But seriously, I think anyone is capable of making a great food photograph. I think, with any photograph, what can make it great is what makes it personal.  Everyone (almost) eats, and so I think it comes down to thinking about what that experience means to you, and then trying to capture that feeling.  Of course, the internet makes it supremely easy to study and learn photography. So there are all those technical tips you can learn just from looking at other work you like.  Start with diffused bright window light, and experiment from there – I think we’ve all started there!

5 things you can’t live without?
In no particular order:
1. Family
2. The internet (I google everything)
3. A comfortable pair of jeans
4. New York City
5. Noodles/pasta

Evan Sung

Scallop amuse by chef Cesar Ramirez at The Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare. © Evan Sung.

Hungry for more? View more of Evan Sung’s photography here.