For chefs, food is their clay. For photographers like Brent Parker Jones, food is their muse. In fact, food is the only subject in this photographer’s work! With so many colors, textures, styles, cultures, and types of cuisine to choose from, it’s hard to keep a lens away from the infinite ways to capture the story food tells. Brent Parker Jones gives us his lively and playful views of food styling, shooting techniques, and why Melbourne is the perfect city for foodies.
Brent Parker Jones feels a connection with just about every dish he comes across. It’s no wonder he wound up in a career photographing dishes and ingredients for chefs, cookbooks, food magazines, and restaurants all over Australia. But for this photographer, he feels as though he’s never worked a day in his life. That is true passion, and that is true joy.
There’s nothing like asking a passionate individual about the work they love doing – it’s easy to sense the smile on their face simply through their words.
When and how did your love of food photography begin?
I was about 14 years old, when I took over the old family camera. My father was an early adopter of technology and was already using his new toy – an instant SX70 Polaroid camera – to capture every family event. The story of our family memories does not end well – most of them are now a muddy brown wash of chemicals in between two sheets of plastic.
The old Canon TLb with a 50mm lens that I inadvertently inherited was as heavy as a brick – and just as user friendly! I took my camera to school for an art project shortly after, because I had stories and ideas to communicate and was becoming more and more frustrated that I could not draw or paint them. Photography was my solution.
Growing up in the 70’s in country Victoria and having the dream of becoming a graphic designer with no drawing skills was a bridge too far for a cranky high school graphics teacher. A chef’s apprenticeship was also on the cards as I had a love for cooking. After all, I had been cooking my own breakfast since I was five. But it was photography that won in the end as I found a way to combine the two.
Can you describe both your personal and professional style/aesthetic?
I would like to think my style is story-telling. To me, a recipe is a story, and I am the illustrator. I believe a great food image is one that invokes a desire in someone to make it themselves or to appreciate the produce in a different light.
When you can look at the picture next to a recipe and say to yourself, “I know how to make that, I know how that tastes, I want that for dinner tonight, and I don’t even need to read the text”… then my team and I have done our job.
Food and the love of eating and sharing food. Food, for all its colors, textures, messy drips, drops, splashes, cracks and crumbs. All its wonderful flavors and smells that you have experienced in times passed – which come back to you when you see it in an image.
Food is so powerful. We all have our own story, connection, and experience with food. Mum’s chocolate hedgehog at Christmas makes you feel like it’s finally Christmas time. Or, maybe it’s the first time you had crystal clear phở that explodes in your mouth with a depth of flavor you never expected from what looks like a bowl of hot water. Or, it could be that first time you had a Peking duck pancake with crisp spring onions and hoisin sauce. This is what I find so fascinating about food.
I often say, “I have never had a real job or worked a day in my life.” Working with food and photography is how I see myself as a person. It’s not just something I fell into. I don’t call myself a food photographer, because I am interested in food. My version of this old saying is – the chicken that laid the egg for the burger was interested, but the pig was truly committed to the bacon. I am very, very lucky to earn a living as a food photographer.
Tell us the story behind some of your favorite works.
I struggle with favorites, as I always see things I would have liked to have done differently. The cover image in my folio of the finished Mexican meal would come close to being a favorite. I shot this during the holidays in Bali with my small family and our precious friends. One night, we were out for dinner at a Mexican restaurant with my food stylist Le,e and we loved the plates so much we wanted to take them home for our props collection (as you do after a few tequilas!). Of course, we did the right thing and asked management if they were for sale. Puzzled, he asked us why. We explained to him, and – quick as you like – he said, ”No – but you can work for them.” Damn expensive plates, I thought at the time. We said “…Yes, but you buy dinner for us all on another night next week.” Done deal.
The next day my best man Jefferson was flying in from Melbourne, and I asked him to swing by my studio and pick up my working camera kit and laptop. Lee and I did an amazing job, even though she was very sick with Bali Belly. Lee was really not in a good way at all and only just held it together being the professional she is. To this day, she laughs and curses those plates, as she was so sick that she could not come and enjoy the dinner she had worked so hard for. I went with the rest of the gang, drank, and ate her share. It is still funny to this day.
My second favorite image comes from shooting with my friend, Executive Chef Pierrick Boyer. We are both busy and passionate, yet we find the time to sync our diaries and shoot together. We would love to do a book together, and we are just waiting for the right opportunity to present itself. I love this one – mainly because for this series of images, I handmade the backgrounds.
Finally, this image is from a book where I had donated my time. I was approached by local cook and identity, Jeffrey Tan. Jeffrey is in the midst of writing a cookbook to mark his retirement from 30 years at Melbourne kitchens. Jeffery is hoping to raise a profit of sales to go towards Alzheimer’s research.
What are the biggest challenges you face in your work? How do you overcome them?
The skill involved in food photography can often be underestimated, and I find myself educating new clients on what it takes to produce quality food images. It takes copious amounts of time to shop, prepare, style, photograph, and execute one image that tells a story. As a hands on food photographer, I make all of my own backgrounds and continually grow my props collection. I love doing the shopping for the shoots, as it keeps me connected to the kitchen, to the studio, and to the recipe we are translating.
What makes living in Melbourne so special? How does it inspire you?
This is the world’s most livable city for a reason. We have the best of every culture at our fingertips and it is growing every year. If you look in the dictionary, the term ‘cultural melting pot,’ you will see a Google map with a big red pin on Melbourne! Melbournians take their food, wine, and coffee culture very seriously. I feel the Melbourne food culture is responsible for fostering food trends on a global scale. Melbournians are always hungry for new foodie trends to capture with social media.
From the cupcake and macaroon revolution of 2012, the everything Mexican obsession to the cold press anything you can get into your own designer juice label. Now it’s the Cronut/Bronut- donut’s filled with anything and Nutella – at every deli and coffee house in town. This is all followed closely by US smokehouse brisket, burgers, ribs, and fried chicken. You can’t escape it! The new hottest and hardest to find on the map eateries just keep popping up, producing one more food line where Melbournians willingly stand in to taste the newest trendy offering.
And don’t get me going on the amazing food trucks. I love them so much – I wish I had four stomachs like a cow. And if you have ever wanted to own a brewery or distillery, Melbourne is the place you may want to look at to set up shop. I feel Melbournians are early adopters of anything new with a swanky font and cool screen-printed graphics on a bottle. And that’s just the beginning. Being a food photographer in Melbourne, the depth of Melbourne’s food culture allows me to shoot anything from anywhere, as I can source ingredients from around the globe at my finger tips.
3 of your favorite spots in Melbourne?
I am very much a home body. My home is my castle. My friends call it the Little Blue House. Or, if they are teasing me, The Compound! I love to cook and entertain at home – it’s how I have fun, relax, and socialize.
My second favorite place are markets. I love going to Little Saigon market, in Footscray. It is a happy place – busy, loud, and there is always a bargain being banged out noisily in morse code from a fruit box. I liken it to traveling to Asia without getting on a plane. This is instant proof of our cultural richness.
Picking a third is hard! I would love to give a few honorable mentions instead. Oakleigh – for its Greek restaurant strips with their endless supply of platters and dips and charred meats. Melbourne CBD (central business district) cocktail bar – Madame Brussels. And for a microbrewery beer – try Section 8, and groove to some tribal tech house. Pellegrini’s – for a bowl of pasta at the bar, topped with a bolognese from a pot that has never ran dry since 1950. MoVida next door – the ultimate place to start a food crawl through the numerous lane ways of a city designed on a grid.
You cannot get lost in Melbourne…Turn left, or turn right – you will find something new each time.
3 instagram accounts you love to follow?
First, I would have to say my mate and pastry chef @pierrickboyer. He is my Guru of chocolate, and I love shooting with him.
Second, is @mkarstad. If you can ever have a man crush on someone you don’t know a thing about, Mikkel has my vote. With his beautiful blog, We You They Ate, his hands on approach, sensitivity, eye for detail, softness, and his honesty with the produce he uses – he is the full package of what is possible from someone with a passion for food and a beautiful style. His photography is just, just, just – I will say it again. Beautiful.
Third, is my ex chef and stylist assistant who has returned to Korea and has just blossomed into the food stylist I believed she could always be: @millie_sy.
5 things you can’t live without?
My family is small and precious, as are my friends. I am the richest person I know, if wealth was entirely based on those whom I love and call a friend. My kitchen, my BBQ, and fishing rods. I love to hunt, gather, and share. I do my best thinking and problem solving under a hot shower. Music, of all kinds, from Foo Fighters to Funk. (Oh, and I can’t live without good coffee!)
What’s next for you?
Funny you should ask. I am prepping to be one of four creative presenters at The Digital Show, which is being held in Melbourne this year. I am presenting nine classes on Creative Food Photography. It will be fun. After this, I will be writing recipes, scripts and storyboards for a food film recipe series for a well known Australian dip manufacturer.