There are those who cook. There are those who eat. And in the middle, there are those who glorify the work of the former to whet the appetite of the latter. Jean-Blaise Hall is one such artist-in-the-middle, from a family of photographers who dedicate their art to haute cuisine.
Born in Switzerland and where he attended the School of Applied Arts in Vevey, Jean-Blaise Hall learned the trade of photographer at the same time as acquiring a taste for eating and cooking that would not be without influence on his career. For his professional début, however, working as an assistant in Zurich and then Los Angeles and San Francisco, he focused on advertising photography. “This dipped my toe in the water and allowed me to earn some money so I could get started.” An American weekly commissioned his first images of ready-made dishes. He was hooked. But was the land of junk food really the best place to thrive in this niche? Paris seemed more apt. “When I moved there as a food photographer in 1988, the business really took off. There were very few of us specialising in this domain, which was considered a minor art form. At the time, everyone wanted to do fashion photography.”
Less perfect images
In his Belleville studio, fitted with a huge, fully-equipped kitchen, Jean-Blaise Hall has continued to immortalise recipes and dishes since 1990, whether for campaigns in the food-processing industry, the press (Cuisine et Vins de France, Elle à Table, Saveurs, Régal, etc.), or books for renowned chefs, including Marc Veyrat and Michel Guérard. Whilst also living through the big bang of digital technologies, right in the middle of his career; a revolution that has also altered expectations. “It has changed my job and the style of the images a lot. They have become more spontaneous, more alive, less perfect in order to be more real, more like at home.” The magnificent fruit days are gone too…resin coatings and tinkered-with dishes rendered inedible as a result. The return to a more natural style doesn’t preclude the use of some tips and tricks to keep the food looking appetising, however: still-hard peas and beans, raw-in-the-middle poultry to keep it looking good, barely cooked fish to make it easier to handle, and so on.
Food won’t wait
In general, the shooting scenario is written in advance with the food stylist, who provides the shopping depending on the season of publication, the sector and the desired atmosphere. While she cooks, Jean-Blaise Hall prepares the set – lighting, angles, framing, sharpness, test shots, etc. With a single imperative: be ready to go as soon as the plate is dressed. “Food won’t wait. You have to shoot it straight off the heat, otherwise it loses its visual qualities.”
Concentration and speed of execution are even more in demand in the task set by Champagne Taittinger: to photographically document the prestigious culinary prize held by the House every year since 1967. “I set up a little studio next to the jury, each chef in turn places their plate there. The dishes are fragile, ephemeral, you have to work very fast, 30 to 45 seconds, no more.” This collaboration began with the publication in 2016, for the 50th anniversary of the competition, of a commemorative book “Le Prix des Chefs”, that gathered together the winning dishes, around 15 of which he had taken. We call them “still lifes”, even though to the eye they present a subject that is very much alive, with a knack for awakening the senses.