Cool & Noteworthy 2012: Todd Selby leads the trend towards all things foodie

Todd Selby first came to notice four years ago through his blog, theselby.com, featuring friends and acquaintances photographed inside their homes along with their most prized possessions. Like pages from some as yet unpublished hipster magazine, they seemed to come from an entirely different universe to the kind of spaces you see in The World of Interiors, with their artful mess and urban loft locations. 

They were an instant hit with style groupies who coveted the relaxed bohemian chic Selby captured with such a scrupulous eye for detail, quickly becoming an online sensation and attracting up to 100,000 visitors per day. Soon Selby was winning critical acclaim and given an exhibition at Colette in Paris. A book followed in 2010 – The Selby is in Your Place

Selby is now signed to We Folk, one of the UK’s most savvy commercial agencies (it also represents Nadav Kander, Erik Madigan Heck and Viviane Sassen), and shoots for publications such as Vogue Paris and The Observer, as well as clients such as Fendi, Louis Vuitton and Habitat. And, right on trend with the current culinary obsession, he shoots a weekly online column for The New York Times’ T Magazine called Edible Selby, focused on cooks, restauranteurs and food obsessives, which has led to a second book, also called Edible Selby, and published in collaboration with the magazine. Gathering together 40 of the world’s most interesting foodies, the book includes Rene Redzepi, chef and co-owner of feted Copenhagen restaurant Noma, Sicilian wine-maker Arianna Occhipinti, San Francisco Bay-kayaking “sea forager” Kirk Lombard, and Tokyo-based master pizza-maker Susumu Kakinuma. 

Like The Selby is in Your Place, it’s a ticket into a hip but otherwise hard-to-access creative world, and the images are relaxed and lifestyle-driven, including shots of the people, the kitchens, restaurants and locations in which they work and their signature dishes, along with hand-painted illustrations and portraits. It also includes hand-written recipes and a set of fridge magnets, all part of a personal, playful approach a million miles away from the chic, carefully prepped food photography popularised by Australian stylist and editor Donna Hay over the past decade or so. Selby describes his publication as “a travel diary and recipe book” and says he doesn’t think of himself as a food photographer, because “a lot of that looks very manicured and polished”. 

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Mast Brothers in Brooklyn, New York. Image © Todd Selby, from his book, Edible Selby.

“My images are definitely more relaxed and reportage style,” he says. “I’m very much about creative people and what they’re doing, so my approach is more about people like that who happen to work in food.”

Selby worked on the book for two years, travelling all over the world and doing shoots once every couple of weeks. Researching subjects took up a lot of time, and while he started out by shooting people and places he already knew, eventually most were recommended by word of mouth. Getting people to agree to take part was much harder than he had anticipated, especially having had so much experience in shooting people at home – he soon realised that photographing these people at work was “a really big ask” because they took their vocations so seriously. 

Once he’d got his subjects on board, he spent a whole day with each of them, racking up an incredible 3000 images per shoot and lots of fly-on-the-wall reportage, as well as some posed portraits and close-ups of food and details. This approach meant he ended up with 120,000 images in total, but he edited as he went along and took a fairly intuitive approach to what was in and what out. “I don’t like the idea of spending a month at the end doing it all at once,” he says. “It’s more fun to do a bit here, then a bit more.” 

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Bethells Beach Café in Te Henga, New Zealand. Image © Todd Selby, from his new book, Edible Selby.

Published in October, Edible Selby has already garnered widespread publicity, way beyond the photography world, with Selby even invited to do a book signing at London’s Selfridges department store. A former exotic flower wholesaler, Japanese clothing designer, Tijuana tour guide and Costa Rican cartographer, Selby is modest about his success. But he clearly has an instinct for the zeitgeist, and will concede that his intimate approach fits in with “a growing movement for manufacturing and restaurants that are more real and more personality-driven”.

It’s a movement evident in every Western city – in farmer’s markets and specialist shops, and with the new emphasis on buying local and seasonal. Selby’s book is not the only publication to tap into it – 2011 and 2012 saw a raft of new food magazines dealing with food and “food culture”, and welcoming a new approach to food photography as part of it. Swedish magazine Fool is aspirational and design-led, for example, inspired by fashion, design and culture rather than existing food magazines. Set up by a couple who met on a food shoot (photographer Per-Anders Jorgensen and his wife, Lotta, a former creative director of a luxury food magazine), Fool, perhaps most notably, eschews recipes altogether. “After all, you wouldn’t buy Vogue and expect to find a sewing pattern, so why would people who are interested in gastronomy necessarily be interested in trying to cook something they could never master?” Jorgensen commented recently.

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Hartwood in Tulum, Mexico. Image © Todd Selby, from his new book, Edible Selby.

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Annie Novak at Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Brooklyn, New York. Image © Todd Selby, from his new book, Edible Selby.

In the US, quarterly food journal Lucky Peach‘s first edition sold 72,000 copies when it came out in 2011. Founded by Korean-American Michelin chef David Chang, it specialises in edgy subjects and imagery, and featured a photograph of a tattoo artist plying his trade on a pig’s leg on the front cover of its third issue. Meanwhile, new British publication The Gourmand launched with an intensely coloured, “beautifully grotesque” photo essay and front cover by Gustav Almestål. Not to be outdone, Port magazine launched a food-themed special issue this summer, guest-edited by chef Fergus Henderson, and including photographs by Juergen Teller and Giles Revell. 

Further new publications pushing a different approach with cutting-edge visuals include Kinfolk and White Zinfandel – the latter a “visual manifestation of food and culture produced within the lives of creative individuals” – while Fire and Knives announced its departure from traditional food magazines and the picture-perfect imagery that goes with them by ditching photography altogether in favour of graphic design and illustration. The foodies of the world are uniting, and they’re breathing a hip sensibility into a once-staid area of photography.

Visit www.theselby.com .
Edible Selby is published by Abrams (ISBN 978-0810998049), priced £23. For more information, visit www.abramsbooks.com.

For further reading: www.fireandknives.com, www.fool.se, www.thegourmand.co.uk, www.kinfolkmag.com, www.mcsweeneys.net/luckypeach, www.port-magazine.com, www.whitezinf.org.

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