New York-based photographer Ben Fink was born in Baltimore but describes himself as a "young transplant" to Memphis. He went to junior high and high school in the area; he attended the Memphis College of Art and the University of Memphis, where he studied painting and graphic design. Fink began taking pictures of food in Memphis, and has since had an impressive career working with some of the biggest names in food, including Bobby Flay, Ina Garten, Jacques Pépin, and the Lee Brothers. He has prominent corporate clients as well and has shot the cookbooks for celebrities Eva Longoria, Trisha Yearwood, and Teresa Giudice. Fink's latest editorial project brought him back to the area. Mississippi Current: A Culinary Journey Down America's Greatest River is by Regina Charboneau, the culinary director of the American Queen, and the cookbook spans the length of the Mississippi, from its source in Minnesota to the Gulf Coast.
Flyer: How did you go from painting and graphic design to photography?
Ben Fink: I studied painting and graphic design, and then, you know, I had to work. A friend of mine [asked], "Do you want to take over my job as an assistant photographer for Jack Kenner?" I said, "Oh, sure!" That's where I got my love for photography. I worked for him for about a year, and then started doing my own thing.
You got into food photography fairly early in your career. How did that come about?
It was with Mary Ann Eagle. Mary Ann started doing a monthly column in Memphis magazine, and she and I teamed up to do that column. Then I started doing the top-100 and the best restaurants, so I did all the restaurant stuff for Memphis magazine.
This was the early '90s. We said, "Why don't we try querying these big magazines?" The first one we queried, we were like, Let's just go for the best, the one that we dream to work with, and that was Saveur. They bought the first article that we queried.
How did you get from Memphis to New York?
After getting hooked up with Saveur, they started having me travel the world. Then I started working with other magazines.
I was working a lot in New York and Europe and California. I traveled a lot from Memphis, which seemed like such a fluke. Then I was like "Okay, I've got to make that leap." I was so scared of failure.
I never skipped a beat. I was so lucky. Then suddenly in 2000, it skyrocketed. It never stopped.
Do you think the 2000 boom coincided with Food Network?
Yes. I started with those people. I got connected pretty early. I did Rachael Ray's first four books. From there, I worked with Bobby Flay. I just completed my fifth or sixth book with him. I just started doing a lot of Food Network people — Ted Allen, Anne Burrell ...
Then I started working with major corporations. The last couple of days, I've been working with Burger King. I've worked with Hellmann's, Nestle, and Kraft.
Are you known for a certain look, or do you go in and say, "Let's do this together?" Does it depend on the client?
I do have a certain look that always comes out, and it's probably very approachable. Ultimately, my love of whatever I'm doing comes through. But, that being said, the projects that I'm working on are not all about me. They're about the people I'm working with. There are always conversations before we ever start. My approach is I sit down with people, and I say, "What do you see coming out of this?" And, I usually get, "I don't know. What do you see?" I say, "No, what I want to hear is your story."
Whether they realize it or not, they do have ideas on how they see things. My job is to pull that out. Do they see this rustic-looking? Do they see it slick and refined? Do they see it dark and moody? Do they see this light and airy?
There's plenty that can go wrong with cooking. I'm sure you've encountered mishaps.
Mistakes are sometimes our friend. Funny things happen, and if we can capitalize on those, that's great. A subject who admits their mistakes and takes and embraces them, it makes them more real. But if it's a horrible mistake? Start over. Just don't get caught up in it personally.
Any moments that were very difficult? Something you thought would be easy but didn't turn out like you expected?
Something that didn't turn out as expected ... There's a really good, motto ... I may not say this right, but the gist of it is: Career-wise, look up to people you admire, push toward that, and surpass it until that person you admire becomes your competitor.
That doesn't always happen. There are so many people I admire. I'm in awe of people — there are many, many talented people, and some get overlooked.
And, I'm in awe of all I have achieved. If I could say anything, I'm in awe of my career. Who would have known that a little guy from Frayser would be shooting and working with some of the top people in the food world? I'm blown away by it, and I live with myself and think, "Some day everybody's going wake up and figure out who I really am. That I fooled everybody."
Let's talk specifically about shooting food. Do you have certain tricks you use, or is it, What's on the plate is what's on the plate?
When I shoot for editorial books, we cook it, we set it down on a plate or platter, I find the angle. I shoot it as a whole platter, then I put a fork in it and shoot that, and then I take a bite of it. And then I shoot that, so it looks natural. If you can have it made, shot, and eat it, and it's still good, then you probably have a good shot.
You've been around food constantly. Do you know everything?
Do I know everything? I do cook. My husband is a better cook than I am. But, I'm around many great cooks. I shot books for almost 12 years for the Culinary Institute of America. I probably shot 30 or 40 books for them, so I feel like I went to school for 10 or 12 years. I learned a tremendous amount of just basic knife skills, cooking skills. I shot three professional How to Cook Everything books.
Let's talk about the Mississippi Currents book. How did that work? Did you get on the boat to shoot this project?
I did three days on the boat with Regina, but we did it mostly in her house at Natchez. I love shooting cookbooks. That's my roots, and I hadn't been down South in a while. So, we talked on the phone, and we had a mutual admiration. I went down. My husband helped style the book. With Regina, we all styled and shot it together.
What was it like being on the boat?
I wanted to figure out how to stay for a week. It was really relaxing. Sort of a throwback — so slow and kind of a nice experience.