A mix of documentation and art – Jiang Xiaoran’s visual aesthetics of everyday food
“That was a real stroke of luck,” says Jiang Xiaoran over the fact that he was born in China and studied in France, “because both countries are famous for their excellent food.” Yet as a photographer his love of food is not only driven by how it tastes, but also by how it looks.
So his camera, which is equipped with a ZEISS Distagon T* 2/28, remains a constant companion. Jiang likes working best with an open aperture, but is not willing to compromise when it comes to sharpness; and he likes an excellent bokeh. With the help of his ZEISS Distagon, that is all possible — which only whets Jiang’s appetite further to create new pictures.
Traditional food photography stages food, making it an object of art, mostly under studio conditions. For Jiang Xiaoran, too, food is clearly ’artwork’; but at the same time it is about more than pure nourishment. The way food is produced, its colors, how it is arranged, the way people eat it, and the things that surround them during the meal — tables, chairs, the atmosphere in a kitchen or restaurant. All of the factors that contribute to a food ‘culture’ interest Jiang as a photographer.
One of his favorite pictures was taken during Chinese New Year while preparing ‘Jiǎozi’ together with his wife. Jiǎozi are dumplings filled with meat and vegetables, and traditionally served on this important holiday. At first Jiang simply took pictures of the finished dumplings, but he wasn’t satisfied with the somewhat sterile result. So he decided to get closer with his camera to the ‘production process’ and his wife’s hands.
“The ZEISS Distagon T* 2/28 is perfect for my style of photography. The lens’s closest focusing distance is relatively short, which allows me to get very close. On my D90, the focal length corresponds to around 42 mm, and therefore almost that of a standard lens. That comes very close to the type of lens normally used for ‘traditional’ food photography, and yet I can still capture more of the surroundings than with a 50 mm. On my D800, I’m able to take full advantage of the angular field of the T* 2/28 and place the subject within a larger context.”
One morning, when visiting a bakery for a cup of coffee, Jiang’s eyes fell upon the warm bread that had just come out of the oven. That is the origin of this picture, which is about more than just the appetizing-looking fresh French bread. The two bakers in the background as well as the interior of the bakery are all out of focus. As a result, the bread becomes the central reference point in the picture, placed within the context of its origins. “In addition to the allure of the out-of-focus area, which remains very recognizable in this image, there are four main reasons why the ZEISS Distagon T* 2/28 is an important lens and a valuable companion for me. First, its special three-dimensional imaging performance, which almost makes it seem as if you could touch the photographed food. The second reason is the enormously high resolution that you can achieve with this lens, which allows me to take pictures of food showing all their details. Third, I really like the pretty, luminous way that colors are rendered with the ZEISS Distagon. And the last reason: the Distagon is a manual lens that’s very easy to handle. Since food obviously can’t move, I don’t need any autofocus, so I can concentrate fully on composing the image. The Distagon’s pleasant, smooth-running focus ring, which is also very precise, almost makes you forget all the technology inside the lens.”
On a trip to Bordeaux, Jiang was taking a Sunday stroll when he discovered a very colorful motif: a box full of macaroons. These typical French meringue pastries are made of almond flour colored in various bright colors and then filled with butter crème, ganache or jam. “This picture shows very clearly the lively color rendition that makes the ZEISS Distagon T* 2/28 such an indispensable tool. The colorful macaroons in the shop window contrast wonderfully with the blue of the sky. This photograph combines not only different color tones, but also two important aspects of French culture: food and architecture. The buildings reflected in the windowpane are for me just as typically French as the brightly colored macaroons.”
Water is food in its purest form. It is transparent and colorless – a complete contrast to the bright-colored macaroons. But it is this reduced simplicity which made Jiang grab his camera one late afternoon in Brest. “I was sitting right near the window and the setting sun gave enough light to create this fascinating, transparent effect of the water’s surface. This is an excellent characteristic of the ZEISS Distagon T* 2/28 that surprises me again and again — the ability to create an image that is very transparent, yet at the same time achieving a pleasant bokeh.” The water and light playing on the bottle almost seem within your grasp. The view looking outside loses itself in the bokeh, accentuating the bottle of water even more.
Because Jiang always likes to stress the context in which food and drink appear, it is not surprising that his camera is always with him when he visits a restaurant. And after the refreshing water, the only thing missing to complete the theme is a good glass of wine to end the day. Like the macaroons, this picture was taken in Bordeaux. The photographer was relaxing with a beer which, being an uncommon drink in this wine city, was served in a wine glass. “The sun had already set and I was fascinated by the romantic atmosphere in the restaurant. With the ZEISS Distagon T* 2/28 I could make an excellent, sharp picture with the long exposure time needed for the situation. And the color contrasts present here — somewhere between the faded white of the burning candle and the bluish light coming from outside – are rendered wonderfully.”
Whoever thinks of still lives when viewing the last two pictures does not really do justice to Jiang’s approach. “I consider my photography more documentary than art. Whenever I see an interesting subject — a plate of food, cookies or cakes, or an arrangement on a table — I never touch it. I change nothing, rearrange nothing and use no artificial light. I want to show the food in its natural state and context. My most important tool for composition is the photographic technology itself. With perspective, environmental light and of course the excellent imaging performance of the ZEISS Distagon T* 2/28, I try to capture the subject in such a way that the pictures look irresistibly appetizing and mouth-watering. After all, I only take pictures of things I would want to eat or drink myself.”
About Jiang Xiaoran
Photography has long been Jiang Xiaoran’s main hobby, but it was only in 2010 that he bought his first single lens reflex (SLR) camera. Since then he has become more and more demanding, and his photographic interests are today very diverse. Whether he is taking pictures of food, architecture or people, Jiang believes it important to embed his subjects in their cultural context. Jiang, who was born in southern China, is currently studying at the Engineering school of Télécom Bretagne in Brest (France).