Manca Jevšček dances around a plate of food that has been placed on the floor of the terrace of the restaurant. She kneels beside the plate, a sheaf of laminate samples in her hand - thin sheets dyed to look like rusted iron, marble, gun metal. Behind her lay an array of plates, a wild cacophony of sizes and materials, few of which seem ideally designed to eat off of: an undulating black plate that looks made of lava, a frisbee-like disc of concrete, square-cut slate that would not appear out of place on your roof. Having selected the appropriate backdrop, she places the plate upon it. She fiddles with the food in question, shifting it around, adding a strand of saffron. The fresh-baked and sliced buckwheat bread is daubed with minced lard - amazing to eat, not necessarily picturesque to look at. It’s a trickier shoot than most.
Manca is a food photographer who works throughout central Europe. Her recent books include a cookbook from the popular Ljubljana bistro Bazilika, and a monograph from an ancient monastery on the myriad uses, for wellness and cooking, of homemade apple cider vinegar. Her food photography is known for being natural (she uses no artificial lights), and with a feel of art historical still-lifes about it.
With her Sigma Quattro H camera in hand (which, she says, has sensors similar to a video camera that would shoot film, meaning that it is slow, but then again, the food isn’t in a hurry), we caught up with Manca on a shoot to walk us through the thought process behind five of her photographs. Here’s what we found.
Manca’s most difficult task is to style a photograph so that it accentuates the right details, and encourages us to proactively participate in the photo, to imagine ourselves consuming what is in the image. In the case of this photo, Manca describes trying to project the coldness of a popsicle.
Cookbooks are about conveying knowledge of food and cooking, but are often also means of promoting a chef or a restaurant. Therefore, the feel of the restaurant, the atmosphere of eating there, the specialties featured on the menu, all of this is important to convey. And this must be done without sound, with only still pictures.
The absence of food can be as powerful as its presence. A missing bite means that someone could not resist diving in. An empty, festive table setting means that a festive meal was held there, and this implies, in the viewer, the good time enjoyed, which we mentally unwind to infer that the food was good.
Manca likes to play with backgrounds, including unusual ones. She’s a fan of plates made of concrete, for instance, which look great, but are not recommended for actually eating off of, as concrete is porous, and no fun to clean. But one rule is firm: plain, white plates are out. Colorful, textural, even weird is in. Like this photo of fish on a zinc counter at a market.
JB Buckwheat bread
Manca loves the play of aesthetic contrasts, “I like to place meat against a tough background, like stone or metal,” she explains. “I even use rusty backgrounds and vintage, distressed wood. I like stuff with texture, that shows the passing of time.”
The materials for backdrops can get wild, indeed, and Manca owns an ever-expanding wardrobe-full of backsplashes, plates and textiles. In this photograph, the plate is made of a black stone that looks like hardened lava, but the result is what we art historians call chiaroscuro, with the food emerging like light from shadows. Manca prefers to use only natural light, so there’s a "Vermeer aspect" to her compositions, with the plates arranged by windows. “I only need a window,” she says, “and some reflectors to bounce light off dark surfaces.”
Of course, I didn’t want to see those lovely plates of food she was photographing go to waste, so I asked who gets to eat them, once the shoot is over? “By the end of the shoot, I’ve handled the food so much, that I’m not sure it’s wise for anyone to eat it,” she smiles. Well, I’ve never been too obsessive about hygiene…
Dal is one of those recipes that goes all the way back to the Indus Valley Civilisation. Unlike dishes such as biryani, brought to India by the Moghuls, it is one of those foods that has always been there. It is therefore a building block of Indian culture.