Food as art
Mar./Apr. 2016 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Jolaine Collins
Photos by Julie Lee and Brock Batten
Blogger shares fresh, colorful perspectives
More online: Golden beet and black lentil salad with sherry vinaigrette
With an artist's eye and a scientist's curiousity, Julie Lee photographs fruit, vegetables and flowers in their natural form, often sliced into cross sections or deconstructed in collages.
When Julie Lee studies a piece of produce, she wants to know its story. Rotating it in her hand, she imagines it as a seedling, the stages of its growth and the farmer who brings it to market. She pictures how it would look, carefully sliced and artfully displayed as part of a food collage or handsomely styled as a still life that honors its delectable being.
"I want to tell the story of delicious food," she said.
Lee is a food photographer and stylist who publishes fresh and colorful food perspectives on her blog, Julie's Kitchen. She has attracted online readers since 2007 and developed an audience of nearly 150,000 Instagram followers with eye-catching photos of fruits and vegetables, seasonal tips and recipes.
Begun as a way to showcase the seasonal bounty of local farmers markets, her food collages on Instagram have evolved into "an ongoing project in the study of plant design, exploration of color theory and pure, unadulterated food-love."
The whimsical collages are rich with color, textures and perspectives meant to surprise the viewer. Her inspiration?
"The food. It's so beautiful," she said.
Lee photographs fruit, vegetables and flowers in their natural form, often sliced into cross sections or deconstructed in collages. A white tabletop frequently lends an ethereal background to her carefully arranged designs.
"I'd like to slow things down for people, to help them think about food and the story behind it—how it grows," she said. For that reason, she sometimes includes seeds, pods and different growth stages of her subjects.
Julie Lee shops for items and inspiration at the Santa Monica Farmers Market.
Small spaces, big recognition
A self-taught photographer, Lee shoots with a 35 mm camera or iPhone in the tiny kitchen of her Los Angeles home, using natural light. Her dining area doubles as a photo studio, and kitchen cabinets serve as prop storage.
But small work spaces haven't kept Lee from expanding her business. In fact, her compositions have caught the attention of big brands. The editors of Martha Stewart's and Oprah Winfrey's magazines have written about Lee's work. Apple featured one of her collages in a national advertising campaign for its new iPhone, and her art ended up as the back cover of Saveur magazine. Major food and lifestyle companies have partnered with Lee to create content for their social media accounts, and she includes their products in sponsored posts.
Closer to home, Peter Herman of Herman Ranch Avocados in San Diego County commissioned Lee to photograph a collage of Reed avocados for his company's holiday card, which received enthusiastic responses from recipients.
"Julie's photos are like a quilt," Herman said. "It's terrific that she focuses on vegetables and fruit. Her work gives people a reason to think about what they eat and where it comes from. It encourages healthy food choices."
Wedding vows and vegetables
Looking back, Lee says she's always been visually drawn to trying new food—from the bumpy, green bitter melon she ate growing up as the daughter of Chinese immigrants, to the various colors of heirloom tomatoes she frequently finds at the Santa Monica Farmers Market.
"I want to know how everything tastes," she said. "There's something new to try each week in California."
Besides wanting to share her own discoveries, Lee's mission is to encourage others to explore food for themselves.
"When food is presented in ways that people have never seen it, they're more likely to try it," she said.
Lee laughs as she recalls how her love of food changed the eating habits of the love of her life. During their wedding vows, her husband-to-be credited Lee for encouraging him to try a variety of fresh vegetables.
"Before I met you, I was eating frozen pizzas. … I had never heard of bitter melon, kohlrabi, cherimoya or loquats. Now my favorite vegetable is literally a roasted fractal," he stated, referring to Romanesco broccoli.
Lee figures it was a good trade: She taught her husband—a software product designer/creative director—about fresh food, and he taught her valuable camera skills.
Respect at all stages
Lee traces her reverence for food to the values she learned as a child. Her family respected food at all stages and was careful not to waste it. She grew up gardening with her sisters, picking fruit from the trees that surrounded their Stockton home and learning how to compost, dehydrate and preserve food.
Neither food nor photography were Lee's intended careers. She studied English and French at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her first job out of college was as a financial analyst, but she realized how much she enjoyed food and entertaining while working for a caterer as a side job. A trip to France crystallized her desire to dive deeper into the food scene.
"Food transcends the barriers of language, age and economics," Lee said. "It represents nurturing and caring when you cook for someone."
Five tips for great food photos
With an audience of more than 150,000 Instagram followers, Julie Lee clearly knows what it takes to create striking food photos. Her tips:
- Work with natural lighting when possible. Avoid direct sunlight, which creates distracting shadows and drowns out details.
- Use a neutral background and clear away clutter. Make sure plates and utensils are shiny clean.
- Keep your composition simple. Adding too many side elements takes the focus off of the star of the photo.
- Choose the freshest ingredients possible. A spritz of water or olive oil makes raw vegetables look even fresher.
- Get creative with your camera angle. Try shooting from unusual perspectives, like directly overhead or tightly focused on an interesting detail.