When Emily Eisen moved to New York City nine years ago, she wasn’t planning on working for food magazine Bon Appetit. She had relocated from Toronto to pursue her dream of working in fashion and got her foot in the door at Jed Root, stylist Edward Enninful’s agency, quickly moving her way up to assisting Nicola Formichetti, who was working for Lady Gaga at the time.
Eisen was on the rise, working on Gaga’s Monster Ball tour and several music videos. Eventually, she needed a change. “It wasn’t what I wanted to do anymore,” Eisen says. “So I took some time off.” She checked out of the New York scene to explore her growing interest in food at a cooking school in Ireland.
Back in New York again, Eisen worked at the agency Art and Commerce, until, two years ago, she met the photo editor of Bon Appetit, who offered her a job as associate photo editor.
Bon Appetit is a magazine about cooking, but it’s also about the culture that’s behind cuisine. Online, they feature food lover city guides and witty dissections of food-related pop culture trends (ex. “Our Favorite Grilling Scenes from Movies and TV”, “Just How Food-Obsessed Is the Typical Millennial?”). Bon Appetit’s shoots tend to be simple but beautifully and very carefully composed. “Our style is very Brooklyn, or LA,” says Eisen. “It has to be on trend.”
We caught up with Eisen to talk about why she’ll never shoot with fake food, what she looks for in photo pitches, and why she thinks email promos are better than printed ones.
Inteview & photos by Brittany Carmichael
Written & edited by Jill Blackmore Evans
Hi, Emily. What’s your day-to-day at Bon Appetit like?
I spend half of my time in the office, and half of my time on set. When I am in the office I am conceptualizing ideas for shoots. The food team will give the photo team recipes and an idea of what the story is with the food, and then we visualize that. What that means is pulling inspiration of how we think it should be shown to the world. I spend a lot of time doing photo research. When I am in the office I spend most of my time looking at photos.
I also do all of the production for shoots, so I do all of the budgets, and I am always trying to find new photographers. I think for me that’s the most exciting, when you come across someone’s work you haven’t seen before and are really excited about.
What do you do when you come across a new photographer you want to work with?
The way we have figured out how to get new people involved is to start them somewhere other than ‘the well’. ‘The well’ is the middle of the magazine, and it is where all of the feature stories are—the long, six to ten page stories—which is the most important part, photo-wise, of the magazine. So we start them somewhere at the beginning, or online.
Online is now a great tool for us to try out new people, because we are constantly shooting for online. And we constantly need people who we like. Even if I come across someone’s photography I really like, there is still a learning curve to having them understand our style. And that takes time, so online has been a great way to work people through that.
Are all the images you use online original?
No, we pull from stock on both online and for the magazine. There is exclusively original content in our middle book, well, and back of book. Sometimes in front of book we use stock and archive images. Online there is constantly stock used, and Instagram images used, because there is so much content we put online. Our focus is not only New York, it’s the whole country—it’s a lot harder to have someone there to take photos or get what you are looking for.
When you find someone you like online, is it because their work is unique, or because it is similar to the Bon Appetit aesthetic?
It happens both ways. If I see someone’s work that is very Bon Appetit then yes, then I totally am interested in them doing something for us. On the other hand, if I see someone’s work that I really like, I can get inspired by it and want to do something new based on that.
Can you describe the Bon Appetit aesthetic? Where should a photographer start if they want to work with you guys?
It’s that effortless look, but it takes so long to get there. Everything perfect, but not. And we love natural light. Being able to shoot natural light is really important to us—or being able to fake natural light, which is really really difficult. A north light is our ideal, basically.
It’s also really important that you are working with the right people, the right prop and food stylists. Because the food has to look delicious. Ultimately, who cares what the picture looks like if the food doesn’t look delicious. It can’t look fake. The food stylists we work with don’t use anything that is fake. Some people use weird corn syrup to make things look shiny and perfect. But we actually use all natural and all edible, which in the end makes a big difference in how it looks in the photo.
What is the best way to get into working for Bon Appetit?
I think it would be to assist the people we work with. We work with a really small group of photographers, and prop and food stylists. Working with those people is amazing training for eventually working for us. We have hired a lot of people who have assisted the people we use.
If someone wants to assist one of your photographers, how would they find them?
Reading the magazine! And seeing the photo credits. What has always worked for me, and what I would recommend for everyone, is: do your research and figure out a style of someone who you like. Learn about that photographer, and then go after it. People love to be flattered, and if you are truly a fan of someone’s work, tell them that. I think that is the best way to get in.
What should photographers pay attention to when they’re pitching you?
Spell peoples’ names right, spell the magazine’s name right. I have had so many emails with Bon Appetit spelt wrong. If you are asking for a job, don’t do that. If you are sending an email and you don’t hear back, don’t send it five more times.
What about one more time?
One more time, yes, five more times, no.
How do you feel about promos? Printed or emailed?
I would say with printed promos, I feel bad that the person has spent a lot of money on printed promos. I get so many different types of promos, of course I have gotten a million postcard promos. I got one guy who sent a recipe for a cocktail and a photo of the cocktail and a matchbook that said “Call me” on it…don’t do that.
But some people respond well to that!
I think there is a very fine line between coming off as cheesy, rather than classy. I don’t think gimmicky promos are cool. Things that grab my attention are: once I got a poster on newsprint that felt really different and special. I think writing something on your postcard makes a difference.
I got one yesterday that had a smiley face written in sharpie. I knew the person sending it, but I was like, “Oh that’s cute, she actually thought about it instead of just putting it in the mail.” Email promos work, I think it is a lot easier to send email promos that are updates, highlighting what you have been doing rather than, “Check out all of my work,” and you attach a massive file. It needs to be very specific and small.
So what are you looking for, pitch-wise?
Something relatable. I think it is cool when the photographers are actually interested in food and actually have a relationship with it.
Another tool I have found really useful to find photographers is Instagram. I think photographers should be taking advantage of Instagram because so many people see it, and it’s so easy for people to see. I have definitely come across photographers on Instagram that we have hired.
Do you hire people who pitch you ideas, like restaurants you didn’t know about? Or is it already laid out?
It is kind of laid out already, or photographers we already work with pitch ideas that happen. There is this one girl who we hired over the summer and she sent around this promo to everyone in the photo and art department in my office. She is a videographer and she made a video of a cooking segment and it was all about Bon Appetit, and it worked. She was hired.
So promos do work!
Yeah, but they have to be tailored to us. If it looks like it is going to everyone, no one likes that.
The promo has to show that you know the brand.
Yeah, and be persistent without being annoying. There is a fine line, but it is doable.
Do you have suggestions for how to put your work out there?
Start shooting. Work with restaurants, even. Go ask them to shoot their food, do it for free and be all over the website. We are always looking at restaurant’s websites, and if the photography is really great then we will hire the photographer if we are doing a story on the restaurant.
Use your resources around you. As a photographer, you have a commodity that people want. Especially in restaurants, people are always creating new dishes and they need photos of them for Instagram, or their website or for whatever. And if you are able to offer that then you are potentially able to get something in return by people seeing your work.
Any other advice for aspiring food photographers?
Keep shooting. There are not as many good food photographers as you may think, so there is opportunity. And I think now what is most appealing is when it looks real. There is that old guard food photography where everything looks fake. Now we want things to look real.