James Beard Nominee Michael Harlan Turkell Shares Photography Secrets

Turkell speaks on 'food pornography,' storytelling, and the rise of Brooklyn's culinary scene

At the Food Book Fair, The Daily Meal got a chance to speak with James Beard-nominated food photographer Michael Harlan Turkell. Turkell, who has his new book The New Brooklyn Cookbook, is known not only for being a foremost cookbook photographer, but also for his food radio show, "Foodseen." During his book signing, we spoke with him about his newfound fame and his excitement about food photography.

The Daily Meal: You have quite the legion of fans here (while signing his new book, The New Brooklyn Cookbook, written also by Melissa and Brendan Vaughan.)

Michael Harlan Turkell: (Laughs) Yeah.. It’s such an amazing phenomenon… It’s more than a phenomenon. There’s an ideology of restaurants in Brooklyn. When they approached me about this book I instantly said yes right away, because I’ve worked in Brooklyn so long and knew territory and knew the chefs and knew the food. To not have worked on the project of something like this, something so near and dear in to my heart, would have saddened me. The book is such a great collection of people and stories and places, it’s kind of amazing. Never would I have expected to be the phenomenon, or Brooklyn to be the phenomenon… I always thought of it as just where I lived and what I do.

TDM: Did you ever think Brooklyn would be the new hotspot for the foodie scene?

MHT: No, I came from Boston to maybe work in Manhattan in restaurants. I don't know if I considered Brooklyn — obviously, I would have considered any restaurant. But it was like an exodus of chefs being able to now cook what they wanted to cook, because the borough felt like loophole. They could find the spaces and bypass DOH and DOB for much smaller amounts of money. So now they’re cooking what they wanted to do for to their own hearts’ and souls’ content. I don't think anyone saw it coming, Brooklyn became this hotbed of culinary world, but just because of, I think, politics.

TDM: You’re nominated for a James Beard Award tonight  how are you feeling about it?

MHT: Don't even want to think about it — my tux is ironed, that’s as far as I’ve gotten mentally. And I didn’t iron it.

TDM: How did you first react when you were nominated?

MHT: It shut my phone down, because I didn’t know and people were texting and Twittering and Facebooking. I actually thought something was wrong and then I found out. It’s such an honor, and I have such humility about it because I photographed for the James Beard Foundation for seven years, and this is my first time going back as a guest. I never thought that this would be the situation — I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a goal, but it was never in my sights. It was really because they opened up this category of visual storytelling. I’ve never had anything to apply to, it’s always be visual photography.

I think this [New Brooklyn Cookbook] would have done well, but there’s never been a form for me to show my work to the Beard Foundation. The biggest coup to the nominations is opening up that cateogry, seeing that there are people to support those submissions. That’s what I’m happiest about

TDM: During panel, you were talking about photographing the final product, the end result of a meal, but that you prefer the story and the process behind the dish. How did you fall into that?

MHT: Because I couldn’t deconstruct the final dish and figure out how to cook it without knowing final steps. It’s same thing about the story; I like knowing as much entymology and background about whatever I get into. A couple of things changed it for me. No relation but Stud Turkell’s Working, that book abut him interviewing blue-collar people around country for years was inspiration for me to do that same thing in culinary world. There are so many cogs of the industry and important people that aren’t people that get highlighted but that I was really interested in meeting.

TDM: Is there one person whose story you want to tell or have told already?

MHT: I don't think I’ve been able to tell it sufficiently, but I think dishwashers are an amazing facet of restaurants. They work so hard for usually the smallest amount of wage, but you go into the restaurant and there’s usually at least one dishwasher that’s been there almost the length of the restaurant. They are the fountainheads of these places; they are these amazing anchors of the restaurants. Usually they all come from other places where they had other jobs and aspirations, and they’re trying to get their footing here. At Public Restaurant, there were all Senegalese, they were all cousins, they all watched out for each other. There was some amazing brotherhood in dishwashing cast of restaurants. I’m hoping to do something with that. There’s tons of people, I don’t like to focus on any single one. When I walk in to a restaurant I like to find out everyone’s name, from the busboys, waiters, dishwashers, to the chef, to the GM, and say hi and goodbye when I leave every or enter these restaurants.

TDM: What do you think of the new crop of apps and cookbooks for iPads and tablets? Is that a consideration for you when you photograph food?

MHT: It’s all about interaction at that point for me. I find children’s books more interesting than to see how people act with cookbooks. Cookbooks are going to be and should be a shifting in how people interact with cookbooks. Tablets are getting there but aren’t there yet, because most are static pages. Even though you swipe that motion is between the page rather than other elements on the screen. So I’m exploring ideas of interactivity, because food is such a tactile thing that reading and actually interacting with the food, I want to try to bridge that gap somehow. That’s what’s exciting about working with tablets and apps. But I still love a book in my hand getting it as dirty as I can, and breaking that binding.

TDM: You’re a food photographer, what do you think of "food pornography" and Instragram? Do you use those apps yourself?

MHT: No not really. I don't use Instagram, I find myself technolgically inept when It comes to being a photographer; I can use camera but I don’t know new equipment. I think the most important thing is sharing with a community, but also literally meeting a community face to face. It’s always important to be in a restaurant, be with a chef and be with a farmer, and spend time on one assignment.. There’s got to be a relationship first and foremost. I’m not saying Instagram doesn't do that, because it builds a community, but I’d rather share in the moment with a person than share it via some application.
 

More coverage and interviews on the Food Book Fair.