Ansel Adams once said, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” Exceptional photography does not happen by chance, it is a culmination of intuition, research, talent and artistry, and well-known local editorial photographer Scott Suchman has made a career out of it. With nearly 25 years of photography experience in the DC metro area, he is most well-known for his vibrant, delectable food and drink photos. You may recognize Suchman’s work from Washingtonian Magazine, Baltimore Magazine, Southern Living Magazine and more. When On Tap caught up with him, he was shooting photos on-site for the recently opened DGS Delicatessen in the Mosaic District. In Suchman’s interview he dished on photography, the DC food scene and even offered a few pro tips for aspiring photographers.
On Tap: So, I’m just going to say it, your photos are amazing – I’m sure you hear that a lot, but honestly, you really seem to have a knack for angles. Can you elaborate? How did you get so good?
Scott Suchman: Thank you. I just do the best I can and I’m always striving to be better. I’ve been doing this professionally since 1991 and I’ve been specializing in food and dining since 2008. Basically, I spend a lot of time in restaurants, all kinds of restaurants, and I’ve learned to really just pay attention to all the details. Every shot is a blank canvas, but I’m drawing on 24 years of professional experience every time I press that shutter. I started out in this field doing photojournalism and that training teaches you to react to your environment and part of that reaction is seeing every angle, hopefully, and working through them until you get the one that really works. For every nice shot, there are dozens of not-so-nice ones. You’re always working through it, processing the moments and the light and the space. I try my best to get a sense of place to show through in all my shots- that is not so hard with a portrait or space image, but with a food shot you have to work harder. Even if it’s just a little hint of the table surface or flatware or some prop that keys you into the type of restaurant this is- elegant, rustic, retro, etc. I don’t look at my food pictures as product shots, I never have. Instead I’ve always seen them as environmental portraits and I think that helps inform the work for me and gives direction.
OT: I read that part of what makes your photography so good is the prior scouting and technical work you do. When I look at your photos, what I’m most drawn to is the vivid colors and contrast. Do you have to do a lot of work on your files or is it just good visualization?
SS: I scout when I can, but most times when I show up at an establishment it’s my first time there, however, I do usually check out photos online beforehand so I have at least a small sense of what I’ll be walking into. “Chance favors the prepared mind”, indeed. Color and contrast are real important to me. We eat with our eyes first, and chefs know that, so they do what they can to create an attractive dish. They also have smell, taste, and texture. As photographers we just have two dimensions and only the sense of sight to get across the appeal of the food. We use all the skills we have to express that quality of deliciousness, while still being true to the dish. I certainly boost the color saturation and contrast to give my images an attractive and somewhat distinctive look, but I don’t go overboard. Some folks can get very caught up in the power of the computer and in the end you have a shot that may not reflect the reality of the dish at all. Basically, you want it to look good, but you want it to be true. Truth is beauty, so the poet wrote.
OT: You’ve spent your professional career working in DC and you’ve seen the restaurant industry evolve and change. How do you think the scene compares today to twenty years ago? What’s improved and have we lost anything?
SS: In terms of bars and dining, really, most nightlife, this city has completely been transformed from what it was in the mid-1990’s when I moved into Adams Morgan, and I mean this in a very good way. I would say the one exception being that the live music scene has lost most of its of grit and diversity, but opinions may vary on that and I am no expert. As for the “good ol’ days”, there are very few, if any, closed restaurants that I personally miss. If they’re gone now, than that’s just commercial Darwinism and they were not meant to survive. It’s easy to be kind when being nostalgic, but I see no reason to take that path now that there is so much amazing food here in the present. Metaphorically this city’s dining scene has gone from being a 1978 Ford Fairmont to a 2015 Bugatti Veyron in less than ten years. It’s really impressive. There are new places opening up every week and so many of them are interesting and unique and such great additions. Almost every time I show up at one of these new spots on assignment I’m impressed and excited and can’t wait to return with my wife to really enjoy it. You’d think that it would have reached a critical mass already, but it hasn’t and I don’t think it will. I believe there is always room for true talent and the great chefs and bartenders and restaurateurs will succeed.
OT: You already do photography for some of the top publications in DC as well as some very well-known national ones – is this what you’ve always aspired to do? Do you have an ultimate dream?
SS: Well, I’d say my aspiration since graduating from college (University of Maryland, ’91) has been to make a living as a photographer and I’ve done that and will continue to. I’ve been lucky and have had some nice gigs over the years and I’m happy that I get paid to shoot things that interest me – that certainly was not the case starting out, but I paid my dues in DC and now I’m in a good place. I’m always looking out for new clients and higher profile shoots, we all are in this business and it is super competitive. My philosophy, for what it’s worth, has always been to just keep my head down and do good work. I hope I’m doing that, but it may be for others to say, not me. I have some great relationships with area photo editors and art directors and that, to me, really makes the hard work worth it.
OT: I read that you’re also into fitness. Can you talk about your workout regime and what kind of fitness you’re into?
SS: This makes me giggle, sorry. When you’re shooting in restaurants 5-10 times a week and nibbling and noshing and munching it really affects you physically and you can’t ignore that. I have always been someone who likes the idea of being into fitness, and it’s hard when you have such an irregular schedule and are really good at finding excuses. When I’m into it and it’s grooving, I love it and I feel great. Then I fall off the wagon and I’m a regret-filled, bloated mess. I’d like to think I’m on an upward trajectory now. I joined a Crossfit gym in my neighborhood and I find I really enjoy that kind of workout. It’s intense and exhausting, but always worth it when I finish a class. It’s not for everyone, but I would certainly recommend it- just don’t ask me how many burpees I can do!
OT: Do you have any tips to offer an aspiring photographer?
SS: As for tips for food shooting I would say two things: one, don’t look at it as product photography, but portraiture. The dish has a life to it and it’s your job to capture it and show it to the viewer. Number two, always eat before a restaurant shoot. If you don’t, you won’t be able to concentrate or look at things as objectively. It’s like grocery shopping when you’re hungry – nothing good ever comes of that!
OT: What is something that most people don’t know about you?
SS: I’m taller than I look.
To learn more about Scott and view his portfolio visit www.suchmanphoto.com.