An interview with New York City based Danish food photographer Signe Birck

INTERVIEW / 12 AUG 2016 / BY DIMITRIS PANAGIOTIDIS

SIGNE BIRCK
The perfect choking-hot weather dish. Spanish mackerel, tomato and basil.
Chef Bryce Shuman of Restaurant Betony, New York City © Signe Birck.
Signe Birck Photography. New York City, USA / signebirck.com

Clean. Simple. Delicate! Signe Birck is a New York City based Danish food photographer specializes primarily in restaurant photography, working with top-Chefs and Michelin starred restaurants all over the US and Europe. With a keen eye for detail and a meticulous approach to capturing the Chef’s creations, Signe’s Scandinavian roots are highly present in her work, and simplicity is key in every shot. Signe’s style has been described as ethereal and sensual, with references to the old masters of European painting. Signe’s work is featured Internationally in cookbooks, magazines, advertising, and online media.

How did your art career start, and was it always photography centered?

I’m actually not quite sure how it started, some days I look back and it seems like I’ve been doing this forever! I always knew I would end up in the creative field. I was never interested in school, and spent most days daydreaming of far-away cities and cool places (I grew up in a very small village in rural Denmark). As the daughter of a musician it was always implied that I would take that direction, too, but somewhere down the line I picked up the camera and never looked back. Initially I believed I should be a fine arts photographer, but I quickly realized that I’m not an artist. I’ve worked hard to master my craft, and that’s what it is to me – a craft.

Which photographers influenced you, and how did they influence your thinking, photographing, and career path?

Actually, the photographers I was fascinated by in my early years were the likes of Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, Man Ray, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Anton Corbijn, David LaChapelle, Helmut Newton, and Annie Leibovitz. I loved (and still do) the brilliance in the interactions with their subjects, and the candor they seem to bring out in the people they photograph. Shooting people can be difficult, especially in the high paced food industry where you’re lucky if you get 30 seconds with the person, so being able to quickly read your subject is an advantage. When I ventured into food photography I found my own style rather instantaneously, and I rarely look to others for inspiration. I don’t mean to sound unappreciative of other photographer’s work, but I try not to cloud my intuitive approach to shooting.

It is true, smells and flavours cover the biggest percentage of memory. Would you share with us, a unique, still vivid moment in life?

I have many wonderful memories – and many not-so-wonderful ones – but I think the most impactful one is from 10 years ago, when I first visited NYC. I have always had an all- consuming fascination with big cities (I moved to London at the age of 18) and the anticipation of going to NYC for the first time was overwhelming. It actually has nothing to do with smells or flavors, I remember it as a visual kick in the gut. It was back in photography college, we were on a school trip, and on the bus ride from Newark I saw the Manhattan Skyline for the first time. When I stepped into the street in Chelsea, I knew then and there that I would do anything to some day live here permanently. It definitely wasn’t easy, it took a couple of tries, but eventually I made it happen.

signe_birck_Emma_Bengtsson_Aquavit
What better way to celebrate November than with this forest floor-like creation.
Chef Emma Bengtsson of Restaurant Aquavit, New York City © Signe Birck.

What were the difficulties you encountered first starting photography?

Making a hobby/passion into a career is never easy, especially in the highly competitive creative fields. Even if you have a degree it means nothing, if you’re not able to find your own style and expression, and convince the rest of the world of your own self-perceived magnificence. It takes a great deal of hustling, willingness to make great sacrifices, and accept that simple luxuries (or simple necessities!) in life are not an option for a very long stretch. If you’re in it for the big buck, it’s probably not the right path to choose. Also, most creatives suffer from a complete lack of business savvy, we really just want to make beautiful images. On top of that – for my part – I chose to relocate to another country, to one of the most competitive cities in the world, and had to deal with the trials and tribulations that follow such a decision. In hindsight I sometimes wonder what the heck I was thinking, but I have zero regrets. It’s the best move I ever made.

When you are out shooting—how much of it is instinctual versus planned?

I work very intuitively. I have a sort of built-in “checklist”, a kind of ritual that I practice when I enter a new location (scoping out the room, identifying the light and contrast conditions, getting a feel of the chef), but I can’t really describe my thought process. It comes to me naturally, and I actually try not to plan too much, and to not over-think. I often feel that jumping in at the deep end ensures the best, most honest result.

Signe_birck_Bryce_Shuman_Betony_02
Charred Winter salad. Chef Bryce Shuman of Restaurant Betony, New York City © Signe Birck.

What do you think makes a memorable plating photograph?

I think if the viewer feels like he or she has been figuratively slapped in the face a little bit, it’s a memorable plate. If the initial reaction is surprise and admiration, because what they see is new and unexpected, it’s a winner. My audience and collaborators are for the most parts industry people, and tough critics. And rightfully so! I can’t just throw them any ol’ chewed-up cliche, and expect high praise. That definitely helps to constantly keep me on my toes, and strive to always be better. It’s actually true what they say; you’re only as good as your last image.

Signe Birck says “As the daughter of a musician it was always implied that I would take that direction, too, but somewhere down the line I picked up the camera and never looked back. Initially I believed I should be a fine arts photographer, but I quickly realized that I’m not an artist. I’ve worked hard to master my craft, and that’s what it is to me – a craft.”

At some point of our younger lives, we imagined ourselves setting goals, for a better tomorrow. Have you fulfilled your dreams?

I honestly think that the day you believe yourself to have “made it”, to have achieved your goals and dreams, is the day it’s time to retire and do something completely different. It’s very important to always keep humble, and to never rest on the laurels. For two reasons: You’ll start to professionally become a washed-up version of yourself, and personally it’ll be increasingly difficult to find gratification in everyday life. As creatives, we don’t have a work-persona that we put on before we leave the house in the morning, and hang in the closet when we come home at night. It’s all intertwined, and if I ever feel like I have nothing left to chase, I’ll probably start to wither away. I most certainly plan to do this until I physically can’t anymore.

Signe_Birck_Daniel_Humm
Radish, pike, roe. Chef Daniel Humm of Restaurant Eleven Madison Park, New York City © Signe Birck.

What motivates you?

It may sound a bit morbid – which is not the intention – but I guess fear motivates me. A fear of one day waking up and realizing that it’s too late, that I haven’t used this one life that I’ve been given to the fullest, that I haven’t done my best. I always have this annoying little voice in the back of my mind that keeps nagging me to do better, aim higher, and it gives me terrible grief on days when I actually allow myself to do nothing, and catch up on a lame TV show on Netflix. Sure, there can be days where I wish I had a nine-to-five (with benefits!), but those days are rare. Also, spending four NYC winters in a row wearing shoes with holes in them, is a motivating factor!

“It may sound a bit morbid – which is not the intention – but I guess fear motivates me. A fear of one day waking up and realizing that it’s too late, that I haven’t used this one life that I’ve been given to the fullest, that I haven’t done my best.”

What is your idea of happiness?

It’s very simple, really. Me, cooking in my apartment, a glass of wine (or several), and good music. I love being social – fortunately there’s ample opportunity of that in my line of work – but I also have a profound need for solitude, and seek it often. Chopping vegetables and picking herbs have a therapeutic effect, it offers the perfect setting for winding down and getting thoughts and ideas back in order. Music has always been an obsession of mine, and it makes me sad when I don’t have time to explore new artists or re-connect with old favorits. Spending time in the kitchen allows this.

Signe_Birck_Bryce_Shuman_Betony_01
Both patience and precision are required faculties when plating this stunning Several Bean Salad.
Chef Bryce Shuman of Restaurant Betony, New York City © Signe Birck.

What do you want your viewers to take away from your work?

I guess if the viewer walks away hungry, I’ve done a pretty good job. But I also have an obligation to interpret and support the vision of the person who created the food in the best possible way. When you sit down for dinner you’re hungry, and there’s a certain anticipation of the meal about to be had, so you tend to have a high appreciation of the appearance of the food. You’re influenced by the smell, the ambiance of the room, and your company, which makes it easy for the brain to compensate for whatever small flaws that may appear on the visual side of the plate. Strip all those “disturbing” factors away, and all you have is an object in a frame. It’s my job to re-introduce perfection into the dish, when the dish is in fact all you see.

Suppose you were hosting this coming Saturday night. And you could invite anyone you wanted. Dead or alive.

Which four would you invite to come over and why?

This is a tricky question to ask someone who lives very far away from her family, and the obvious answer would of course be them. However, my ultimate, bad-ass dinner party would consist of the following:

 

Leonard Cohen. He’s my favorite troubadour and poet, and an amazingly bright thinker. His words have a calming effect, they leave me with a thirst for more, and I always feel like his voice is a warm blanket that I want to smother myself in. He’s a treasured companion on winter-walks around the city. Paul Auster. Who would of course get to bring a +1, his wife Siri Hustvedt. I have read virtually everything they have ever written, they are to me the quintessential NYC couple, and I admire them greatly. I kinda want to be them (yes, both of them), when I grow up.

 

Robert Smith. Apart from being a brilliant musician and songwriter, he strikes me as kind, humble and thoughtful. I listen to The Cure when I’m happy, sad, and in between. He has managed to stay in the game for four decades with a dignity and professionalism that is rare and admirable. Julia Child. I mean, who wouldn’t want Julia Child at their dinner party? Apart from bringing the awesome food, she could add some grace and etiquette to the table, when it gets too rowdy. A sort of highly respected Grandma, who I’m sure could also dish out a dirty joke or two.