Photographer: David Sykes

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Published:  January 12, 2011
Alison Copley
Photographer: David Sykes

Hungry for originality

Food is not always meant to be eaten. Especially, it seems, when photographer David Sykes is in charge of it. His quirky, unconventional and frequent use of food as subject matter leads to a collection of imagery easily described as thought provoking and visually arresting. Yet it is also a showcase for his offbeat sense of humour. “I think that food is a fantastic thing to work with and I use it for its texture, colour and shapes. Nature produces some amazing looking things and I just try and show that off,” he says.

As it happens, Sykes did not initially head for a photography course and instead enrolled to study graphic design. But he soon felt drawn to the photographic elements of the course. “I was never great at drawing and found that photography was a fantastic way to communicate my creative ideas,” he explains.

Spaghetti Hoops

Spaghetti Hoops

Light breakfast

Light Breakfast

This then led him to complete a two-year Higher National Diploma (HND) in photography at the Kent Institute of Art and Design. As part of the course, he worked alongside London-based advertising photographer David Stewart, who offered him a full-time assistant job after he left college. He worked with Stewart for four and a half years before leaving in 2001 to pursue his own photographic exploits – and quite some exploits they have turned out to be.

Another recent project, which dallies with the theme of food, and aptly goes under the name of Faux Food, includes enticingly named images such as Spaghetti Hoops, Light Breakfast and Fish and Chips. “They all started when I saw someone carrying a balloon with another inside it and thought it looked like a fried egg,” Sykes says, explaining the thought process behind these images. “I thought of other food I could make out of balloons, and the fried breakfast idea came from that.”

For this series Sykes worked with stylist Jennie Webster, who assisted in putting the ‘meat on the bones’ for the project by sourcing the balloons for Light Breakfast, as well as the props for the others in the series. In order to gain as much realism as possible for the shots, Sykes also called upon the help of friend and model maker Ridley West, requesting that for Spaghetti Hoops, he build a giant four-foot (just bigger than one metre) plate, which was then mounted onto a wall in the studio.

During shooting, Sykes set some style rules to maintain consistency and realism across all of the images in the project. First, everything in the frame had to be shot on camera, as this helped the scale to work with the props, as each shot worked within a theme – balloons for Light Breakfast, school gym equipment for Spaghetti Hoops and bathroom items for Fish and Chips. Second, the images had to have a human element to them to assist in highlighting the scale of the objects. Last, the individual food items were to be made from one object and not made up of many of different things. “This helps to intensify the ‘double take’ by keeping the dishes quite simple,” he explains. “I also try to create a story to go with the more conceptual pieces and I like to think that they have a sense of humour and fun to them as well.

Fish and Chips

Fish and Chips

“In terms of equipment, I used a five by four transparency on this project as I still feel that a good five by four transparency has something that digital lacks; film has a depth and feel to it that makes things look a bit crafted,” Sykes adds.

In general though, as he is mostly studio-based, Sykes tends to regularly work with flash and uses a Strobe City 5000 lighting system. “They’re great lights to use as they have long strip heads, which help to create a very soft light,” he clarifies.

Sykes also uses a Leaf Aptus II 10 digital back on a Mamiya RZ body, which he combines with his five by four Sinar (again choosing to capture most of his personal work on film).

He creates most of these masterpieces from his double-level studio, comprising an office on the ground floor and a studio in the basement. The studio has attractive high ceilings and features a hatch through the office floor, which is a crucial component in perfecting overhead shots – such as with Spaghetti Hoops and Fish and Chips. Sykes describes the studio as a creative and crazy working space, as props from previous projects and for future projects are usually left to find a home somewhere upon the workshop floor.

Chocolate Skull

Chocolate Skull

It’s should come as no surprise that Sykes draws inspiration from Irving Penn, a US photographer known predominantly for his pristine food art, but also for his glamour fashion shots. “I look at his work and it has a special quality to it. I like the fact that you can’t put your finger on why it is beautiful to look at, it just is. There are no tricks to his work, his lighting is simple, yet he manages to take a mundane object, put it on a white background and make it interesting visually,” Sykes explains.

Generally he finds himself inspired by photographers who are creative in what they do, but who try to produce something different and are constantly reinventing themselves to offer a fresh approach. Film, music and art also provide inspiration, but sometimes just simply walking around and observing the world is enough to spark off an idea for Sykes.

Knife

Knife

Of course, Sykes doesn’t only photograph food, and a particularly challenging project that he worked on previously was for a lighting company with the brief of creating a city using their lights as buildings, and miniature architectural models as people for the city. It was a 28-day project, with over 30 shots required. “Lighting the set was a challenge as all of the lights themselves had to be on, so we had to use a lot of long exposures. Each shot was a scene from the city of lights and the agency had done a great job of building a story around each light and its use.” The project was a success and eventually went on to win a D&AD award.

According to Sykes, photography is going through the biggest transformation it has experienced in a long time. The grand advances in digital technology are changing the way that people see and use the medium, and Sykes believes we’re in danger of losing the craft. “Images can so easily be fixed in post-production that photographers have become lazy and do not give the initial shot the attention to detail that shooting on film requires,” he says. “Without that attention, the image can become sterile and bland.”

Obsessions, butcher

Obsessions, butcher

Dogs Nuts

Dogs Nuts

Sykes also expresses his dissatisfaction with the public’s attitude towards buying and commissioning photographs. “The internet is so saturated with images and stock libraries giving away work, that photography is losing its value. Not everyone appreciates the craft behind a quality image – I guess it’s losing its magic. I think we need to try and rediscover what made photography interesting and try to apply that to the new technology that we have today.”

At the time of the interview, Sykes was busy wrapping up his absorbing Obsessions project, with the idea stemming from two anatomical figures that he stumbled upon in a shop in New York. “I knew that I wanted to use them in a room set and it needed to be interesting, so I built a story around them,” he recalls. “[I needed to work] out what type of person would have one of these objects in their home.”

From there, the characters were developed, each with a concrete back story in order to provide character and depth to each shot. Sykes is also set to start work on a new project entitled Beef. “And you can guess where the inspiration for that came from,” he laughs.

davidsykes.com

All images copyright David Sykes.

From Desktop magazine.

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