Louise Hagger is an exceptional food & drinks photographer, whose work regularly appears in weekend glossies. Bold, colourful and expressive, her confident style works wonderfully with the delicious food offerings she shoots. We found out how she got to this point, some exciting projects and what she got up to during lockdown.
How did you get into food, drink and still life photography?
I studied Photographic Arts at uni but discovered food photography as a career from assisting. At uni I was interested in still life, documenting details to do with memories around my Grandmother’s home and making photo books. I love that I get to photograph cookbooks professionally and self publish my zines like A Carp in the Tub, EAT BITTER, A Year in Food and Barter, Baby.
Working in food and still life has led quite naturally to drinks photography and also shooting dining settings around food like a Roman banquet for Harrod’s or a personal project exploring The Rituals of Nourishment published by The Photographers’ Gallery.
From assisting and being on food sets, I developed a passion for wanting to photograph food. I started to do test shoots with the food stylist’s assistants to build up a portfolio. From there I started making appointments with my portfolio with picture editors and art directors for commissions, and built up work from there.
We always imagine this area of photography to be very technical, where did you hone your skills?
I studied photography but I learned my technical still life photography skills from working in still life studios. I started as a studio assistant and was trained up to take photos of everything the stores sold online. This ranged from clothing to jewellery to homeware, creating fashion look books, then onto photographing models and catwalk videos. I learned a lot from the teams and then from freelance assisting, I learned all the details of how to work on a variety of shoots. I have always tested regularly, collaborating with teams, to experiment and develop ideas, and it has strengthened my photographic style, which has helped hone my skills as a photographer.
You’re very good at creating atmosphere with your shots, what’s your starting point with any photoshoot? Do you have a vision in mind from the outset?
The starting point is the idea, the story behind it and how to tell that story and convey the emotion behind the work, how it will connect with the viewer. I think which teams I’d like to collaborate and develop the idea with. A shared moodboard on Pinterest or a few images are sent over via Instagram to who I’d like to collaborate with and we meet up and discuss the plan. The vision varies depending on the work, but the plan is always to do the best work possible and to get the work out there. This might be from entering competitions, submitting it to journals or making it into a zine.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Not to be afraid, to believe in my ability, to push myself forward and to reach out to people who I had questions for or would like to have worked with.
Please tell us about a stand out job or project
For me there’s two projects that I have done which stand out. First is my collaboration A Carp in the Tub which is an artist collaboration with Food Stylist Victoria Granof and Prop Stylist JoJo Li. I shot this in New York in Victoria’s home with minimal rented kit and the day just flowed in perfect harmony. In words, pictures and recipes, it tells the weird and wonderful story of Granof’s winter-long journey to adopt her infant son in Ukraine. After shooting the images, I thought they would be fantastic to be viewed in a book format. Victoria loved the images so much that she wrote recipes for them, and the self published book evolved, with Owen Evans designing it. A Carp in the Tub is stocked in The Photographers’ Gallery, Magma Books, magCulture, Donlon Books, Ti Pi Tin Books, magazines Brighton, Magazine isn’t dead Japan and in NYC. ‘Whole Skinny Chicken’ from this series was a Finalist at OpenWalls, exhibited at Les Rencontres d’Arles 2019 at Galerie Huit Arles and the series won PDN Taste 2019.
The second project is my current one EAT BITTER with Creative Director Lydia Pang. This collaboration spanned time zones and generations. The imagery was created by two female, half Chinese creatives: Creative Director Lydia Pang and me. The stories, recipes and memories were written by Lydia Pang, with help from her father and grandparents.
EAT BITTER is a collection of short stories told through childhood recipes that are not for the faint hearted. This zine is an ode to and celebration of the spirit of The Pang family and their Hakka heritage. A year long project, eating bitter and the idea of resilience and patience in dark times, has grown a sharper cultural significance in 2020.
A project that began as quiet introspection has grown into a conversation around protecting and celebrating Chinese culture and cuisine. A portion of the profits are being donated to Welcome To Chinatown, an initiative that supports Chinese businesses affected due to increased xenophobia in the wake of Covid-19.
Lydia is based in Portland, Oregon and I photographed the recipes in London with my team: Food Stylist Valerie Berry (assisted by SongSoo Kim), Prop Stylist Alexander Breeze and Photo Assistant & Retoucher Sam Reeves. I reached out to Lydia on instagram and via email after I heard her on Gem Fletcher’s podcast The Messy Truth and read her interview on Ladies, Wine & Design talking about her Hakka heritage and wanting to make a book. I didn’t know her but felt a connection to the recipes from my Chinese heritage, so I asked if I could photograph the recipes. We met up when she was in London, had lots of calls and WhatsApp chat, sharing moodboards and ideas so we were aligned on her art direction before the shoot. We all worked in perfect synergy that day and it was one of the most joyous experiences of collaboration I’ve had. I’m immensely proud of both projects.
What do you find is the most effective way to market yourself?
Mostly I use Instagram to promote my work. I use hashtags including my name #louisehagger so there’s an archive of my work that’s easy to access. I also keep my website up to date and sync my instagram posts to my LinkedIn feed and also upload projects onto The Dots.
I check in with clients and contact people who I’d like to work with directly. Every January I post out my food annual A Year in Food which is the culmination of my collaborations and commissions the previous year. I handwrite personalised notes to over 250 people in the industry and arrange to meet them with my portfolio to discuss upcoming shoots. This year with people working remotely, I will produce a digital version, which is a shame as I love print, but plan to make this an exciting e-post to engage and inspire.
How did you cope with the first lockdown? What lessons will you take to keep going during this second lockdown?
It was extremely worrying as all my work disappeared and I didn’t work for weeks, not knowing when I’d next be able to work. I tried to embrace the enforced pause and recharge. I read a lot, went on lock walks in nearby woodland and did some shoots on my own: simple still lives that I shot and styled, also collaborating remotely to produce ‘Barter, Baby.’ with Victoria Granof.
Conceived during a FaceTime cuppa, they shared the photography, creating visual pairings of what Granof had been bartering: “We’re talking value. And values. In this spring of our discontent, with its themes of lack, limitation and restriction, what do you value most: things? People? Experiences?” And have any of them gained or lost value as they migrate from the “want” to the “need” pile?”
I made some mini videos of my work for Instagram which let people know I could shoot from home and had to adapt in order to still be able to shoot. I did a lot of creative chats, mentoring and panel talks on zoom and started a regular foodie zoom too to check in with friends in the industry and for us to support one another.
I also co-founded a Food & Still Life Photography Crew list for POC. This list is intended as a resource for commissioning and hiring for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic U.K. based food and still life photography teams, to promote inclusivity and a more equitable industry. This list has been shared extensively and I’m so happy that people are being commissioned from it.
What’s next for you?
I would like to do more work globally, shoot more books, travel and have a book published of my food annual A Year in Food which is a retrospective of my personal collaborations and commissions. Also, I want to exhibit more of my personal work, explore moving image further and to keep developing as an artist.