Stephanie Zhao is an Oakland-based food photographer for culinary artists and Michelin starred restaurants. Her work can be seen in USA Today, Chicago Tribune, Eater Chicago, Modern Luxury, Crain’s, CS Magazine, Chicago Food Magazine, the Michelin Guide.
How did you become interested in photography?
I come from a fine arts background. I was always artistic as a kid, you know, it's one of those stories. I had taken classes at School of the Art Institute when I was in middle school, worked at the Art Institute of Chicago when I was in high school, and then I got a scholarship to SAIC for college. I was moving towards the fine arts path. I really thought I was either going to be a sculptor or a painter actually.
After a very unfocused first year in art school, I quickly came to realize that a diploma wasn’t going to be a golden ticket to a guaranteed future. I wasn’t using my time well, and I felt an immense amount of guilt about paying tens of thousands of dollars to “figure it out”.
My parents are immigrants, so they were all about putting their kids to college. It didn’t matter how much it cost them. And as a teenager, debt was such an abstract concept. It was just a number. One year into school and a year of tuition out, I realized I just didn’t want to do this to my parents. So I dropped out. And I didn’t tell my parents about it.
What did you do after you dropped out?
I still had my student Photoshop, Lightroom, and Illustrator licenses. So I just did whatever anyone around me needed. If someone needed a poster or a menu done, I would design that menu. This was my first step into graphic design and photography.
One day, my friend in a band called and said their photographer couldn’t make it so I jumped in to help. I know someone who was selling their old camera, a very beat up Canon Rebel XS, for 20 bucks. That was my first DSLR.
I didn’t know anything about photography before that. I was actually watching a Youtube video on the train ride to the shoot and it ended up working out really well. For the next few months, I took just good enough photos for small businesses. It was an easy way to make some cash. I was pretty good at it, and I really enjoyed doing visual work for people. Then, over the years, I taught myself with whatever resources I could find online. I refined my skills, developed my style and started building a client list.
Did your parents find out eventually?
It wasn't until I was supposed to graduate that I finally told them. The whole time, my dad thought I transferred to a state school on full scholarship. They were so proud of me. When it was time, I asked my dad to come over to my apartment and I had a full slide deck prepared for him, showing him my earnings year over year, my list of clients and told them I landed a contract with a large client. That was enough for my dad to be like, okay.
What got you into food photography?
I had contacts in the service industry, and through them I met a lot of amazing chefs and restaurant owners. These people were doing some really incredible work, and usually the only record of their dishes were grainy smartphone photos or recipes scribbled on a napkin.
I thought it was a shame. These were beautiful dishes, and I thought they deserved to be captured in their best light. So I reached out and offered my services to a restaurant that I admired. My first real fine dining experience ended up being a trade with them. I got to sit down for a 10 course tasting menu, and in exchange I helped them photograph each dish. It was magical, I fell in love with it all.
Every guest who sits down is basically being presented with an edible sculpture on a plate. Culinary art is super ephemeral. It’s there, then it’s destroyed and consumed. And when the ingredients go out of season, or its time to turn over the menu - it’s gone. One of the most important things that they taught us in art school was to document your work. It feels really good to be in service of other artists, I get to be a part of their process and extend the life of their work.
I love your work, and I love your story.
Thank you. I really feel lucky every day. And I'm still learning (thanks to my design mentor, Morgan Knutson)
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