Once you start following Julie Lee on Instagram, you'll find yourself eagerly watching your feed on the weekends — because that's when she usually posts photos of her food collages, dizzyingly beautiful compositions of the fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers she finds at farmers markets and around her Los Angeles neighborhood.
I talked to Julie to learn a little more about the process of making collages in her dining-room-turned-photo-studio, from the ingredients that inspire her to the tools she uses to construct her vivid images.
What inspired you to start making food collages?
I love food. It’s deeply personal for everyone and for me it’s a gesture of kindness, a storyteller, and a way to create community and share culture. I was raised by immigrant parents and food was something that bridged the generational and cultural gap. It’s the universal language. The food collages marry my love of food to my love of photography and to be quite honest, happened very organically. I try not to overthink it. Fruits and vegetables are naturally beautiful, with their intricate shapes and textures and vibrant colors; I wanted to capture that. They make it easy!
Describe the process of making a collage, from inspiration to shooting the photo.
The inspiration for the food collages comes from patterns in nature and seasonal produce. I have a Saturday morning ritual of heading to the Santa Monica Farmers Market. I do a quick walk through, to see what looks fresh or interesting, making mental notes and meal planning as I go. On my second walk through, I start loading up on groceries for the week. Along with weekly staples, I try to find something that I've never cooked before and talk to the farmers, chefs, and vendors at the market for tips. It’s a very knowledgeable community! If you ever go to the market, I’m the one with really, really heavy bags hanging from every limb and maybe a carton of tomatoes or peaches balancing on my head. Please say hi.
I share an apartment with my boyfriend, but I've commandeered the dining room — with east and south-facing windows — as makeshift photo studio. I use one side of the dining table to prep the food and one side to collage. I have my tools on the prep side: cutting board, a chef’s knife, a paring knife, a ceramic peeler, kitchen shears, a mandoline, tweezers, etc. The arsenal keeps growing as the collages get more intricate. When I get home from the market, I sort through my morning bounty, have a coffee or three, and have at it. I shoot throughout the process — on an iPhone 5 and Canon 6D — getting sparser and denser versions of the same collage.
When did you start cooking?
Since that first batch of boxed lemon cake mix I “made” in the first grade (a laughably proud moment in my life), I’ve always had a natural affinity for cooking — the ingredients, the process, and, of course, the end result. I loved to tag along in the kitchen and help my parents with minion-esque kitchen tasks they’d dole out. I’ve rolled many a glutinous rice ball and folded countless potstickers. My dad, who grew up in China during the war, and my mom, whose family owned a catering business in Hong Kong, taught me to respect food—down to the very last grain of rice—and never let anything go to waste. That probably explains my fascination with preserving, canning, dehydrating, and fermentation too.
In 2001, I had a culinary revolution when I studied abroad in Lyon, France. My tiny world of food expanded 100-fold. My mind was blown. Funky cheeses, delicious pastries, saucisson, escargot, and wine — lots of wine. My classmates joked that it was cheaper than water. I sublet a room from a generous French lady who shared her wealth of homemade preserves and liqueurs, massive collection of cookbooks, and culinary knowledge. And for the first time, I was cooking full-blown meals, throwing dinner parties, and loving it. That was the jump off.
What is your favorite kind of food to cook?
Living in Los Angeles, we are very fortunate. We have access to some of the highest quality produce and ethnically diverse ingredients. When you start with good ingredients, it doesn’t take much to make a great meal. My favorite type of cooking is simple and seasonally-driven with an ethnic influence. Last night, we had a whole roasted fish rubbed with salt, pepper, and shichimi togarashi, cucumber-shiso salad, and quinoa. Massaged purple kale with thinly sliced radishes and apples is one of my favorite salads.
Has making collages changed your cooking or the way you look at ingredients?
Yes, definitely! Food is a means of sustenance, but it can also be art. Collaging and photography have made me focus on the finest, most minute details of food. I’m always paying attention to food plating and styling as well.
Will people be able to buy prints of your collages or other merchandise soon? (I hope so!)
Absolutely! I’ve been working double-time prepping and testing out papers, sizing, and different print labs for an online print shop. I want put out the highest quality prints. Stay tuned for official launch details to be announced—very, very soon—on Instagram, Twitter, and my site.
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(Images: Julie Lee)