Photographer Sylvan Müller has devoted years to his passion: food and drink, and the stories that can be told about them. Yet his photographs are not so much perfectly captured depictions of different food products as stories about longings and desires, traditions and cultures. His book Mama kocht [Mum’s Cooking] is a collection of recipes by mothers, and a work on migration. Behind the memories of dishes from childhood and youth are many tales of immigrants. His two most recent works – Das kulinarische Erbe der Alpen [The Culinary Heritage of the Alps] and the accompanying Das Kochbuch [The Cookbook], both in collaboration with Dominik Flammer – are the outcome of years of research. They tell very affectionate stories about people, their kitchens and cuisines. Both books are bestsellers in German-speaking countries.
Sylvan Müller, you’ve been photographing food for years. What makes it so fascinating for you?
Presumably one is best at doing what one loves doing most (laughs). Since I was a child, I’ve always loved eating and cooking. And while studying photography I got very fascinated by still lifes. But I’m probably less of a photographer than a storyteller. I travel a great deal, and on my journeys there are always two things you can talk to people about: the weather, or cooking and food. Unlike the weather, talking about cooking is usually interesting and more intimate. Moreover, I find that food can be an ideal vehicle for discussing political topics without having to address them directly. And with food you can also tell a love story. Actually, the stories interest me more than the food.
Your photos have both an authentic and a staged quality. How do you use the creative devices of photography?
The line between aestheticizing things and turning them into kitsch is very thin. You have to be able to resist the temptation to embellish your subjects. I have found my best role models for reducing the vocabulary of form and design in Japan. I even once made a book on the Japanese cuisine. Important are one’s convictions about the effect of an object, the belief in the power of the product you are working on, though I am also very interested in forms and textures. From this perspective, food is a rewarding topic.
When does the composition of a still life work?
I tend to explore my compositions endlessly. I really enjoy rearranging my motifs, moving things around. For example, I can spend hours working on the positioning of a few beans, until suddenly everything falls into place.