1988 / 7月
Chrissie Lu /photos courtesy of Ken Huang /tr. by Peter Eberly
He studied economics at Kansei University in Japan and earned a master's degree in sociology from the University of Illinois, but Ken Huang ended up becoming the founder and leading practitioner of food photography in Japan. "I only wanted to be tops in a new field," he says.
Tops indeed. He has won numerous awards over the past 25 years, and last year he was presented with a "master of photography degree" by Professional Photographers of America, the world's largest photographic organization, becoming the first Asian to receive that honor.
Ken Huang often knits his brow. When asked why, he laughs and explains with a grin: "If you don't look a little serious, people won't trust you."
Actually, the answer comes in the studio. That's where he produces his mouth-watering portraits of culinary confections, paying meticulous attention to the least detail and arranging camera, subject, and lighting to the best possible advantage.
"I'm too nervous," he admits. The tension comes from his demand for quality, for precise control of every step. Near the studio is his private office and lounge, where he frequently stays up at night pondering how to handle a new assignment. His office is often the last in the building to have its lights turned off.
"As long as you're willing to put in the time and effort to study and experiment and you have the patience," he believes, "there aren't many secrets to successful photography."
One little secret of his is not to eat too much before shooting. "Unless you think the food's delicious yourself, the photo you take won't stir up an appetite in others."
To Ken Huang the career that he is engaged in means more than just allowing people to "use their eyes to enjoy the pleasures of eating" or helping his clients to attract consumers and turn a profit. It's an occupation that's bound up with the pulse of the age and changes in people's lives.
"You've got to look at the future," he stresses. When he returned to Tokyo from New York and opened Japan's first food photography studio in 1963, Japan's per capita income was just US$522 a year (one 27th of today's) and commercial photography was just getting off the ground, but even then he foresaw that food photography had great development potential.
Japan's economy would develop along the lines of America's, he predicted. As the economy became more developed and people ever more busy, foods that are simple and convenient to cook would be displayed in mass quantity in supermarkets. "A mass-production economy needs the mass media to exist," he says. "Food photography plays a key role in whether consumers are moved by an ad and in whether they pick up a product in the supermarket when they see the wrapper."
Just as he had expected, by far the largest part of his business now, besides the pictures that he takes regularly for recipes in magazines, is photographing advertisements and packaging for firms with large-scale production. And about half of the business is for new products. "In 1986 more than 4,000 new food products were offered by Japanese manufacturers," he says. "And only 10 percent were successful enough to survive in the market-place. I see this trend in the U.S. also, where free and competitive economies and changing societies encourage short life cycles for many food products."
He also foresaw that as the economy expanded and people's diets grew richer, they would pay more attention to their health. Ten years ago he brought out a book in Japan on health foods, and seven years ago he published a cookbook of recipes for microwave ovens. Most recently, besides seeking continually to improve his photography, he has tried to introduce the Japanese to foods from around the world, "in the hopes of internationalizing their food."
His ability to observe the way society is headed comes partly from his education.
Ken Huang was born in 1929 in Kobe, Japan. His father had moved there from Taiwan to open a bakery, which is also one of the reasons why he chose the food world as the object of his life's work. "Where I'm different from other photographers is that I've studied how the producers think."
When Huang went to the U.S. to study in 1955 his original ambition was to become a professor, and he studied sociology before switching to mass communications. "Everybody emphasized the written media at the time," he recalls, "and the image media had only begun to be noticed." Plunging headlong into his new field, he entered the New York Institute of Photography and then after graduation joined Midori Inc., a famous food photo studio in New York, where he worked for three years before deciding to take his experience to Japan and become a forerunner there in the field of professional food photography.
Born into a Chinese family, raised in Japanese society, and educated in the U.S.--what effect does he think the three cultures have each had on him? Which culture is it that has given him such strong concepts about his work, to set out on a new path and stride on without looking back? Huang believes that the three cultures in him are inseparably mixed and that his enthusiasm for his work and his strict demand for quality don't arise from any single culture. "It's just because photography is my profession."
And the family influence that he best remembers is a sentence that his father the baker told him: "Life is a continual contest. Be hungry before you succeed."
(Photo by Vincent Chang)
Asparagus delivered to the studio straight from the farm--fresh enough for you?
The bamboo shoots, the soil, the grass and the bamboo in the back were all transferred into the studio for photographing.
Huang spent two hours to snap this picture of "a clam taking a deep breath."
Huang here tried to express the feeling of a fish flying out of the sea.
This picture of sushi was printed in a calendar.
(Left) Huang was invited to Taiwan this January to give a lecture. (photo by Vincent Chang)
(Right) The cover of Huang's latest book, published last year.