SmugMug Films has just released its newest production, a documentary by filmmaker Anton Lorimer about acclaimed food photographer Eric Wolfinger

Eric Wolfinger: Beyond the Plate follows Wolfinger's passion for food and travel, and how it drove him, a bit indirectly, to become one of the world's best food photographers. It's quite a ride, and along the way we learn about surfing, travel to Tanzania, and go into the kitchen as Eric makes chocolate from raw ingredients.

Eric spent several years cooking and baking professionally before stepping behind the lens. Over a dozen books and a James Beard nomination later, he continues to find passion in his work. He was kind enough to spend a few minutes with DPReview to talk about his journey, how he approaches photography, and what it felt like to be in front of the camera instead of behind it.

If you'd like to hear more from Eric, you can watch his presentation from our re:FRAME series of talks. It's a great lesson in humility, passion, and the importance of following your dreams.

How did you become a food photographer?

I always say that I came to photography through the kitchen door. While I was a traveler at heart, my first professional pursuit was in the kitchen, because I love cooking and I wanted to be in that world in some capacity. 

About ten years ago I took a trip to South America and gave myself my dream job, which at that point in my life was to be a traveling food journalist. I took off for a year and wrote dispatches on a blog about interesting things I encountered, people I met, and experiences that were inevitably shaped by food.

I had a camera with me because I knew that to tell a good story, I had to accompany it with photos. I never thought anything would come from the photos because I really wanted to be a writer. I was hoping that Gourmet Magazine would pick me up as a staff journalist, but Gourmet never called.

Photo by Eric Wolfinger

When I returned from South America, Chad Robertson, my mentor at Tartine Bakery where I had apprenticed, invited me to come back to San Francisco to bake with him and help him create his book about bread. He had seen my work and realized that maybe his buddy, who knew bread at a granular level and could help him articulate his methods, would be a great collaborator.

As we were crafting the proposal, he had the idea that I should shoot the book as well. He felt that I could bring a visual perspective to the book that no other photographer could, because I knew bread better than any photographer. It was an opportunity I never asked for and never expected, but he saw something in my work that gave him confidence in me. The result was the book Tartine Bread.

We often think of food photography as being about the food, but your work frequently extends to tell the story behind the food. How do you uncover the human element when you shoot a project?

My interest in food goes beyond the recipe. It's rooted in my desire to travel and connect with the world as I encounter it. The best way I’ve always known to connect with people is through food, whether I’m cooking for them or sharing a meal at a table or a street stall. For me, food has always been the best way to start to get to know a person or place.

Of course, as a photographer I’m going to get into the nuances and every little aspect of what makes a dish special, but the food itself is only part of the story. There’s a person who made that food, a place where they come from, and there’s a story to all of that. My interest is in teasing out that story and connecting with it through photography.

Photo by Eric Wolfinger

When taking on a project, what type of preparation do you do?

I’m afraid to say that I don’t do a lot of preparation. Every time I arrive on a job or to a new place, I often have this moment where I’m like 'Uh oh, I should have prepared more.' But at the same time, I always want to have a healthy sense of improvisation going in to every new project. Once I’m thrown into the mix I’m very inquisitive and I’m comfortable thinking on my feet and figuring things out. I think that allows me to bring a real freshness to each project that I do.

People are different all over the world, but one thing we have in common is that we all have to eat. How does food help us find commonalities and bring people together?

I think food is the universal language that every human speaks. Even a smile can be misinterpreted, but the sharing of a meal and the enjoyment of that meal is universal. One of the things I love about food, and my chosen path, is that even though I don’t necessarily speak Vietnamese, or Thai, or Lao, or even French very well, I can still immerse myself in those places and connect with people through food. Sharing a meal with somebody is the first step you can take to build empathy with a person .

If I could communicate one message to people all over the world it might be ‘stay calm and have a meal with your neighbor.’ I know that sounds a little bit naive given all the craziness that’s going on in the world today. But what do two world leaders do the first time they meet? They often have a meal together. There’s this bond that we create when we share a meal, and that’s the first step towards friendship.

Photo by Eric Wolfinger

You’re used to being behind the camera. What was it like to turn the tables and be the subject of a film?

When SmugMug asked to do a film about me I was skeptical. As someone who’s dabbled in filmmaking, I know how hard it is to tell a really good story. But when I saw Anton’s [filmmaker Anton Lorimer] previous work I was blown away. The production quality was amazing. I thought he had an army of people working on these films, and I came to discover that it was an army of one. Literally, the credit sequence of this film will be one name: Anton Lorimer.

Getting to know Anton I immediately felt like I was in good hands. I can only liken it to what a doctor must feel like the first time they go into a hospital as a real patient, and they say to themselves 'Oh my gosh, I hope these people try as hard to do a good job on me as I do for others.' I had a sense very early in the production that I was in good hands.

It was a huge learning experience for me. I was in front of the camera, but I was watching the techniques Anton would use to draw the story out from me. It reinforced the importance of the connection you form with your subject. You have to reach a level of trust where you can share revealing or sensitive material and trust each other to use it right. The quality of the film is not only a testament to his skills as a filmmaker, but also to the trust I developed in him. Moving forward, that’s something I aspire to.

Photo by Eric Wolfinger

What are you working on now? Do you have any upcoming projects to share?

My collaboration with Anton really inspired me to go back to the basics and take my own filmmaking to a new place. I’ve done a lot of commercial work with large crews, but I never imagined I could get great production quality without a huge crew. Anton proved to me that not only can you do that with an army of one, but that you can tell a more honest story because your production is not intrusive. What he taught me was that I could actually make a film the way I like to take photos: one guy with a camera.

This experience making a film with SmugMug has really pushed me creatively to try new things, and I’ve recently started work on two documentary projects: Yo Soy Mezcal is a project I'm working on in Mexico, and I have another one in Japan called Dashi Journey

To see more of Eric's work, visit his website and follow him on Instagram.