Sara Remington, photographer
Her food photography has appeared in countless, award-winning cookbooks and magazines such as Travel & Leisure, Real Simple, Oprah, and Better Homes & Gardens. But her client list also includes advertising powerhouses such as Ogilvy; Goodby, Silverstein & Partners; and Crispin, Porter & Bogusky. Check out all of her mouth-watering work at sararemington.net.
PPF: When you were little, what did you tell people you wanted to be when you grew up?
SR: When I was little, like second grade little, I wanted to be a cop. But then again I wanted to be everything then. When I was 14, my school offered a photography class and for some reason just seeing that photography was offered made me fall in love with it. So my mom and I found a Minolta in the paper and bought it for $150 dollars. I started shooting black and white, and it was that feeling you get when something clicks, an indescribable “I’m in love” feeling that’ll never go away. I would stay in the dark room until they kicked me out. I can still smell the fixer on my hands—those chemicals are probably still inside me. But I knew. I knew then that was the start of everything.
PPF: So you actually knew from an early age that you wanted to be a photographer?
SR: I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do when I was 14, but I just didn’t know you could create a job out of it. I was always distracted by the notion that you have to be a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher. I think the world would be a better place if it fostered and cared for people with passions in the arts. We are so often distracted from our passions, aren’t we? My friend’s nephew—he’s four and all he does is line things up, toys and blocks and everything. He likes order and building things with precision. People look at that as if it’s weird, and maybe someone will try to break him of those tendencies. But you know what? He’ll probably become a famous architect if he’s nurtured instead. A passion can become a career, and it’ll make the world a better place because you’ll be doing what you were created to do.
PPF: What made you decide to follow your passion and become a photographer?
SR: I told my dad once that I wanted to be a doctor and he said, “Sara, don’t do it. Go to art school.” He was super supportive, as was my mom. I remember getting Linda McCartney’s book of photographs and being blown away. Here was this woman shooting Janis Joplin, hanging out with all these cool people, taking their pictures. It helped, I’m sure, that she was married to Paul. But still, for me, it was a good female role model, someone doing something for a living that was artistic. If you are so obsessed with something, regardless of how asinine it may seem at the time, you can turn it into something great.
PPF: Did you go to art school, like your dad suggested?
SR: I went to Syracuse, and I wanted to go to the art school and be an art major, but I was trying to figure out what is the most profitable business to be part of, within the art community. So I picked computer graphics, thinking there would always be a job. I hated it. I absolutely hated it. I had no patience. I was taking programming classes and I’d get so frustrated. So I changed to graphic design, which is still in front of a computer. I didn’t have the passion for that either. I would find myself in the dark room and I’d be happy again. One day I just changed my major to photography. My GPA went from 3.0 to a 4.0 because I was doing what I loved, and what’s funny about that is that if you’re doing what you love, and it doesn’t feel like work, you grow more interested in everything.
PPF: What was your first real job?
SR: When I was 15, I worked at a coffee shop. I never drank coffee though till college. Then I worked at a CD store in college to make money. As soon as I graduated, I sent out 100 resumes to L.A. because I wanted to move to the West Coast. Out of all those resumes, only three people called me back. I got a job as an archival assistant at a gallery in Venice. I loved it. I was around photography all day, being around artists and archiving photos, having artists come in and share their work. I made $10 dollars an hour. But I was happy.
PPF: Was the West Coast all you expected it to be?
SR: I had packed up my Subaru and made it to L.A. in nine days. Found a place in West Hollywood living with a random girl. I remember all the awe and wonder of the first few days, and then reality hit. There was a huge earthquake. And then September 11 happened. I was struggling to pay the bills. School is this safe place to explore and learn about yourself. Then, you get out of school, and you have to get a job. But it’s hard because you don’t have the camaraderie you had in school. It can be lonely trying to make it in the real world.
PPF: So while you were working at the gallery, did you keep shooting for yourself?
SR: Don’t laugh, but one of the things I did, which is totally cliché, is go to strip clubs and photograph strippers. I just really wanted to get out and do something on the weekends that was more artistic. I’d hide behind my camera. It was definitely my security blanket. That kind of photography was fascinating to me—trying to tell a story with my camera, the story of these women’s lives and livelihoods. I got into it—the whole idea of being where you wouldn’t normally be, being completely uncomfortable. I started emailing photojournalists saying I wanted to be a war photographer.
PPF: But you never went to the Middle East.
SR: No, I moved to San Francisco instead. I was tired of L.A., wasn’t feeling it there. So I headed north and started contemplating something I never thought I would—wedding photography. It turned out to be a great training ground for me, plus I was much more able to support myself. And through it all, I found a National Geographic photographer who needed a studio manager. Her name is Catherine Karnow. I was 25, and I applied for the job, and she basically said, “Can you work on a Mac and feed my cat?” And I said yes to both and got the job. I learned the entire business side of photography, running her studio, which was invaluable experience—all the stuff they never teach you in school. If you don’t have the business sense, there’s only so far you can go with raw talent. So I did that, and shot weddings and little things on the weekends just to give myself some time behind the camera.
PPF: You’re quite well known for your food photography. When did you get into that?
SR: I was dating a chef at the time, and I just started taking little pictures of food. I didn’t even know what food photography was about, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because I didn’t realize that my style was a departure from the traditional style of food photography. Some friends were starting a magazine in Napa, and I did a six-page piece for them, which turned out to be a turning point in my career. I didn’t work with food stylists or assistants. It wasn’t fussy at all. I just shot the story of the food—the relationship between the chefs and their ingredients. And from there, I started getting jobs here and there, and momentum began to build.
PPF: Was there a watershed moment when things really picked up?
SR: PDN magazine comes out with an issue focused on 30 people under the age of 30. I was 27, and I submitted my portfolio. They accepted it. So I made it in the 30. That nod to my work gave me the confidence I needed to go freelance. I just kept going without second-guessing. You just push yourself as much as you can. The main thing is to just keep getting jobs and keep working and keep working. No matter what the job is. I have taken on some of the silliest jobs, just for the sake of shooting—or paying the bills. To me, staying humble is important. They’re all learning experiences in some way. And the world is really small. You never know who you might meet on a job that’ll lead to something wonderful.
PPF: What was your big editorial break?
SR: Ten Speed Press wanted me to come in and show my book. It’s such a connection game in San Francisco. Everyone is looking for new talent. I went in and showed my book, and they hired me for this book called Artisanal Cocktails, with the bar tender from Cyrus restaurant in Healdsburg. It was my first book and it was really exciting because it was all new to me. I look back on it and cringe because now there are things that I’d do differently. But it just snowballed into more and more books. Ten Speed became a really good client. I wish I had a more exciting story—that I was in the trenches and decided I’d be a food photographer to get out of the mud. But really it’s more about toying with a few things until something clicks.
PPF: Was there a particular mentor, or a person who believed in you and gave you a chance when no one else would?
SR: Catherine Karnow. I owe everything to her. I still do the things that she did, the way she did it—she was so organized . I would eye roll but now I know that if you don’t stay organized you lose track of everything. Organization frees you to be more creative. She always had the business close to heart. She wanted to teach me the right way to do it. She knew I’d start shooting for myself at some point and wanted to instill in me the value of what I’m doing and the value and shelf life of the images I create.
PPF: What has been the lowest point in your career?
SR: I haven’t been doing this long enough to pretend I’ve got it all figured out. I’ve been on my own for six years. I don’t have a ton of overhead. I have all the gear I need, and enough to pay rent, bills, and buy food. In the beginning, I put everything on my credit card and gave myself five to seven years to be successful enough to pay it off. There have been times that were really tight, but nothing that was so dire I felt like throwing in the towel. If you interview me in a few years or see me on the street corner one day, out of money and a home, you can change this answer. Artists often have a sense of camaraderie: Being broke, or just getting by, but being happy and fulfilled.
PPF: What has been the highest point so far?
SR: Today! Actually, one of my goals has always been to do my own book, and it’s kind of happening, with a dear friend of mine. We’re writing about spending the summers of our youth in France. Our stories are different, but what is the same is the distinctive marriage of food with memory. It’s supposed to come out next March, tentatively called Paris to Provence. It’s a big personal accomplishment for me, a huge dream come true.
PPF: You’ve told me before that you dream of having a little more free time. If you had it, what would be your version of the perfect day?
SR: Really simple stuff that you lose when you get bogged down by everyday life. I’d say laying in bed, drinking lots of coffee, playing a soccer game with friends, having a really good bloody mary after the game, and then going back to my bed to read books and newspapers without the phone ever ringing. And I’d end it with a great movie.
PPF: What job could you never, ever, do, no matter how broke you were?
SR: A stripper.
PPF: When have you been most afraid in your life?
SR: I was shooting Ian Knauer and staying in a Holiday Inn in Pennsylvania, eating in my hotel room. I seriously almost died, choking on a chicken bone. For five seconds my entire life flashed before me and I thought, is this how it’s going to end? In a Holiday Inn with a chicken bone caught in my throat? I really need to figure a way for this not to be the end. Seriously, though, it was terrifying as it was happening. Choking is very scary.
PPF: What is the best advice you ever got?
SR: This is embarrassing, but I got it from Bethenny Frankel, this feisty New York businesswoman. I sort of am apologizing for it, but not really. She said never to assume anyone is smarter than you. Don’t assume someone else has a better idea than you. If you’re good at it and you have a good idea, go with it, and quiet those voices in your head that say you can’t do what you want to do. Eventually it’ll manifest into something great. It might not be profitable, but it will be necessary.
PPF: And now, we’re almost done. Here are a few fun questions I’m asking everyone.
SR: Ok. Go.
PPF: What is on your bedside table?
SR: Blood, Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton. An iPhone. A coffee cup.
PPF: What’s the trip you keep talking about taking “one day?”
SR: It changes weekly. This week I’m fantasizing about driving cross-country for a summer in a camper with my fiancé. A few months ago I was dreaming about going down to Patagonia and biking and climbing and enjoying long days when it doesn’t get dark until 11 P.M. And I’ve been kind of obsessed about the idea of going to Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Each of these trips will be a month or two, so I better get on it, or life happens and it gets harder and harder to get away.
PPF: First concert you went to?
SR: Sadly, I don’t remember. But I do remember seeing Pearl Jam in Prague when I was 19. It was general admission, so I somehow pushed my way to the front row, using my “I’m-so-short” skills, and managed to get on someone’s shoulders. I was so close to Eddie Vedder that I could feel his sweat. It was hot and steamy in there, so much so that everyone’s shirt was sticking to their bodies as if we’d all been sprayed with a hose. Underneath my screaming and dancing and sitting on a stranger’s shoulders, I remember thinking to myself, “Yes! This is it! I am in it. This is rock and roll.”
PPF: Best concert you ever went to?
SR: Well, the Pearl Jam experience was pretty amazing, but one experience that I’ve never forgotten was a two-day concert near Woodstock with a bunch of forgettable folk bands I wasn’t terribly interested in. The highlight, and the only good part of those two days , was watching Richie Havens. He was old and wise looking, and he lost himself in his voice, which seemed to be bouncing off the trees in the dark. His finale was singing, with no guitar, nothing, “On The Turning Away” by Pink Floyd. Under the bright stars, the weather was humid and sticky, and as he sang you could hear the squeak of the stage floor as he rocked back and forth. It was kind of one of the most beautiful things I’ve experienced at any show.
PPF: Song that would be the soundtrack to your life?
SR: “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler, only because I kill that in karaoke.
PPF: Best meal you’ve ever had:
SR: An eight-course tasting with wine pairing at Taillevent in Paris. I think I almost blacked out when I had the foie gras. Best thing I’ve ever tasted. I don’t care how politically incorrect that is. It was good. Second runner-up? A dinner made by one woman in southern Italy in a tiny B&B near the toe of the boot in Calabria. It was just her in the kitchen, and I can’t even remember how many courses we had. It was simple, no more than three or four ingredients per dish, but each ingredient was the best you could possibly get, and everything was made from scratch. Kind of my favorite way to eat, fresh off the boat or from the ground, local ingredients hand prepped that afternoon by someone who has been doing it for years and years. No fuss.
PPF: What are you really good at that would surprise a lot of people?
SR: Rock climbing! I’m in love with it, and try to go at least three times a week.
PPF: Who would you most like to hear answer these questions?
SR: Catherine Karnow. And my grandfather, Papa Doc.