Meet Henry Hargreaves, the New Zealand born, Brooklyn based photographer whose made it a large part of his career to work with food and photograph it. His photographic series included 'No Seconds' which recreates the last meals of death row inmates and 'Rice-Ko' where he reimagines the Rothko paintings that used to hang in the Four Seasons using rice from the kitchens of that same restaurant. His latest project, Staff Meals of the World explores "how restaurants and workplaces can use food to foster a sense of community and build team morale." We sat down with Henry, in his light-filled studio to chat about his work and what inspires him.
Tell us about yourself
I’m a photographer and food artist, based in Brooklyn, NY, and I grew up in New Zealand. I’ve been in New York for about 12 or 13 years.
What made you decide to move to New York?
It’s a cultural thing. In New Zealand, when you finish University, you go traveling, just because you grow up in such an isolated, pocketed part of the world. I spent a lot of time living in Asia and Europe, and when I came here, it was just the city where I felt at home and where I wanted to be, and felt inspired. Then I was like “let’s figure this out and try to make it legally doable.”
How did you turn photographing food into a career?
When I was working in a restaurant here and trying to make a go at photography, like most (especially young male) photographers, you want to do fashion because it’s glamorous and there’s lots of pretty subjects. As I saw people come to the bar and eat, it opened this whole world up, where I understood who these people were without talking to them. Changing orders or modifying them you can tell how difficult these people were or what kind of people they were. I just think there are stories to be told in that and use food as the common denominator to understand someone, that really interested me.
Is all of your photography based around food?
Not all of it. I guess I use photography as an excuse to explore things that interest me - food is one of the big things. But I do photograph a variety of subjects, for example, I went down to Key West to shoot Ernest Hemingway look-a-likes.
You're involved with the food world in more ways than one; you've invested in a number of restaurants, can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved with that side of the food industry?
I had a three-year run where I was modeling for campaigns like Prada and Jil Sander and big names like that. I had a great run with that and made some money that I invested. When I first stared investing, I guess I went through the traditional process, and did what i was "supposed" to do: buy property and stock portfolios and stuff, but I got zero pleasure out of traditional investment. When I was working at the bars here and some of the people I worked with went to open their own restaurants, I was like, I would much rather be involved in putting any excess money into the projects of people I believe in, and can enjoy the success with them. I also wanted to be involved in the restaurant world even though I couldn’t afford the time once my photography took off, so it was a pretty good way to straddle both worlds. There are four places I’m involved in: two Jack Wife’s Frida’s, Butler (Café in Williamsburg), and St. Mazey (a bar and music venue in Williamsburg). It’s quite a nice synergy with what I do with my photography.
What is your creative process like?
When I have an idea, I execute it really quickly. I guess that is one of my strengths: I don’t really sit on ideas for too long - I’m very good at doing things. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the most technically professional photographer; I never came up the traditional route of assisting and learning, but I never let that be a roadblock to my getting something done.
I also work a lot in collaboration, which I find a great way to work. I find if I do something myself, it’s very hard to be critical of it and when you do something with someone else, you can step back a little bit. Also when two people have their individual points of view, I find that it always goes to a better place rather than when I do it by myself. Caitlin [Levin], who I’ve done a lot of work with, is my most regular collaborator. I also think it’s great to have a male and female perspective on things too; we see things differently but when we come together we do something that’s relevant to a lot of different people.
A lot of your work examines serious issues, however, you manage to do this with a humorous touch. Tell us a little bit about what you find appealing about the interplay between humor and seriousness.
I guess I found out when I started doing sort of poppy things, it started resonating on the internet and started to go viral, I felt that I had a bit of responsibility to use my voice in a way that could do a larger message. I realized that I could bring simplicity it; it’s not necessarily presenting all the angles to it, but it can get people thinking about it. For instance, a person’s last meal was something very interesting: we know about the death penalty but we never saw it visually, and I think people resonate with things visually. Take something complex and show one simple element, here’s the door and you can take it further if you want, and that’s what I’m trying to do with my art; I’m trying to open a discussion.
What are you working on right now?
Currently I’ve got a project on staff meals and it’s one of my big ones. It’s about looking how feeding people in the workplace is one of the easiest ways to increase productivity. We found that at one of our restaurants, when we improved the staff meal from just a big communal, rice, bean sort of meal that’s going to fill the gap to let’s take the time to feed everyone well, we found the average sales per waiter went up $6 per shift, that 50% of people starting staying longer on the job, and that communication, health, etcetera, improved tremendously. I wanted to look at that in other places and focus on places that are doing interesting jobs, like ad agencies, hospitals, flower shops, and essentially just talking to them about that. When I travel, I do projects along the way, and I also have my coffee project: "Coffee Cups of the World." I collect coffee cups and now it’s basically submission based, so I get about 20 submissions a day from people wanting to be on the blog, but it started as a way to discover a city when I was traveling. I always get let down when I get a blank coffee cup or a cup that no one put any thought into.
Do you have a favorite project you’ve worked on?
One of the things I’m most proud of is the gingerbread art gallery. I did that with Caitlin as well. When we started it, I think we had much lower expectations for where it was gong to go and how it would be, and we learned a lot of skills and ended up with something we were quite proud of at the end. Often you have an idea in your head, it’s the best it can be. But it was probably the most ambitious project that took us the longest to execute, so it’s always got a special place for me.
What do you find inspiring about New York?
I guess I really like the quirky things here. There’s a museum on Metropolitan Ave called City Reliquary, and it’s just a collection of things: here’s 300 postcards of the Statue of Liberty, here’s every plastic Statue of Liberty ever made… and I like going into these places because I like to see meaning and emotion put into objects and organizing them into a way that can relate to people. So with my coffee cup thing, I guess it’s about the meaning that I put into cups of coffee.
Check out Henry's Playlist:
Interview: Emily Saunders - @thesaunder
Photography: Allie Sarachene - @alliesarachene