“Everybody eats and yet most food magazines are boring” was the observation which prompted Steve Ryan, a former TD contributor, to set up Root + Bone magazine which has now spawned a creative agency.
What is the genesis of Root + Bone?
I started shooting documentary features for Totally Dublin in 2006. Working with writer Conor Creighton, our focus was subculture. It was only in 2010 when I moved to London that I accidentally started photographing food.
A year later, once I had acknowledged that I was now a food photographer, I focused my attention on only pitching to food magazines. I shot for several over the next few years, only to realise that they were all quite similar and were aimed mainly at my mom’s demographic. I would ask the chefs that I worked with which magazines they read and the answer was usually none or it was now a defunct publication. I was meeting so many interesting people in food yet every story I pitched was turned down because it didn’t fit with the demographic of the magazine. I was frustrated. Everybody eats and yet most food magazines are boring.
I was working with a small team at the time to produce cookbooks for the men’s health charity Movember, so we decided to throw caution to the wind and make our own magazine, Root + Bone.
What design and editorial viewpoint did you take to make it stand out? What are the founding principles of Root + Bone?
Probably the first thing that makes it stand out is the paper. Most magazines in our world are printed on ‘nicer’ stock but our newspaper feel makes it accessible. It’s also a bespoke size which fits neatly in your hands and in bags for people to take with them. From a visual point of view, we always try and create an intriguing, engaging cover image. So far, these have tended to be quite graphic and grab your attention. Instead of headlines plastered all over that great image, we list ours discreetly at the bottom.
The look and feel reflects the attitude we have towards food, which is that it needs to be fun and authentic. Lots of our stories are about cultural aspects of the industry (rather than straight recipes) so we’ve always used lots of illustration to reflect the articles conceptually.
How does it sustain itself economically since it’s a freesheet? You appear to take more of a partnership approach when it comes to brands and advertorial.
We want our magazine to be available at the heart of the food industry and so we are stocked in restaurants, cafes and bars. Many of these would not stock a magazine with a cover price and so our approach was to pay for the first few issues ourselves and then seek advertising similar to the Totally Dublin business model. It just so happened that around this time most brands were turning away from traditional adverts and were all about native advertising.
Advertorial in its traditional form is still a bit of a dirty word in our office. It’s only recently that we have opened the door to brands to discuss options other than a straight up advert. We only work with a brand that we like, who get us and who want to have fun. We work together to create a feature that we would do anyway, but with a brand involved we have the budget to create it and help pay for the production of the magazine at the same time. We won’t force it and it’s written in the same tone of voice as the rest of the magazine. We do see this more as a partnership than an advertorial, as the latter is usually driven by the brand. If an article is sponsored, we state it at the top of each page with the words ‘brought to you by’.
What is the most outlandish food story or angle on food that you’ve covered to date?
Edible Ink will always have a special place in my heart as it was the shoot that launched Root + Bone.
The concept was to take a pork belly, tattoo it with squid ink, cook it and eat it. Many tattoo artists work on pig skin for practise but it’s not advised to eat the ink. This would be an edible art piece. This was the first shoot we did collectively as a Root + Bone project. It wasn’t just shooting a dish in a restaurant like I do for other food magazines. It was exciting to be able to tell a story through food photography.
Another time, we decided to cook noodles in a clothes dryer after overhearing a conversation about how some people in Japan cook their noodles in a dryer at home (they don’t). We decided to test it out. It’s not recommended.
As a photographer, you’ve shot many of the spreads and covers. Any golden rules you abide by when it comes to food photography? What makes for a good cover?
A good cover shot will often stand out as a clear engaging image as was the case with my first ever cover, coincidently for Totally Dublin in 2007, with Arveene covered in sneakers.
I rarely make suggestions for a cover shot anymore as I want to see what the art directors go for on their own when they see the selection. They have a more objective approach, as often I could push a photo that means more to me because of some silly reason like I had to work harder to get it.
My golden rule of food photography is daylight where possible and keep it simple.
What other food publications do you most admire?
I’m asked this question quite a lot and it saddens me to say that despite buying every food magazine I encounter there are only two that I would recommend – The Gourmand and Put an Egg on It. In a world where food has become fashion I’m so surprised that we’re not surrounded by great food magazines.
Any noticeable trends emerging in 2018?
This will be an interesting year as Brexit continues to fuck things up in the food world as everything from ingredients to staff sit in the cross hairs. On a more positive note, plant based diets are normal now with vegan options becoming standard in 2018. This is a welcome change and I’m loving all the vegan fast food that’s on offer.
What’s next for Root + Bone?
Root + Bone has evolved into a creative agency. It’s something that we’ve talked about from the beginning but has recently become a reality. We are now working with food and drink brands outside of the magazine on content creation, campaigns, consultancy and events.
You’ve also a number of high profile guest contributors such as Fergus Henderson. How have these come about?
We want our magazine to be a platform for chefs and bartenders. Fergus Henderson has been interviewed or featured in every food magazine around but we were only the second to ask him to write. Chefs have so much to say and I’d much rather hear it from them straight.
Words: Michael McDermott