For many people, seeing a photo of a beautifully prepared dinner can make their mouths water. But for Nelli Sheffer — a Tel Aviv–based food photographer whose work has taken him into kitchens throughout the Middle East, Europe and Asia — such an image is capable of much more.
“It’s a way to see the real culture of a place. And it’s human, it’s something that’s universal,” said Sheffer, speaking from his home in Israel.
Sheffer has produced two books of food photographs (“Food Markets of the World” and “Eating Alfresco: The Best Street Food in the World”) with the U.S.-based art publisher Harry N. Abrams and contributed to more than 70 others. He also has done a range of work for cookbooks and magazines.
“Harissa, Honey & Hyssop: The Food of North Africa,” a showcase of Sheffer’s work documenting the cuisines of Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, opened this week at the JCC of San Francisco. The collection of some 30 photographs came out of trips he took to the regions in 1994, 1995 and 2002.
“There are so many immigrants from North African countries in Israel, so it’s a very popular cuisine here [in Israel],” said Sheffer, explaining why he decided to focus on that region. “There’s so much variety, [and] people are doing such interesting and exciting things with it.”
He said he sees food as an apt lens for viewing many North African countries because it so plainly reflects each area’s character.
“North Africa is about the contrast between the sea and the desert,” he said. “On one hand there’s this food culture from the Mediterranean, which is about seafood and fresh fruit and vegetation, and then on the other side is the desert, and the foods that come with the nomad tradition — more slow cooking, learning how to cultivate the open spaces.
“It’s a beautiful combination. The colors, the textures. And what it represents.”
Sheffer, a Tel Aviv native, earned his master’s in film and television from Tel Aviv University; he opened his own photography studio in the city in 1979. A few years later, he “stumbled” into food photography through an assignment with an Israeli women’s magazine and also began doing food illustrations for cookbooks.
In 1988, Sheffer began collaborating with the award-winning Israeli chef Israel Aharoni on a series of cookbooks shot on location in Italy, China and France, focusing on regional cuisine in each area. In addition to commercial photography (his studio works with many major food companies in Israel, including Coca-Cola, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, McDonald’s, Knorr and others), government groups such as the World Health Organization have chosen his images to illustrate publications on food safety.
“He has something special,” said Danny Inbar, associate director for arts and culture at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Israel Center, which is co-sponsoring the exhibit. Inbar helped translate captions and wrote a curator’s statement for the show. “It’s not quite that he beautifies the food, but he does make it come alive in a way,” said Inbar, speculating that “a lot of people buy cookbooks because of his photography more than for the recipes.”
Are there any secrets to successful food photography? “People are often surprised that I’m not fat!” Sheffer said with a laugh. “That’s not a secret, though — I enjoy eating, and I eat everything, but I don’t like stuffing myself. I don’t eat during the shooting. I like to break at lunchtime and sit down and eat like a human being.”
Sheffer said that, above all, he considers himself lucky to have a career that allows him to meet such generous people in so many interesting places.
“Especially in the Middle East, feeding guests is so deeply rooted in the culture, and with food people especially. … I’m always welcomed so warmly,” he said.
“When you go to a country to visit, you can go to museums, you can go to all the cultural places you’re supposed to go. But when you step into someone’s kitchen, it’s completely different. It’s the heart of that culture. It’s about family.”
“Harissa, Honey & Hyssop: The Food of North Africa,” through Jan. 30, 2012 in the Katz Snyder Gallery at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. Free and open to the public. www.jccsf.org.