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Bao from Gongfu Bao. Photo: Sarah Farmer/Gumption Studio.

Local photographer Sarah Farmer is blurring the lines between artistic and commercial work

By Alison Larabie Chase on November 8, 2021

Sarah Farmer’s images have accompanied several Foodie Friday articles published on Apt613. She’s worked with local food photography business Transparent Kitchen and most recently on the unique and acclaimed photo essay series The Last Service, which highlights the challenges faced by chefs working in the restaurant industry. Now she’s taking the leap to open her own space, Gumption Studio. I spoke with Sarah about how she went from chef to photographer, what she loves about her work, and her plans for the future.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Sarah Farmer. Photo: Nadia Doucet

You started your career not as a photographer, but as a chef. How long did you do that for, and what did you love about it?

It was almost 15 years. I started when I was in high school with a co-op at Rideau Hall. I loved the ability to be super creative. You literally see what you’ve created at the end of a plate. It’s instant gratification. I’m a very visual person.

How did you go from working in a restaurant kitchen to becoming a food photographer?

One of the last major jobs that I had in the industry was the O’Brien House in Chelsea. We were foraging, doing tasting menu only, we had something really special. But I found that the way we were represented on our social media, people weren’t really seeing the heart of what we were doing. It was just skimming the surface. So I started taking my own photos, playing around with different lighting, figuring out how to get the best photo, and it just snowballed from there.

I ended up buying a camera, which was a huge investment, and I panicked a little when I first bought it, because it was a $4000 investment that I technically did not have the money for, as a chef, and I signed up for a part-time 10-week course at SPAO. [But] most of the hard stuff I learned came from hours and hours of YouTube tutorials.

I ended up having to leave the industry because I ran into a laundry list of health issues. That’s a whole other conversation [laughs]. I ended up following the path of food photography so that I could sort all of that out and have more work-life balance.

It’s my mission now to make sure that I’m representing businesses and showing the heart of who they are and the things that are special, but at the same time using the platform with imagery (which people obviously connect to), getting people to feel things about the industry and deal with the issues that are happening. I feel like photography is such a powerful tool.

A dish from the Soca Kitchen. Photo: Sarah Farmer/Gumption Studio.

You started with food photos but now you also shoot portraits, interiors, and product photography. Why did you choose to branch out from just food?

I’ve always been a very curious person and I don’t like sticking to one thing. When I went to culinary school, for example, I did the savoury program, and then I thought that I should be well-rounded, so I did the pastry program. And I find that having an understanding of all aspects of something, even if it’s just a little bit, makes you a stronger creator.

What are the advantages and the challenges of the various types of photography?

Portraits, for example, the challenges are making people feel more comfortable, getting them to let their guards down and to trust you. To really get who they are at the core to show through in the image. It can be a challenge, especially when you’re shooting people in the restaurant industry because they often like to be behind the scenes. They don’t like to be the centre of attention in front of the camera.

North and Navy after hours. Photo: Sarah Farmer/Gumption Studio.

How would you say you approach photography? What’s your philosophy about making a special or memorable image?

Keep it real. I really like natural light. I fought it for a long time because I thought that if you used natural light, it meant that you weren’t a real photographer, that you didn’t know enough, and that it would be frowned upon.

For example, I recently did a shoot with Soca Kitchen. I brought my entire light setup, but when I got there, the sun was coming through in a way that it was kissing the end of the table, and I went with it. I scrapped the lights and I just used what I had there. I adapted in the moment and the photos ended up being amazing and a bit dramatic. I’m very open to doing what makes sense in the moment.

Merkaba Acres Farm. Photo: Sarah Farmer/Gumption Studio.

What’s your vision for the work you want to do, both now and into the future? Commercial versus artistic, is that a thing?

I would say my vision is to blur the lines. Commercial photography can be really exciting and artistic as well. Having the freedom to create something that’s fun and interesting and visually stimulating, that truly represents a business, that’s definitely my vision. Whether that’s photography, videography, I want to do it all. I know it sounds ridiculous because people tell you to focus, but that’s not me. I want to grow into a studio where I can also hire other people, maybe even former industry people who have an eye.

A very important thing for me is really getting to know people and understanding what their vision is. It’s so crucial.

What else should people know about you and your work?

I have a normal hourly rate, but I find that based on the structure of the restaurant industry — menus changing often, slim profit margins — the structure that most photographers have for the industry, it just doesn’t work for them. So I created a package that gets them what they need, at an affordable price. I just announced it the other day and I’ve already got seven people signed up. It’s my way to try and help but also get Gumption going.

Gumption Studio is now open and taking on new individual and business clients. Find out more on their website or Instagram.