A red, juicy apple. A perfectly plated blackberry pie covered with whipped cream. The fluffiest-looking stack of pancakes drowning in berries and sprinkled lightly with powdered sugar – welcome to my favorite Instagram account, created by our interviewee, Cheyenne Cohen.
When I first met Cohen, she was the editor-in-chief of our high school yearbook. Even then, she had a talent for capturing unique moments. Today, Cohen has taken her art to the biggest place in the word, New York City, and has launched her career as a freelance food and tabletop photographer. As if that wasn’t enough, in her spare time, Cohen is active in the NYC art scene and is working on her passion project – photographing abandoned buildings throughout the city.
All of Cohen’s work is attention grabbing and emotion provoking. While her work with abandoned buildings is beautiful and haunting, her work with food is creative, colorful, and downright fun – especially if you’re hungry.
Interview as told to and edited by Maggie Tarasovitch.
1. Can you introduce yourself?
I’m a food and tabletop photographer living in Brooklyn, NY. I shoot with restaurants and brands throughout the city. From local chef-driven concepts to large franchises, I photograph for web, print, and advertising. I’m experienced in working alone with a chef in a restaurant during off-hours, as well as with a team of stylists and designers in a studio setting. Having this flexibility has allowed me to work on a wide variety of projects, and taste an amazing array of what this city has to offer.
I started with a tiny, pink point-and-shoot camera when I was 15! I shot my friends in ridiculous outfits, thinking I wanted to be a fashion photographer. I essentially gave up on a career in photography to study what I thought was the more fiscally responsible choice, film (yes, please laugh). When I moved to New York for school, I rediscovered the passion I had for the still image wandering all the new neighborhoods and streets around me.
2. Tell us about your photography business and what you specialize in.
By exploring business potential in other areas of photography, I found a love of shooting food – and found that this niche is in very high demand in the city. With restaurants opening and closing every day, there’s a never-ending cascade of brands looking to get a leg up on each other, and one way to do that is through the aesthetic you present to your consumers. Although I do work with collaborators on bigger projects, being an individual business truly lets me get to know my clients and understand what they’re looking for. I think that personal approach has allowed me to stand out.
3. What is it about your business and your art that makes you so passionate?
Some of the motivation comes simply from being a freelance artist living in New York City. Knowing that I can live here, doing what I love, is empowering. It’s hard – harder than any novels or TV shows will try to convey. But everyone here is working night and day.
Everyone I work with on a day-to-day basis – whether it’s my stylist, or the chef, or the account manager – they’re all working insanely hard to achieve their goals. Seeing my photos that are the end product of a collaboration between all those involved is intensely gratifying. Food is something that regularly invokes passion in those involved, often passed down from family or learned through interesting circumstances – we all have a distinct relationship with food. Learning about that connection and how it differs from person to person is endlessly intriguing. So often, what I’m shooting is the end result of someone else’s passions and love. Capturing that is uniquely gratifying.
4. What are some exciting projects that you’ve been working on?
I’ve been fortunate to work with some amazing brands and restaurants in the city. There’s a lot of work I do through and with branding agencies and other larger entities. I work closely with TryCaviar, an upscale delivery service platform, shooting the full menu of an incredible variety of restaurants. I’ve met amazing chefs and restaurant owners.
Recently I’ve also been working with Shake Shack and their team for various photographic needs, which is very exciting. Acquiring client is mostly through referrals, and I’ve had people reach out to me through my website and online presence.
5. Aside from food, what else have you been working on?
I love working with and shooting food, but to keep my creative eye sharp I do my best to be part of the artistic community in the city. Going to friends’ galleries and shows, seeking out concerts or shows in the city on the weekends, it helps invigorate my desire to better myself. I love photographing for Sofar Sounds, a global community of musicians who perform in secret spaces around the city, and people who come exclusively for the music. Hearing the talent and being around people who use their time to create a safe, welcoming space for artists is humbling. I also have been working with my great friend Christina O’Neill on artist collective goodgood, a label and community founded to support and promote local artists. She’s put on two amazing shows, an inaugural gallery and an interactive art show. Making time to support other artists and to let them inspire you is as important as everything else.
Finding time to work on personal passion projects has also given me motivation to continue on. Last year I started on a project documenting the abandoned parts of New York, places that you would never stumble upon without seeking them out, or ever identify as New York by photos alone. These places feel unsettlingly nostalgic. A previously occupied place bereft of all its people, only it’s skeleton left standing, precariously on an empty field – that’s a place imagined in dreams and made real through desertion. Those kinds of projects help satisfy a desire for adventure and creation that can be hard to come by.
6. What specific setbacks have you encountered so far?
Perhaps not a setback in the traditional sense, but learning how to be a freelancer and live the lifestyle is still something I struggle with, and something I’m sure all of my freelance peers do as well. Planning your work-schedule and taking off whenever you need to – it’s great.
But there’s always a lingering fear that you won’t get work again during a slow period. You can make three months’ rent in one week, and then the next, not make anything at all. Knowing how to balance the two is hard – spending the downtime bettering the business and any of those pesky personal life details rather than lazing about can be fatiguing.
You are your own boss, and you have to be strict about it. Setting weekly and monthly goals, knowing when to actually take those breaks, knowing when to push yourself, it’s challenging.
7. What advice would you give someone who is anxious to start a company on their own?
Don’t jump in without a safety net. Work your way up to being your only source of income. Even if you do have that safety net, the anxiety of going all in isn’t always worth it. I kept a steady growth of working on the side to get a portfolio I felt proud of, built out my website, social media presence, business cards, everything.
Be confident in what you’ve built and it goes a long way. Don’t let a small failure feel like a big one, and find the person in your life who will give you unbiased critique. It feels great to have your friends and family pat you on your back, but having someone give you a reality check is so helpful.
8. And, of course we have to ask. Are you UpByFive?
I feel my best, and do the best work, when I’m up between 5 and 6. I definitely get made fun of by friends for going to bed at 9 or 10 most nights, but having the morning to myself to prepare for the day (as stereotypical as it might sound) shows in the work I make!
All images included in this article are Cohen’s work.
You can find more on her website www.cheyennecohen.com
or by following her on Instagram @cheyennemcohen
Questions? Please contact Maggie@UpByFive.com