For photographer Ditte Isager, it really is all about the light—still, spare, cool and fleeting Artic light that valiantly holds back the gloom. You see it in her shots for Vogue Living and Fritz Hansen. It’s there in her DAY Birger et Mikkelsen photos and the new Bang & Olufsen ads. It’s there again in her James Beard Award–winning cookbook photographs for Noma, the number one restaurant in the world (according to the World’s Best 50 Restaurants). And it’s backlighting her now as she talks to me in her mini studio, a rehabbed 1920s summer small-house of the sort once allotted to Copenhagen city workers.
“The light is my thing. I love working with it,” says Isager. “Initially, as a teenager, I wanted to be a war photographer, like Tine Harden, a Danish photojournalist whose photos had an arresting beauty to them. But then I took a job as assistant to an advertising photographer. That changed things. I really enjoyed how advertising photography allowed you to concentrate on the light and the composition, the quietness when you shoot. You can control things in a different way.”
It seems Isager has absorbed enough Nordic light to take with her wherever she goes. She spent her childhood in Copenhagen as an athletic tomboy, riding bikes fast and far and climbing the tallest trees. In the summer, she and her parents and sister went camping in cool-climate Scandinavian retreats, and in the winter, they went cross-country skiing in Norway or Sweden. Then, as a young scholar, Isager studied the works of nineteenth-century Danish masters Vilhelm Hammershøi and Peder Severin Krøyer. When you compare contemporary Isager photographs with early-1900s Hammershøi paintings, it is eerie to see how well Isager creates this specific light and stillness, whether she is in Denmark or Utah, shooting interiors or landscapes, celebrities or food.
“The way Ditte works with light is the most remarkable thing,” says Agnes Palmcrantz, Stockholm-based freelance art director. “It’s absolutely fascinating and, of course, simple. So calm, but commercial. How is that even possible? All of the places and trends we have shot over the years were so different, each with their own style. But the atmosphere and light Ditte gets is still, somehow, in the same world.”
Isager’s interest in photography was awakened when she was very young: “My dad made a little darkroom in the basement when I was eight or nine. He loved taking pictures. So I would tag along with him, taking pictures of my family.”
Those first years, Isager lived in a duplex in the Vanløse district of Copenhagen with her father, mother and sister in one side and her paternal grandparents next door. “The door was always open—we didn’t really have an idea about what was our home and what was theirs. It was a very free environment,” says Isager. “Mom and Dad were a little hippie—they never married. Very easygoing, loving and progressive.” The neighborhood was safe and friendly, with a lot of kids playing in the streets and a monthly communal dinner. Uncles, aunts and cousins all lived nearby, and family reunions happened twice a year.
This idyll abruptly changed on July 27, 1987, when Isager was ten years old. “My father had a heart problem, and one morning, he just didn’t wake up,” she says. “It was such a shock to me… so out of the blue.” For years, Isager was in denial. “I made up stories in my head that he was just traveling. Even though I knew he was gone, I thought maybe I would meet him again every time we went abroad.”
Isager coped by using her dad’s old Pentax camera. “Because my dad’s passion was photography,” she says, “this was one way I could stay connected to him.” Isager started taking classes when she was twelve, doing portraits of friends and family, then high school newspaper and local rock band concert photos. By high school, she knew she wanted to become a photographer.
To follow that path in Denmark, young hopefuls sign up to be established photographers’ assistants for four-and-a-half years. To her delight, Isager landed at Leif Schiller’s studio, a camera-lover’s Candyland: “It was paradise! The biggest studio in Scandinavia, with 20 to 25 photographers, a lab, digital department and production company. I could look at so many different photographers’ work. And on the weekends, there was all the gear in the world, and I could use the dark room facilities. I was free to do my own thing.”
During her time there, Isager worked for three different photographers—Lars Schmidt, Casper Sejersen and studio owner Leif Schiller. But the young photographer’s eagerness to blaze her own trail had its downside. “Ditte was one of the worst assistants I ever had,” says Sejersen with a laugh. “I can say that because she knows it. And I can say that because I mean it in the most positive way. From the start, Ditte had a vision and a determined route in her head. She wanted to do things in her own way and in her own style. And Ditte’s style is deceptively simple. It’s like Juergen Teller—everybody thinks they can snap like him, but there is only one Juergen Teller. And there is only one Isager. I always want to eat the food or stay in that specific place in her photos. That’s a big gift and talent to have as a photographer. Not many can do this.”
For her part, Isager is equally at home shooting interiors, celebrities, lifestyle photography, travel and food—often, overlapping. “I feel lucky that people book me for style instead of subject,” she says. “I get to have a bit of everything—all the things that interest me. It’s better that way: I think I become a better food photographer by shooting interiors. And vice versa.”
Rob Magnotta, Isager’s New York agent with Edge Reps, agrees: “Working in diverse disciplines has strengthened Ditte’s body of work. It’s unique for someone to shoot food, interiors, still life, travel and portraits all equally well.” From her time in London and in New York, Isager’s personal-favorite shoots have included a Travel + Leisure women-at-work feature that brought her to Kenya and India, a Gwyneth Paltrow and Julia Turshen cookbook shoot on Long Island—and everything with Alexander Wang. “He is one of the most beautiful people! His features are stunning, and he is the sweetest guy!” says Isager.
But Isager reserves her highest praise for Noma’s co-owners, chef René Redzepi and Denmark food guru Claus Meyer, for whom she has photographed multiple cookbooks and from whom she first learned to appreciate the beauty of food. Working on their cookbook Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine, Isager and stylist Christine Rudolph paid close attention to “the way Redzepi sees color and the way he composes a plate, like a painting,” says Isager. She and Rudolph homed in on intricate food details (a fern, a leaf, a fishtail) and complemented those compositions with muted, textured backgrounds. The result was dark and pensive—beautiful in a moody, brooding way.
Riding on that success, Isager and Rudolph experimented with a lighter, broader approach for Noma’s next book, A Work in Progress. In its pages, color comes only from the actual food ingredients, and an entire section is devoted to a gallery of rough whole-animal photos. Recalling the shoot, Isager says, “You can’t imagine that day! All the animal carcasses came at once. A whole pig is one thing, but a rabbit, a duck and a moose head with the tongue hanging out? That was awful. Christine had to put the tongue back in.” Squeamishness aside, the results are quietly profound.
The originality and beauty of her Noma work brought Isager two James Beard best photography awards and has made her one of the most sought-after food photographers in the world. She’s done close to a dozen other cookbooks, from Tangy Tart Hot & Sweet for Padma Lakshmi to Gordon Ramsay’s Cooking for Friends. Isager starts soon on her second cookbook with healthy-cooking expert Dr. Andrew Weil—this one in Copenhagen—and is working on new photos for a solo exhibition of landscapes shot in and around Marseilles, France, just for fun.
Such a project signals an attitude shift. “Being a mum has changed everything for me. I do less work, but I’m also more focused when I work,” says Isager. “I no longer feel I have to work so hard to prove myself.” Married to husband Christian in 2011, Isager had her first child—Wilder—in 2012 and moved back to Denmark to be closer to her extended family just before that. “It was time,” Isager says. “New York added a good edge to my work and put me in contact with so many people. But Christian and I were both ready to go home—missing the lifestyle, friends and family in Denmark. We now live in a house three kilometers from where I grew up, five minutes from my sister’s house and five minutes from my mum. It’s perfect.”
Since the move, Isager has handpicked jobs that allow her to include her family. Shooting for Skagen watches was the first big campaign she did after Wilder was born. The project took her back to the light she loves most and resulted in what she considers some of her best work yet. “My whole family went to Skagen, and the creative team flew in from the United States. It was a dream job—they let me do it the way I wanted, and Wilder did well. Skagen is a magical place—it is the northernmost tip of Denmark, and the light there is like no other light on Earth.” ca