Pizza Obsessives: Hong-An Tran, Slice Snapshot Artist Extraordinaire
As an avid photographer and pizza lover I could not help being mesmerized by the pictures created by Hong-An Tran, who I met on the photo-sharing website Flickr. Her shots are beautifully composed, and it was obvious to me that she used film rather than digital to capture her images. I was also impressed by her pizza resume. She has eaten at a ton of top-notch pizzerias in NYC. She is in fact the definition of pizza obsessive, making her a perfect subject for this column. For the non-photographers out there, please bear with us if we veer slightly off topic with some camera talk. I know it's hard to believe but there is life outside of pizza. —Nick
Name: Hong-An Tran
What type of pizza do you prefer?
As a food lover, I absolutely appreciate a good Neapolitan pizza or the Neo-Neapolitan pies that have proliferated here in NYC. Having had some spectacular pies in Naples, I really love what all these places here in the city are doing to bring that style and quality to slice-prone New Yorkers. But when it comes down to it, when I'm craving a good pie, something that requires no knife and fork and is as close to comfort food as I can imagine — all I want in those moments is a pie from Patsy's in Harlem, or the original Totonno's, or that strange, glorious hybrid that is a Lucali pie.
What made you choose pizza as a subject matter for your photography?
Well, I take pictures of just about everything I eat when I'm out and about, but pizza is a particularly fun and good subject because, unlike just about everything else I eat, a proper pie just out of the oven needs a few minutes to cool down before anyone can lunge for it. So I have a little bit of time to set up some nice shots, and my friends don't mind so much, since they have to wait for the pizza to rest anyway! And well, let's be honest: A good pie is a thing of beauty — who wouldn't want to capture that?
It was obvious from the first time that I looked at your work that you shot on film. What has made you stick with a medium that most people, including most professionals, have left behind?
I have nothing against digital — I used to have a couple of point-and-shoot digital cameras — but for the past year and a half, I've shot on film almost exclusively for two reasons: One, it helps me be a better photographer. When you're spending quite a bit of money on film (and developing), you have a finite number of chances to capture a moment, unlike with digital, where you can immediately see if a photo has come out as planned or not. So with film, I've learned to think more precisely (and quickly) about framing and composition. With food photos and pics of my friends alike, I try to limit myself to one or two shots at most.
Second, I just love the look and feel of a film photograph. There's something just slightly imprecise about even the most well-composed film photo, and I think that imprecision — whether it be the graininess of the film, some unintentional blurring, or just my own inability to keep my subject properly in focus — is what gives a film image its character.
Any plans on gong digital?
After my last Canon digital point-and-shoot was stolen at a New Year's Eve party a couple of years ago, I took it as a sign that I should devote my energies entirely to film for a while. That said, I've toyed with the idea of getting a nice DSLR, only to find myself more tempted by using that money instead on a nice old Hasselblad or Leica. To be sure, I've found that my iPhone camera is pretty handy in a pinch, so I use that every so often and it seems to keep my more ambitious digital impulses at bay.
Could you talk about the equipment you use and how you develop your film?
About 80 percent of the time, I use an old Nikon FE from the late '70s. It's a 35mm camera, and while you can change out the lenses, I just stick with my 50mm/f1.8 prime lens. I find that this lens allows me to get pretty close to whatever subject matter is at hand, and the f1.8 aperture opening is wide enough to compensate for most low-light situations. I'm adamantly opposed to using flash for any film photo, so if I'm at a pizza place with really low light and no outdoor seating available, I've resigned myself to not having a good photo of the pie at hand. (I'm looking at you, Lucali!)
When I'm not using the old Nikon, I'll switch between my Lomo LC-A, which is fun for slightly unpredictable, blurry, vignetted shots, and my hulking Yashica Mat 124, which is a medium-format camera that, in case anyone is curious, is absolutely terrible at taking pizza shots (but is wonderful for portraits and landscape photos).
I wish I lived in a place with enough space for a dedicated in-home darkroom, but I live in New York, so that's out of the question. I take my film to LTI, a great lab near Koreatown, which isn't the cheapest place, but the turnaround time and quality can't really be beat.
The Pizza Cognition Theory states that "the first slice of pizza a child sees and tastes ... becomes, for him, pizza." Do you remember your first slice? Where was it from, is the place still around, and if so, does it hold up? On that note, has your taste in pizza evolved over time?
I grew up in Southern California, and I'm almost certain that my first slice was from Shakey's, a West Coast chain that I recently discovered is now apparently very big in the Philippines. Go figure! Shakey's pizza, back in my day, had no cornicione to speak of — the sauce, cheese, and toppings were spread all the way to the very edge of the (pretty-thin) crust. I haven't been back to Shakey's in 20 years, and while my tastes have definitely changed, I suspect that if you put a Shakey's slice in front of me now, I'd devour it in 30 seconds flat.
What's your favorite topping or topping combination?
I'm not a big topping person, but I wouldn't say no to soppressata.
Where do you go for pizza in your immediate neighborhood?
It's not quite in my immediate neighborhood, but I'll get delivery from Tomato & Basil, over in Gowanus/Park Slope, which I have to say, has better slices than pies.
What one thing should NEVER go on a pizza?
Back when I was a teenager, we went to California Pizza Kitchen a lot, and I can say with certainty that something called "Thai Chicken" should never, ever, go on a pizza.
What's the farthest you've traveled for pizza?
In early February this year, my pal Andrew and I spent the afternoon at the Guggenheim and decided to walk to Patsy's for dinner — a 35-plus-block walk. In 15°F weather. Quite possibly the longest mile and a half walk in my life. When we got there, we ordered a large pie, devoured it, and proceeded to order a second large pie, which we also consumed in record time.