Meals interrupted

So we’ve looked at food scanned, we’ve looked at it cut in half, we’ve looked at it as a theatrical dreamlike landscape but what about food as a meal interrupted? Shot from above (like Carl Kleiner’s baking book and the What To Cook and How To Cook It Cookbook by Jane Hornby) photographer Davide Luciano and food stylist Claudia Ficca teamed up to create this series of images of meals disrupted halfway through. Each scene shows each meal unexpectedly ended due to a swarm of bees, rain shower or school lunch food fight.

What is interesting about this series is that while the scene is very messy, something quite non-traditional in food photography, there’s something beautiful about them. There’s a sense of eeriness in the meal destroyed by fire – it begs you to look closer to try and identify the charred remains. It’s a great contrast from contemporary images by food photographers like Jonathan Gregson and Gareth Morgans, whose images, similarly styled, are regularly seen in supermarket magazines and advertisements.


Waitrose Food Illustrated

In recent years, consumer interest in food has rocketed. With hundreds of food blogs, a wide range of food magazines and television shows, the connection between food and art has become much stronger. Food photography is not just for advertising anymore. 

In the March 2009 issue of Waitrose Food Illustrated, a number of features examine the relationship between art and food. Photography and style director, Tabitha Hawkins celebrated the relationship between food and art by commissioning photographers to produce images in the style of paintings in a 10-page feature and cover story. One image by Jonathan Gregson shows a late 18th century still life, taking direct influence from Chardin.

Jonathan Gregson, in Waitrose Food Illustrated, 2009
More recently, Waitrose Kitchen produced a beautiful food photo story, photographed by Gus Filgate. Tabitha Hawkins pushed for the idea to be used in the magazine, as the images are dark – unlike the usual style of the other photographs. The beautiful images could be framed and mounted for exhibition in a gallery.
Gus Filgate, in Waitrose Kitchen, 2011
Images from the March 2009 issue, along with 16 other Waitrose Food Illustrated photographs from previous years, were exhibited in the Waitrose Food Illustrated’s ‘Food and Art’ Exhibition, which ran for 2 months in the Café and Trafalgar Room at the National Gallery. The exhibition celebrated 10 years of the magazine and tied in with the launch of The National Cookbook, compiled of recipes from the National Dining Rooms. This event highlights the significant connection between the commercial and art world, something that hadn’t linked together before in food photography. Food photography’s purpose here is not only for commercial means but also celebrated as an art form.

Jason Hindley and Knorr Stock Pots


A while ago I spotted this Knorr Stock Pot ad shot by photographer Jason Hindley,in the style of a 1970’s cookbook. I think this is a fairly accurate interpretation of some of the images of the time. Here’s a link to the original blogpost on Jason Hindley’s blog

The image reminded me of a blog I’ve been following; ‘The Way We Ate‘. The blog is written by Noah Fecks and Paul Wagtouicz, two photographers from New York, who each week re-create and photograph recipes from their collection of old Gourmet magazines. The blog mixes their own photographs with old covers and advertisements from the magazine like the image here.

It’s great to see how contemporary photographers are influenced by this1970’s style imagery.


Food Porn

Food photography shifted in 2004 when Marks and Spencer‘s memorable television campaign pushed ‘food porn’ into the spotlight. No longer were we seeing shots with shallow depth of field and clean white backgrounds; movement and texture became the key aspects of interest. Seductive voice-overs accompanied oozing, chocolate puddings, drizzled sauces and meat being craved. Juices trickled in slow motion, intensifying the portrayal.

Still from “Not just food, M&S; Food”, RKCR/Y&R;, Launched August 2004

‘Food porn’ had been used in food photography since the late 1980’s but was coined as “Gastroporn” by Michael Boys, a food and female nude photographer. His term described sensually provocative and intentionally alluring imagery in cookery books. The imagery appeals to “basic carnal desires” (Plimmer, C. 1988, p20) Food writer Nigel Slater recalls a shoot for French Marie Claire magazine, where chef, Jean-Louis created a dish of pears in red wine. The photograph captured a trail of sauce dribbling down the side of a pear. (Dillon, S. 2010 [radio]). Such images were so popular with “advertisements telling us that we can ‘indulge’ in eating things that we ‘shouldn’t’. The cunning and powerful allure of food reaches us covertly” (Kuehn, G. in ed Allhoff et al, 2007, p166). These tempting, visual stimuli of erotically suggestive food greatly increased the popularity of food. Jane Lerner remarks, food porn “turns something relatively mundane into a fetish, as if we’re seeking an idealized version of food that’s prettier, sexier and more outrageous than what we’re going to get at home.” (2009, p20). Typing ‘Food porn’ into Google today returns 17,300,000 (744,000 in 2010) results. Launched in January 2007, Tastespotting, an online archive of user-submitted images compiled by a team of editors describes itself as “our obsessive, compulsive collection of eye-catching images that link to something deliciously interesting on the other side.”(2007, [online]) Similarly, websites Foodgawker, (launched in June 2008), Recipes2Share and Open Source Food fill the demands for mouth-watering images. Photographer Tim Hill shared this desire to stir viewers’ senses. “If you look at a shot and your mouth waters, I’ve won. When you eat the food you can see it, smell it, taste it, touch it. I can’t show all that. I can only show what it looks like. I’m trying to make the image as graphic and interesting as possible so that it says ‘Eat me’” (Hill, T. in Smyth, D. 2007, p15) 1.

Around the same time, came a contrasting trend of much more natural-looking food that wasn’t so pornographic.  There were two very different styles of photography but there is always going to be room for both, largely due to the audience who buy food magazines. If you take a look at images in what was formerly Waitrose Food Illustrated (now Waitrose Kitchen) and compare them to FamilyCircle or Good Housekeeping it’s like viewing porn magazines to needle patterns. 

(1 sourced from Diane Smyth, (2007) “Food Rules”, British Journal of Photography, Vol. 154, July 11, pp 14-16.)


Donna Hay

The aesthetics of food photography were completely revolutionised in the 1990’s by Australian magazine editor and food stylist Donna Hay. Instead of everything in the image being in focus, shallow depth of field was used. Having only a fraction of the food in focus meant that it didn’t matter what was in the background so much as the food was the centre of attention.

Con Poulos, Chilli chicken burger, n.d

Food stylist, Stephen Parkins-Knight remembers everything was immaculate, on white, shot either above or from the side, minimal, with fabulous colours and considers food photographer, Con Poulos as a vital advocate in the substantial trend and is still looked upon as the most influential food photographer of the 1990’s. Along with Donna Hay magazine, they pioneered this technique of using shallow depth of field. Only a small part of the food was in focus so often photographers would not need a food stylist. It also meant they could work in natural light using a wide aperture, because more light could get into the lens, allowing food photographers to work anywhere, not just in the studio. Instead of harsh tungsten lights used in the 1980’s, there was a progression towards using just a single soft box, which then moved onto photographers using natural daylight in the late 1990’s.The style moved to the UK around 1997, into magazines, cookbooks and advertisements. It was also at this time that BBC Good Food magazine celebrated its eighth birthday and food magazines became more popular. Many publications expanded their cookery coverage, supermarkets started to launch their own magazines and there was a rise in food cookery shows on television. This is significant as the demand for food photography greatly increased since the release of the first issue.

The 1990’s technique to feature close-ups of naturally lit food in highly selective focus, significantly contrasted to the ‘everything in focus’ and highly styled images of the 1980’s. The relaxed manner of the images gave consumers the idea that anyone can make good food. By having that blur in the photo, the dish appears softer, less concerned with objectivity and more with artistic impression.

This led to a significant change in the sales of cookbooks. By the late 1990’s illustrated cookbooks became more popular than those that were not illustrated. It had gone so far that “a bookstore owner lamented to me that although she kept steering newlyweds to un-illustrated cookbooks with thousands of recipes, no one wanted them. They wanted the full-on close-ups of perfectly placed chanterelles or even French toast. They expected to be made hungry between meals.”(Shakely, L. n.d. [online])


Food styling and ice cream

Food styling is a fascinating subject, particularly in the 1980’s. Food stylists’ technical handiwork is crucial to food photography as an art form. A notoriously difficult product to photograph is ice cream, particularly in the 1980’s – it would melt too quickly under the hot studio lights and wouldn’t last long enough for test shots to be done on Polaroid before the actual shot. Production costs were much higher so ‘fake’ food was often used to combat this.

Bradley Olman, Dietary Ice cream, ca 1988

Bradley Olman shot this image of a table laden with ice cream for It’s Me, an American advertorial magazine available in Lane Bryant department stores for plus-size women. The article listed a number of recipes for dietary ice cream however the dishes of ‘ice cream’ were in fact “artfully coloured flour-and-water fake”. All the other food in the set up was real. Olman said, “To make it all look thick and rich enough took forever. We had to get the right texture and put the ridges in.” (Plimmer, C. 1988, p104) He worked on the set with two assistants, a food stylist and the magazine editor to achieve this aesthetically ‘perfect’ image. Some may argue that this is misleading to a consumer but the aim was always to strive for aesthetic perfection and not reality. When looking at images of food, it has to be taken into account the amount of time and effort that is put in to make the food last long enough for the photographer to capture it in the best possible light and setting. Delores Custer, who started out as a food stylist in the 1970’s comments “food dies…it wilts, it cracks, it melts, it changes colour. So food stylists have to work to each element’s particular life-span, keeping everything alive until shoot time, even resuscitating it to make it look beautiful for the camera.” (Goldwasser, A. 1998, p58, (1)) She adds “visually, the thing that appeals is consistency in arrangement”. It is this consistency in arrangement that forces us to liken such food images to still life paintings of the 17th and 18th century.

(1) Goldwasser, A. (1998) “Fashion Plate” I.D. Magazine of International Design,Vol. 45 Issue 6 pp 58-59.

Food photography in magazines

Food photography as a genre proliferated as magazines dedicated to food started to appear in the late 1980’s. “A food magazine’s cover photography should convey something about the way we eat, or the way we’re supposed to eat.” (Dickerman, S. 2006 [online]) Food photography in the 1980’s shifted from mere illustration to lifestyle, reflected by society when many had a higher disposable income; there was a trend of very heavily dressed lifestyle shots. Gourmetmagazine, in particular, always had a glossy cover of a debonair dish with detailed props. Dickerman remembers the “tablescapes of the ’80s when, in the thrall of both nouvelle cuisine and an Aaron-Spelling-like consumer exhibitionism, presentation mattered.” 25 years ago magazines and cookery books ran double page spreads with several dishes in them, the emphasis being on an atmospheric photograph. The focus then was on ambiance and lifestyle, rather than just the single food product.
In the 1980’s, everything in the frame was glossy and in focus. While Gourmet magazine conquered the US market, such lifestyle images paved the way for magazines dedicated to food in the UK. In November 1989, the first food magazine was launched, BBC Good Food magazine, which published recipes from a number of BBC cookery shows, like Food and Drink (1982 – 2001). What is significant about this is that prior to the release of Good Foodmagazine, there were no magazines dedicated to just food, yet the popularity in cookery television shows sparked a consumer demand for such a magazine. While the picture content of the first issue is rather minimal, the magazine was filled with glossy food advertisements in order to fund the magazine through its first issue. 
Laurie Evans, BBC Good Food Magazine cover, Issue 1, November 1989.
After the first few issues in 1990, the magazine grew its picture content, funded by bigger budgets. The covers always had a white background, with the food shot in studio, showing a single dish, sometimes with a side or decorative plate. This consistency was arguably to establish brand recognition in the consumer market, rather than a lack of aesthetic experimentation. The magazine proved popular and, after running for five years, coloured backgrounds appeared on the cover with multiple food dishes, emphasising lifestyle (shown below) and not just the single food dish.
Martin Brigdale, BBC Good Food magazine cover, Christmas issue, December 1993.
The brand became well established after the success of the annual BBC Good Food show in Birmingham, responsible for the popularity of celebrity chefs like Gary Rhodes and eventually launched a sister magazine, Vegetarian Good Food.

Roland Barthes – Panzani advertisement

Prior to 1977, nothing had been written on the importance or significance of food photography and the symbols used in advertising photography. This changed when Roland Barthes wrote an interesting analysis of a Panzaniadvertisement highlighting the importance of images used in advertising “because in advertising the signification of the image is undoubtedly intentional; the signifieds of the advertising messages are formed a priori by certain attributes of the product and these signifieds have to be transmitted as clearly as possible” (Barthes, R. 1977, p 270) He looked at the image in terms of semiology and how we decode a food image and referred to the connotations given in the choice of props, colours and composition. The image shows a scene represented as the return from the market – fresh produce, suggestion of domestic preparation, and a half-open bag, spilling open.
Panzani advertisement.
Barthes refers to the composition of the image, relaying back to the influence of still life paintings on food photography “evoking the memory of innumerable alimentary paintings, sends us to an aesthetic signified: the ‘nature morte’” or ‘still life’”. The image tries to give the viewer a sense of having-been-there, and the photograph acts as ‘evidence’ of this. “A kind of natural being-there of objects: nature seems spontaneously to produce the scene represented.” (Barthes, R, 1977, p279) It is this actuality that seems to be the general rule for food photographers when producing images.

Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook

1st Edition, 1950

Arguably, the most revolutionary cookbook of the 1950’s was the Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook, which contained lavish colour photography. While the first edition of the book is no longer in print, there are mixed views on the significance of this illustrated cookbook. There were a substantial amount of photographs but the aesthetic quality was perhaps quite poor. However, the use of food photography in this commercial outlet was significant, marking a rise in production, thus a rise in a need for food photographs. None the less, Betty Crocker was still a significant character in cookery at the time. A fictional character created by the Washburn-Crosby Company in 1921, created as an advertising tool to make the company more personable. Prior to publishing the ‘Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook’ various promotional pamphlets and baking books without colour photographs were released in the 1930’s and 40’s to aid war-time cooking. (Jarvits, J. n.d. [online]) 

Even cookbooks aimed at young cooks started to incorporate photography. Better Homes and Gardens Junior Cook Book (for the Hostess and Host of Tomorrow) in 1955 had step-by-step instructions line drawings and number of black and white shots. “there were beauty shots clearly meant to inspire the young chef—burgers, shakes, french toast. But the printing was poor and I don’t remember being inspired enough to, as the editors suggested, “fill up the family cookie jar.” (Shakely, L. n.d. [online]) While food photography was starting to appear more and more in cookbooks and magazines, it didn’t necessarily mean that these photographs had a better aesthetic quality than the previous illustrations. 

With thanks to Amy Alessio for her knowledge on vintage cookbooks!

Colour photography in cookbooks

While the first colour photograph was produced in 1861, colour photography in cookbooks wasn’t used until the 1930’s due to the difficulty of colour printing. (Plimmer, C, 1988, p10)  Colour food photography can be traced back to as early as 1935, (Thomas Perich, S. 2010) when Nickolas Murray first adapted the three-colour carbro process. McCall’s commissioned Murray to create colour photographs for their cooking and food pages. He used the colour carbro process to make rich and colourful photographs of food spreads for the magazine and for other advertisers through the 1950s. Within the context of commercial photography, the rich colours in these images were used to grab the reader’s attention which can be seen excellently in the image below.
Nickolas Murray, Untitled, circa 1935.
The image is very much like Fantin Latour’s painting discussed previously. There are visual similarities in the way lifestyle, status and class are implied in both images and is testament of significant and perhaps even direct influence.
Food photography progressed over a matter of years, where colour food photography was being used not only in single sheet advertisements but in cookbooks as well. Shakely commented that “The earliest cookbooks were for simple palates, records of cooks’ favorites, or the king’s favorites, writ down so that they could successfully be repeated by those who could imagine how they should look and taste when finished. Like any kind of book, the evolution of cookbooks paralleled the progress of printing technology.” (n.d. [online]) While colour photography was still in its early stages in the 1950’s, block prints were frequently used in cookbooks, not actual photographs. Illustrations were popular too and usually a number of black and white photographs were used to accompany the recipes.
A few years later, colour photographs were used in the first edition of Larousse Gastronomique. (Plimmer, C, 1988, p10) It included 36 colour photographs but since it was a large and expensive book, it still contained 1,850 black and white images. World War Two slowed the production of colour photography for many due to cost and there wasn’t a high consumer need for the process. However after the war, there was a boom in ladies magazines, awash with colour advertisements and recipes.