Chef and Photographer; How this partnership has influenced food photography

Partnerships of chef and photographer were key in changing how food was photographed, moving away from food porn. While food stylists created a dish for longevity on a shoot, chefs like Jean Louis Palladin created dishes to be eaten. Taking photographs was secondary. Photographer Robert Freson (Plimmer, C. 1988, p48) celebrates this style of shooting “creativity is the chef’s province, the photographer merely records it”. Preferring ingredients in natural state, he feels that food shouldn’t be interfered with too much.  

Image sourced from Great Food Photos

This partnership is also seen between Jamie Oliver & David Loftus, who regularly shoots for Jamiemagazine and shot many of Jamie’s cookbooks before the magazine launched in 2009. Significantly, food publishing has maintained the same template for decades. Typically magazines show large photographs of food on glossy paper. Jamie magazine instead prints on unconventional matt paper, mixing travel reportage with food. “It looks accessible but aspirational at the same time, quite a feat” (Leslie, J. 2010, p54). This view of real food and the chef/photographer partnership promotes more natural-looking food.


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.)


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.

Martin Chaffer – Country Kitchen

Emphasis on ‘lifestyle’ seemed to be key to food photography in the 1980’s as shown in one of Martin Chaffer’s photographs that he shot for a Marks and Spencer brochure featuring cookware in 1988. The importance of food and prop stylists was part of the significant transition into better quality images, where sets were dressed beautifully to accompany the dishes. The convincing set of a country kitchen took three days and two teams to build it. The scene is composed of multiple exposures of the fire and other parts of the set, which were spotlighted with separate hot, tungsten lights. Quality of lighting was and is an important aspect of any food image to provide the right atmosphere. Though studio flash had been invented in the early 1970’s, it was expensive to use flash to light food, particularly on an editorial budget. In order to combat these hot lamps, food stylists employed a number of techniques to make the food look its best. The centrepiece – the chicken, was prepared by being undercooked to keep it firm then brushed with caramel to brown it.
Martin Chaffer, Country Kitchen, ca 1988.
It could be argued these ‘lifestyle’ images used in food photography had a psychological effect. Robert Wigington felt that “the picture should conjure up an aura. The average person doesn’t stop to think about the dish when it is placed in front of him, he simply goes ahead and eats it. The photograph, however, can make the same person take the time to examine details, to stress associations, to tantalize the senses.” (Plimmer, C 1988, p132) The image, then, represents the lifestyle that the viewer aspires to have; in this case it is indicated by the décor of the inset window, the wooden table and the lit fireplace. The set suggests a lavish manor kitchen, filled with desirable cookware and fresh ingredients.

Food styling in 1960’s…

The aesthetics of the food images at this time are interesting to consider. Ice cream was substituted with mash potatoes and papier-mâché mock-ups were sometimes used instead of real poultry. (Plimmer, C, 1988)  These substitutions were a result of hot studio lamps but as cameras and film speed and sensitivity improved, more genuine food products were introduced. (I will go more into food styling in the upcoming blog posts as there is so much to cover on this subject alone!)
“You can find out more – and more quickly- about the history and culture of a nation by looking at its food than in any other way. Food is a direct expression of a country’s spirit” (Tessa Traeger in Plimmer, C, 1988). It is clear that food trends were reflected in current trends in society, particularly by the rise of cookbooks in the mid 20th century. 
There were radical changes in colour photography in the late 1970’s to early 1980’s. It was transformed by Japanese colour printing which gave a much better clarity of colour to the images. (Shakely, L. n.d. [online]) 

George De Gennaro on Food Photography

George De Gennaro, pasta photograph in Eastman's Kodak's Applied Photography, 1963

George De Gennaro, pasta photograph in Eastman’s Kodak’s Applied Photography, 1963

Photographer George De Gennaro began photographing food in the 1950s. Upon reflection he commented that “In those days, the pictures looked as though they were taken from the top of a ladder, six or eight food away. And the food was so artificially doctored up that it gave the profession a horrible name” (Plimmer, C, 1988, p52) Perhaps it is these technical aspects that meant food photography of this period was not taken seriously as an art genre. Directly influenced by still life painters and a regular contributor to Better Homes and Garden magazine in the 1970’s, he chose to capture food from a different angle, coming in close and capturing movement. A pasta photograph, published in Eastman Kodak’s Applied Photography shot in 1963, shows this technique of freezing motion. Shooting in one day, using 10 large format exposures, Gennaro used one 3200 watt/seconds flash, reflecting the light back in using reflectors. It was shot at f32 at 1/50 of a second using Kodak Ektachrome 64 film. What is significant about this image is that it demonstrates the same painterly skill of 17th century still life, and is clearly influenced by the effects of lighting used by impressionist painters of the 19th century.

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.



Early food photographs

‘Food’ photographs started to appear in the early 19th century in the form of copied still lives, focusing on realism, composition and most importantly the effects of light, essential to producing any photograph. Photography’s first still life was a picture of a table set for a meal made by Nicephore Niepce in 1827. (Szarkowski in Penn, 2001 p2) Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre produced a still life by 1837 while Talbot and Hippolyte Bayard produced theirs by 1840. Among these accomplishments, Henry Fox Talbot photographed an overflowing basket of fruit in 1842 (Plimmer, C. 1988, p9) and later produced a series of still life photographs, entitled ‘Pencils of Nature’ in 1846 featuring images of fruit baskets on patterned tablecloths. The compositions in the images are reminiscent of Flemish still life paintings from the 17th century. 
Henry Fox Talbot, from series ‘Pencils of Nature’ 1846.

Setting the table….

Before we can even begin to look at food photography, we must first look at still life paintings, since arguably, the food photography genre, however uninspiringly commercial it may have seemed at points in the 20th century, has undoubtedly developed from this art historical tradition. Even now, contemporary food photographers refer back to still life paintings as an acknowledgement of their roots. “It is this aesthetic tradition, nourished by Flemish and Spanish artists, which has been passed down to us in today’s glamorous cookery books” (Plimmer, C. 1988 p8). First we will examine the origins of still life painting, assess the importance of these beginnings, and explain how and why food was first used as a subject in art. As we will see, there are many key aspects of interest that painters have used that have later been taken up by food photography.

Still life paintings of the 17th century seemed to draw attention to food as having a ‘natural beauty’, which “was celebrated most brilliantly of all, of course, by the still life painters of the c16th and c17th centuries.” (Plimmer,C. 1988, p8). While the genre of still life in painting can be traced back to the 16th century, it wasn’t until the 17th century that it became well known in Europe. These paintings were privately commissioned in which “inspiration was provided by inanimate nature in all its shapes, volumes, materials, colours and reactions to light.” (Malaguzzi, S. 2008, p53). This is significant because the commissioners had more creative control over the paintings than the painters themselves. The painters were required for their skill, which was assessed by their aesthetic choices and their meticulous arrangement of objects, their ability to portray the subject and whether the painting expressed an allegorical message. Food was often used as subject matter, as it allowed painters to meet all of these criteria. A notable example is Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio, in Italy in the early 17th century, who preferred creating compositions containing realistic depictions of fruit.

Michelangelo Merisi daCaravaggio, Still Life with a Basket of Fruit, ca. 1597-98.

Paintings like these highlight the key aspects of interest in still life; realism, painterly skill, effects of light, arrangement and composition, allegory and indicators of lifestyle. As we will see in later blog posts, realism, ‘painterly’ skill and these other key aspects of interest are techniques that have carried over into food photography.