The Art of Dining – ‘Say Cheese’ The World of Martin Parr in 5 courses

While food photography has been influenced by a number of external factors (take my last post on food photography and politics for example!) I recently attended an event where food photography turned a dining experience into an art form. ‘Say Cheese – The World of Martin Parr in 5 courses‘ was the latest in a series of pop up events created by The Art of Dining Team – Set Designer Alice Hodge and Chef Ellen Parr.

While Martin Parr is not usually considered a traditional food photographer, his photographs of food have a unique style that most might call ‘unappetising’ but nonetheless are interesting to compare to the ‘perfect’ food seen in advertising and food packaging. “Martin Parr takes this glossy magazine perfection and punctures it, and thus reminds us that our food, along with ourselves, is not always so glamorous.” (Kurkoski, 2013 [online]) The food and decor at the event was spot on and made you feel like you’d be transported into a 1970’s time warp!

The Art of Dining have run a number of pop up events, combining food, art and design, all taking influence from food in either photography, painting or television. One pop up I would have loved to have attended was inspired by 16th and 17th century still life paintings – ‘Vanitas‘ was hosted in a 16th century Tudor House, exhibiting modern artists’ interpretations of these paintings, whilst a Tudor feast was served. Another event was inspired by TV Dinners, with 3 courses served on one plate, eaten from a tray on your lap whilst surrounded by TV inspired art projects. I look forward to seeing what inspires this creative team next!

Here’s a great video of The Art of Dining talking about the Martin Parr themed event they hosted in Tokyo last year:

Say Cheese! The World of Martin Parr in 5 Courses from GOLIGA on Vimeo.


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.


Carl Kleiner, Pepparkakor, in Hembakat Är Bäst, 2010.

Equally beautiful are some very different images from an Ikea baking book Hembakat Är Bäst, or Homebaked Is Best, photographed by Carl Kleiner. In the last few years, a popular technique has been to photograph food from above – a bird’s eye view. The food styling, by Evelina Bratell, is unlike traditional baking books; ingredients are “laid out first in minimalist beauty, followed by the baked result. ” (Burgoyne, P. 2010, [online]) Swedish design and marketing agency Forsman & Bodenfors tried something different, inspired by high fashion and Japanese minimalism. The book puts the ingredients in focus as very graphic still-life shots, with the actual baked product as an afterthought.
Carl Kleiner, Pepparkakor, in Hembakat Är Bäst, 2010.


Carl Kleiner, Nationaldagsbakelser, in Hembakat Är Bäst, 2010

Food photography in the 90’s – Overuse of Shallow DOF

By the late 1990’s, the Donna Hay style was being used excessively, with little of the food in focus. Food publications were “going berserk…People were using shallow depth of field that you couldn’t see what the food was” (1. David Munns in Smyth, D. 2007, p15). The images were reminiscent of still life paintings as shallow depth of field gave food products a soft, natural look. Dickerman (2006, [online]) noted, “Selective focus is particularly handy for creating visual interest in blobby food like casseroles” But like David Munns, she too saw that “Eventually, it seemed that nofood was photographed without selective focus”. New Zealand photographer Ian Batchelor was an early adopter of short focus. Upon reflection, he too thought the technique was used and abused. For him, the thinking behind it was to draw attention to the important aspect of the photograph separating and framing it with the bokeh effect. He had seen this used to great effect and also the opposite where the effect has been used without any understanding and a quite random part of the image has been in focus. Yet this style influenced cookbooks like MarieClaire Kitchen, published in 2004. Photographs by Petrina Tinslay create not only a beautiful cookbook but also a giant food picture book. Over half the pages display a full-page image spread and the images much larger than those in magazines.
Petrina Tinslay, in Marie Claire Kitchen, 2004
Since then, the extreme receded slightly. Olivemagazine, launched in 2003, tended not to use it; ‘It’s not in fashion but also we want to show all of the food because we tend to be illustrating recipes.’ (2. Hayley Ward, in Smyth, D, 2007, p 15) The aesthetics of the style remain; daylit images are still much ‘in vogue’. Instead, Olivemagazine uses shallow depth of field to suggest narrative to the image. This cover image shows the front dessert in focus, while the back one is not, suggesting a dessert course for two, although the viewer will only actually eat one. The shallow depth of field allows text to be incorporated flawlessly.
Olive, Issue 1, December 2003
(1. & 2.  – 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.

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.

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]) 

Gourmet Magazine

Gourmet Magazine Cover

The first American magazine devoted to food and wine, Gourmet started in January 1941. (2001, [online]) Gourmet covers in the 1950’s tended to feature “a significant piece of serving ware, a floral arrangement, and a textural background, put together with a studied eclecticism that suggested a well-traveled life”. (Dickerman, S. 2006) Not just a food magazine, it suggested ideals in lifestyle post-war.

Conde Nast axed Gourmet magazine in 2009, but you can read more about the magazine here