This is part of a series exploring the cultural, technological and social trends that are informing the way we dine and select what we eat. Read the rest in the series here.
Some days my Instagram feed looks more like a parade of grisly murder scene shots, picture after picture of severed heads, flayed carcasses and glistening guts. I follow a lot of chefs, as it so happens, and their idea of food photography often has less to do with carefully presented amuse-bouches and artfully plated desserts than with raw cuts of primal meat and soil-covered vegetables.
Gone are the days when food stylists practised their arcane art using motor oil for syrup, adding hairspray or shoe polish to give meat a succulent shine, substituting pure white glue for cereal-sogging milk or lard for ice cream.
The ways we visually consume food today reflects the changing way we eat. Authenticity and naturalness are paramount and a certain unflinching realism presides even in the face of some of the more gory aspects of eating.
Pick up a copy of Lucky Peach, the ultimate hipster foodie magazine, and you’ll see this aesthetic laid bare. The cover of the very first issue featured a clammy looking pair of raw chickens, complete with talons, being unceremoniously dunked into a stockpot. More recent covers have included the tightly focused face of a raw fish, a trickle of blood running out of its mouth, lying morosely on a plastic tray, and the severed hind leg of a pig being tattooed by an even more heavily tattooed man. The Ladies Home Journal this is not.
Perhaps no food publication relies so heavily on images as Sweden’s Fool Magazine. Published by husband and wife duo Lotta and Per-Anders Jörgensen – her background is in art direction, he’s a photographer – the magazine aims for an international audience.
“Our intention doing this magazine is to do a magazine that’s very visual, just to be able to reach out to people who don’t read English,” Lotta explains, “so they can see and use their imagination even if they can’t read anything.”
A recent Fool feature on the renowned American chef Sean Brock was notable for its near complete absence of food photographs. Instead we saw pictures of the chef and his dog and the chef hunting squirrels.
“If you look at food magazines and food photography these days it’s a lot more documentary than it was before,” Per-Anders explains. “To capture a moment, to capture a feeling and be able to let that come across in two dimensions. That’s the hardest thing you can do and it takes a very good photographer to do it.”
One such photographer, Tessa Bunney, was proclaimed food photographer of the year at the recent Pink Lady Food Photography competition for her image, Noodle Making. No glamourized, artificially lit studio shot, her winning picture shows a Vietnamese woman in a white apron, paisley shirt and head scarf, with a look of serious concentration on her face as she manipulates a bed-sheet-sized panel of dough so thin it’s sheer. There’s beauty in the shot, but it paints a bigger picture about the way we eat that is both contemporary and linked to our past.
For John Cullen, a Toronto-based food photographer with an international reputation, food photography is about much more than a pretty-looking plate.
“I’m hired for a certain kind of realism when it comes to food,” he explains. “Even if it’s created in studio with lights and stylists and art directors, I have always tried to make food look tasty instead of glorified. I’m personally not that dialled into food-restaurant culture, but love the social aspect of cooking and eating with friends. For me that feeling is what food is all about, and what I like to shoot.”
The democratization of photography in general and food photography in particular, along with the rise of social media, has turned many of us into amateur food stylists and budding food photographers. That doesn’t mean we should all be posting every latte, taco and bowl of ramen we come across, though.
Good food doesn’t automatically translate into good pictures, just ask Martha Stewart, who was widely criticized last year when her grotesquely overexposed, underfocused and generally unappetizing Twitter pics were ridiculed online and in the press.
There are ways to avoid Martha’s shame, as photographer Virginia Macdonald points out: “When you first start shooting food I think everybody does the classic sort of food porn with the cheese dripping or the syrup or the butter melting off the pancake,” she says.
“It’s important to remember to play with your food shots a bit, though,” she adds. “A shot of peeled apples in a sink could be just as compelling, so by playing and finding ways to shoot food while you’re preparing it, while you’re eating it as opposed to this very stylized way in which the pea goes over here and the piece of spinach should go over there.
“It’s more about how we respond to a particular dish. How does it smell? Do you want to take a bite out of it? Before posting something ask yourself, ‘Does it feel authentic, does it feel like I want to eat that thing?’ ”