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Friday, August 8, 2014

The Art of Food Photography

Copyright, Jim Lane
Honeymoon Salad (Lettuce Alone), 2012, Jim Lane,
food photography and acrylics on canvas.
Still life, fruits, jug, fruit dish (detail),
Paul Cezanne
It's axiomatic in the arts that artists paint, draw, sculpt, and photograph subjects that are important to them. That covers the "fine" arts, and though I'm no expert on the performing arts, I'd guess that to some (or the same) extent, the this provision applies to them as well. From the very beginning of painting almost, artists have arranged items before their easels in a manner designed to make them look attractive, then drawn or (more often) painted them. Initially, during much of the history of art this was an attempt to preserve their appearance as realistically as possible. Only after the invention of photography during the 19th-century were painters free to explore such objects purely for their shapes, colors, textures, and for the compositional elements. Credit Cezanne for that.
Selling food
A hard sell without food photography.
As art content in still-lifes especially, nothing is more important to artists (indeed, everyone else) than food. Our very survival depends upon it. If that was the case for painters, then there's no reason it should change as photography replaced the painters art with regard to still-life. Add to that the even more powerful need for appealing images aimed at selling food, and you have one of the most important sub-category in photography--food photography. Moreover it makes little difference whether the photographer is aiming to sell food or simply to portray it purely for artistic purposes. Even the presence of product logos make little difference in the Postmodern world of artists such as Warhol in which product logos may well be as important, or more so, than the food itself. Warhol's Campbell's tomato soup label is much more attractive and interesting than the soup itself.
The food illustrator for this 1950s ad had their work cut out for them,
trying to make cafeteria food look appetizing--unbelievable..
1950s food illustration. Photography at
the time couldn't have come close to this.
It might surprise some to realize that food photography is a relatively recent art form. Until after WW II, when color photography reached maturity, the long tradition of still-life painting served the food advertising industry much better than photography. Illustrators could paint a much more appetizing apple than even the best photographers could manage (above). But color photography (and photographers) kept getting better and better. Food illustrators didn't. One of the difficulties artists have faced since the advent of photography is that anyone seeing a photo intuitively trust it far more than even the best illustration of the same subject. The old saying, "photos don't lie," dominated public sentiment until very recently when digital photo editing software made it possible for photos (and those who made them) to lie so easily and convincingly.

Colorful, artistic, delicious looking photo still-life, but ice cream it's not
(More like a very stiff cake frosting).
Donuts by Jim Scherer, one of the best.
Today, art photos of food (still-lifes) make up barely a miniscule segment of the world of food photography. The two main areas are now the making of photos for selling food and those for presenting food (as in food magazines). Also, in a broader media sense, we have food television (as in the Food Channel). Though the aesthetics vary somewhat among these areas, the technical aspects do not. Just as still-life painters used to have to contend with their models rotting, not to mention rats, cats, flies and gnats, the edible models used by photographers today are not friendly to hot lights and prolonged exposure to the dry air they create. Heat and dehydration are the sworn enemies of food photographers.  Ice (and ice cream) melts, lettuce wilts, whipped toppings slide to the side, cooked meats become less than appetizing in a surprisingly short time, and the old still-life standards, fruits and veggies, can change or lose their colors. Food illustrators could easily cope with most of these problems as they worked. With photographers, at least until digitalization and editing, it was "what you see is what you get," unless you knew (or were) a wizard in the darkroom.
Glass "ice" cubes--notice the drops of water to simulate melting.
Salad by Charlotte Sallberg
Through trial and error, food photographers have learned to cope. Ice became glass (or acrylic). Ice cream became a mixture of solid shortening, corn syrup, and powdered sugar. Food colorings are used to make meats browner. Cold cereals were found to look better in heavy cream, which reduced their absorption rate (soggy cereal, yuck). Bringing out the color in raw vegetables actually comes down to cooking them just a little (blanching). Beverages "sparkle" when thinned slightly with water. And if all else fails, use plastic. The Japanese have practically made an art form of "fake food." Steam rising from food is often created by a hidden mixture of chemicals interacting together. Sometimes it's just a simple matter of keeping a handy spray bottle filled with water and corn syrup to "freshen" the food.

Food artists with cameras. Is the sushi getting a little dull?
Steve Buchanan--is it real or is it plastic? 
If all this sounds vaguely dishonest, especially as applied to advertising, it is. Of course, the same could be said of virtually all photography employed by the advertising industry, from automobiles to hand creams (as in the use of hand models). However, if you come to expecting a certain degree of exaggerated attractiveness, then the impact of any "dishonesty" is minimized or eliminated. Digital photography has made this especially the case. Despite the simplicity of rearranging pixels today, food photography remains as much a science as an art. Imagine, trying to sell a double bacon cheeseburger photographed straight from its cardboard box. There would be a lot more least until they came to realize what food stylists do to salads to make them look appetizing.

The All-American hamburger, said to be one of the greatest
challenges for the food photographer.