Chicago photographer Anthony Tahlier gave Virgin Hotels the shot they wanted. A plated charred-octopus dish, lit from above. Succulent, shadowy, the press of mahogany grill marks against white flesh atop rosy smears of pimento aioli sauce—it pleaded, “Eat this, now!” as traditionally good food photography should. But as effective as the photo was, Tahlier couldn’t stop imagining others: the whole creature, wet, writhing on a tabletop; another of a huge fish, with chef Rick Gresh’s hands at work, breaking it down. “So I just asked,” says Tahlier. Turns out there was a whole octopus in the house, as well as a beautiful salmon. The chef loved the ideas, and the resulting visceral images are the powerfully raw, edgy shots Virgin chose to use as a big part of the marketing for its Chicago restaurant, Cerise.
With food at the apex of our most deeply felt connections to what’s real, true, tactile and immediate, the way food is depicted in professional photography signposts broader shifts in culture and visual taste. Along with certain movements in graphic design and typography, food photography has gratefully become less uptight and more artistic, moving to unexpected and experimental territory. Just as chefs segued to more relaxed and approachable restaurant settings for creative new food presentations—white tablecloths are all but endangered—so have food photos over the past several years. “A looser and more accessible look in the photography is what we’re going for with 90 percent of our books,” says Emma Campion, creative director at Ten Speed Press, which primarily publishes cookbooks, “but always using the author’s specific passion to dictate how we communicate that visually.”
Social media and blogs—such as The Canal House, Smitten Kitchen, Cookie and Kate, and the professionally stylized Tart Tart—fuel the public’s food-imagery obsession. But Campion and other leading stylists, designers and photographers currently find edgier inspiration in indie zines such as Gather Journal, Sweet Paul, Lucky Peach, Diner Journal, What Liberty Ate, Chickpea and Cherry Bombe. Although there’s a huge difference between what McDonald’s may allow in a menu-board image and what Gather Journal depicts in a spread, new food photographs of all stripes are not as limited by the boundaries of a plate so that they may tell bigger food stories: where it’s from, what it is, why it matters. Food has become the window into lifestyle stories.
Looser, messier, more idiosyncratic—current food-photography styling is echoed elsewhere in typography, with the prevalence of hand-drawn and rusticated type; in fashion, with vegetal hats, bigger noses and greater irregularity of apparel, down to wrinkled clothes. In magazine design, spreads capture the moment when everyone just left the table, offering a voyeur’s glimpse at the leavings. These messes tempt you to buy the plates with typographic bones on them, the creased and crumpled linens, that twiggy centerpiece with pluots and persimmons scattered around it. Recent issues of food magazines such as Bon Appetit bloom with examples. October’s “Fall Forward” feature opens with an enormous faux-wood-engraving F dominating the entire first page. The subsequent food story blazes with a hand-drawn, flame-topped “Alabama Getaway” headline.
Cara Livermore, cofounder and head of content of indie vegan zine Chickpea, says she thinks about the “fleeting moment” for every visual and written aspect of her magazine: “The sifting flour, the steam rising from the sink, the massive floral arrangement. We all want something that can’t be re-created, something totally unique, something that might not even be attainable in a photograph.” Reflecting this typographically, Livermore uses only two fonts and hand draws everything else. The hope, Livermore says, is to evoke feelings. “Angst-y, sad, hopeful, bright, tactile, disgusting, anxiety-filled—whatever it may be, that’s the end goal of my designs: to evoke a sense of smell, sound, taste, mood.”
At the bleeding edge, photographs mash up the grotesque and mundane with the gorgeous and pristine. The divide between food processes and finished plated presentations has dissolved. Butting up against the faux realism of shots of “perfect food” are bold photos of butchering, steaming, milling and making—revealing the blood and guts underneath the utopian veneer. We want to see where our food comes from, literally, which is the logical next step in our artisanal foods journey: corrective cultural backlash to unsavory factory food systems.
“There can be beauty in all the gore and mess of meat being processed, just as there can be for a plated pile of greens,” agrees Linda Pugliese, New York–based food photographer. “In the French West Indies, I shot the slaughter of a chicken, including the process of breaking it down and cooking it—blood and all—with a woman whose family even ate the bones growing up,” says Pugliese. “I hope to go to Italy next, to shoot a pig slaughter and the preparation of all its parts in the week following.”
But squeamishness persists and ugly truths are often toned down, says photographer Gabriela Iancu, of the biannual indie food magazine What Liberty Ate: “The substitution of the hypermodern ‘nonreal’ for the ‘real’ speaks volumes about our search for authenticity and the difficulty we have with actually accepting it.” Photography plays an important role in capturing that tension.
For example, says Iancu, if we look at how most of the current two million food blogs present food, many people crave a closer connection to nature, revile chemically infused food and want to make ethical food choices. In photography, that manifests in more rustic compositions, with textures that make you long for a natural landscape. But even those are faux. Hence the former Instagram sensation @socalitybarbie, an account that poked fun at the visible strain of foodies and their ilk to appear authentic, with direct jabs at the lifestyle and food magazine Kinfolk. Our deeply entrenched desire to present only the pretty reflects our unease with the beauty in other forms of truth. “Authenticity is quite rare, making the natural and organic more of a symbolic message than truly real,” says Iancu.
She and other stylists and photographers have noticed that the new food photographic aesthetics are nostalgic for a pure vision, but go against traditions. So they are less formal, with off-centered compositions, intentional blur, and experimental styling that’s cinematic and sculptural. Gather Journal’s severely textural black-and-white images of charred steak and black olive sandwiches in its Summer 2015 issue come to mind. And Dietlind Wolf excels at combining color, pattern and textures into poetic narratives in photos for publisher Paul Lowe at Sweet Paul.
“I think ‘keeping it real’ is a major trend right now,” says Adam Bookbinder, design director of Saveur magazine. “When I look at a food image, [I ask myself], ‘Does it look heavy, staged, distracting? Or does it look immediate and real?’ We are trying to move more in the real direction.” When Saveur succeeds at this, Bookbinder says, readers have the sense that they are actually there, standing right over all of the delicious dishes. His best example of this is photographer Marcus Nilsson’s cover for Saveur’s January/February 2015 issue, a shot of chef Justin Smillie’s peppercorn-crusted short ribs with lemon and radish slices, herbs, and olives.
Despite the demand for food photos that keep it real, idealized food photography is not going away. “Visually, most professional food photography is about creating an ideal,” Pugliese says. “Something to aspire to, rather than to achieve, necessarily—a dream scenario. It’s about the creation of a feeling, a moment, a desired experience, whether it’s with a product or a recipe.”
This idealization is something Chickpea’s Livermore thinks about a lot. “When a reader flips through the pages of a super-polished, aspirational publication, does that design or styling do more harm than good? It depends. I think we, as the creators of these fantasies, have to be conscious and careful of what standard we’re creating,” she says. “All media create expectations of flawlessness in our lives, whether it’s being sexy, well read, healthy and thin, but capable of indulging in cookie-wrapped brownie ice cream cakes, or maintaining a beautiful home with expensive furnishings, and on and on. Creating images of perfection draws out feelings of insecurity and wanting, which prevents people from living realistic and fulfilling lives.”
Story is what helps Livermore stay responsibly grounded. “We try to balance inspiration with realistic topics and stories from nonprofessional writers to bring us back down to Earth,” she says. “Storytelling has become an integral part of food, and it’s been a big part of our magazine’s content and photographs since the beginning. Food is life, life is food and our food photos demonstrate that.”
“In my head, it is all about telling a story about the food,” Lowe agrees. “A good example is the story I did for last year’s holiday issue. I wanted to shoot cookie bars and do it in a new way. So I painted all these plastic animals and placed the cookie bars on their backs and heads. It was about the animals bringing you gifts in the holiday season. People responded well to it, and the issue sold out in record time. Not everything has to be shot on a plate. The main reason I do what I do is that I want to have fun doing it. And if I have fun, the viewer can see that. That, for me, is the best feeling ever, when a reader compliments my shoots and tells me that it reminded them of this or that.”
Despite the widespread casualization of restaurants and the overall trend toward looser photographic compositions, a high-end food-service establishment still requires tighter control. In those settings, the plate or presentation surface is still treated as a canvas, the chef is the artist, and the goal is to make and present something that the guest can’t make at home. But even in this arena, says Chicago’s Tahlier, who shoots chef Curtis Duffy’s food at the Michelin three-star Grace Restaurant and chef Ryan McCaskey’s at Acadia, presentations are more organic and spontaneous looking.
“It all comes back to a culture-consuming public ready to experience the new ‘next,’” Iancu says. “We all want striking, risk-taking images that give a temporary glimpse into an ethereal experience.” ca