Using storytelling, bold colors, motion, and even animated GIFS, women are infusing new energy into food photography – one of the oldest photographic traditions.
Perhaps our love for pictures of food stems from the age-old desire to have our cake and eat it too. The image becomes a memento rapt with the possibility of good things to come while stoking our memory for the sensual experience of taste, smell, and touch. The sight of food evokes a longing, not unlike that of seeing our beloved looking their best.
With the stratospheric rise of Instagram, food photography has become one of the most popular genres and the industry has taken note. A new generation of women photographers are working to create dynamic new styles that resonate with today’s consumers.
Images of food have long been a staple in art history from the Egyptian tomb paintings and Roman frescoes to the still life paintings of 17th and 18th century European Masters. With photography’s invention in the 19th century, the camera became a tool to document and aestheticize one of our most primal drives.
As consumer culture took hold following World War II, our appetite for food photography was diligently enhanced as advertisers, magazine editors, and cookbook publishers sought to entice us to partake in the pleasures of their wares.
Digital technology has signaled a profound shift in the way we think and communicate who we are and the ways we engage with the world. While some naysayers see the social-media-led democratization of the medium as a loss, many understand that expanding and enhancing visual literacy will only serve to further its potential. Instagram proves the demand for food photography is truly insatiable, restoring this once marginal genre to the forefront of the conversation. But it doesn’t end there.
In the acclaimed traveling exhibition based on the acclaimed 2017 Aperture photobook Feast for the Eyes: The Story of Food in Photography, co-curators Susan Bright and Denise Wolff examine the rich history of the form in the work of artists including Nan Goldin, Martin Parr, Imogen Cunningham, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Irving Penn, Cindy Sherman, and Wolfgang Tillmans to reveal how food photography traverses the boundaries of race, culture, class, age, and gender and unites us in a deeply profound and universal human experience.
For many in the industry, social media is pushing food photography to greater heights, centering it in the conversation and encouraging artists to explore new possibilities of the medium. “With the rise of sharing food on social media, more people are concerned with how their food looks, styling their salad like a professional, not necessarily for those who will consume it, but for those consuming the pictures of it. This represents a shift in vernacular pictures of today. They’re more aligned with advertising and aspiration; they’re more for public consumption,” the curators say.
“Still life has often played second fiddle to the glamour of excitement of fashion photography, but the plethora of independent food journals at the moment show the very best of contemporary photography and that is changing. The still life pictures in magazines like Gather, Luncheon, Lucky Peach, Put an Egg on It, and Alla Carta are exuberant, cool and clever. The whole genre has really been reinvigorated in photography here and fine art and commercial work can often be indistinguishable today in many respects — to the point where artists are often commissioned to do commercial work and vice versa.”
As digital culture reasserts the primacy of food within the world of commercial and editorial photography, a new host of women photographers are shaping that vision with new energy, often through the most universal connector: storytelling. “Food is an easy place to enter people’s lives,” says American photographer Penny de los Santos. Currently Senior Contributing Photographer to Saveur magazine, De los Santos got her start as a photojournalist working for National Geographic and recalls how comfortable her subjects would become when they invited her into the kitchen before the shoot. “It was a natural place for me to quickly get into someone’s life, ask them questions, slowly and quietly make my photos.”
De los Santos brought the idea of storytelling to her work, recognizing the fascinating connections between food, history, and culture that underlies every single thing we eat. “Food photography should inspire, it should tell a story, it should provoke,” she says. “It may seem like just a plate of pasta but there’s a story behind it. There’s a reason why it’s in front of you and as a photographer, that’s the challenge. Clients want to see their pasta on a plate dressed perfectly in beautiful light. When I establish myself with them. I can tell them a way to take their product deeper.”
For a recently completed campaign for a cast-iron skillet company, De los Santos found a chef living in upstate New York who is an avant-garde renegade forager who cooks over a fire using only weeds and invasive plants. “I put together a team that included three food stylists, we gave her some skillets, did a foraging cooking promo for the client, and it was beautiful. I was able to marry those two ideas, tell her story, evoke and inspire, and make the client really happy to see what they make in a way they have before. That’s the goal. Telling stories is where my heart lies.”
When it comes to storytelling, photography can create an immediate impact, capturing the viewer’s attention, stimulating their imagination, and drawing them in for a deeper look. As Creative Director of Bon Appétit, Michele Outland’s job is to take the editorial written story and translate its voice into appropriate visuals. “What I love about food, in general, is its ability to share a culture even in just a glance at a dish — food is extremely visual,” she says. “The great joy of food photography is taking cultural heritage and hopefully enhancing or communicating that history in the presentation of the food image. At Bon Appétit I’ve been so fortunate to work on stories with people, chefs, and restaurants that are amazingly diverse — it’s been such a joy to learn about new food cultures.”
German photographer Evi Abeler adopts an authentic and natural approach in every aspect of her work, from the production shoot to the finished photograph. She got her start as the in-house photographer for New York City’s Rubin Museum of Art, where she quickly fell in love with food and still life photography. Eager to expand her repertoire, Abeler began freelancing for the Harlem Eats blog and soon received commissions being by the restaurants she visited to photograph their food. In 2010, she opened her own studio in New York, with a focus on creating authentic, natural work.
Taking an organic approach, Abeler now works with bigger clients, bringing her signature blend of beauty and authenticity to each job. “I want to underline the organic, natural freshness of the food,” she says. “If I am to eat whole foods, that comes across that better with natural light. That said, almost all the photos you see on my website were lit because we work in the studio during months like February when there is no beautiful natural light.”
Abeler sees food photography becoming more artful and diverse, with brands starting to develop their own distinct visual style. “They are thinking about the soul of their company, not just visually but politically,” she says. “They are figuring out what they are about to become a leader with their own unique voice so they can separate themselves from the competition better. I think also as the whole of advertising is getting more diverse, you see more women, people of color, and gender identities. That’s where it’s going and everyone will be included. The people who present the food will be real people.”
Media, like the people it serves, continues to evolve in order to reflect new ways of communicating with a wider array of communities in languages that are familiar to them. With all the rapidly occurring changes, professionals in every corner of the industry are charged to stay ahead of the curve. Outland observes, “No longer is it just about a magazine but now also Instagram, Web, and YouTube videos.”
Digital technology has transformed the way we look and think about food photography in the new millennium. As the use of motion and GIFs has become extremely popular in recent times, American photographer Anna Williams is at the forefront of a food photography revolution, working with clients like Williams Sonoma, Martha Stewart Living, T Galleria, and Woodford Reserve Bourbon.
“Photographers and stylists have refined the art of food imagery over the years, and it’s great to see what their eye can bring to motion,” she says. “I remember when the food stylist Susan Spungen styled the food for the film Julie & Julia, it was such a powerful vision that she brought from all those years styling for still imagery.”
Recognizing the power of short narratives to convey a tremendous amount of content and context, Williams cites the story of Evrim and Evin Dogu as one of her favorites. “They’re really grounded and passionate about the craft that they have mastered,” she says. “It’s great to hear that in the way they talk about the bakery. I also love the textures and layers — the way the light hits the baked goods. I try to make imagery that can stand the test of time.”
In a sea of imagery, motion and GIFS often stand out, catching out eye with the promise of action. Williams notes, “A new generation of artists is much more comfortable with making easy content. I love some of those real videos that aren’t perfectly styled but have that natural storytelling. At the same time, it’s still hard to do really high-quality video, so there will always be a niche for the art of beautiful styling, lighting, and cinematography when it comes to motion. There’s a place for both!”
While the natural-lit look has long been an integral part of contemporary food photography, a new style has emerged, one that embraces a love for bold color, hard flash, and the camp sensibilities of Pop Art. American photographer Jessica Pettway takes her love for cartoons like Tom and Jerry, Looney Tunes, and Animaniacs, and brings that to her art. “I love working with things that are familiar and finding a way to breathe new life into it,” she says. “That’s why I have so much fun working with food. We all eat food. We all have to consume it. We see it every day. It’s super familiar to us. It’s fun to find some quirky ways to subvert that routine.”
Where conventions of art once held the power to constrain output, Pettway notes we are living in a time where artists have the space to make fresh, original content. “If you think about painting, there was one way to paint an apple in a Dutch still life. Painting was able to move and free up,” she says. “Photography is still really young and we’re now in a place where we can finally loosen up and become more democratic in what we accept as an image. It’s fun to bring my own lens to that canon.”
Though it’s far from the traditional approach, Pettway’s work is deeply relatable because it taps into our nostalgia for the pleasures of childhood. Combining the cartoon aesthetic with junk food like pizza and grilled cheese, Pettway feeds our primal desire to play with our food and get as messy as we want to be.
“It’s fun to see things shot with more contrasting bright, crunchy, pop colors,” she says. “I hope to keep pushing those boundaries, to be able to do cookbooks and recipes, things that are reserved for the more traditional imagery.”