Thursday, July 29, 2010

Food Photography. Flipping Heck, it's a Faff

show us your pips

cauliflower cuplprit

Talking to Sheila Dillon on the Radio 4 Food Programme recently, Nigel Slater explained that the aim of food photography used to be perfection and the process labour intensive. (Nice chap, Nige. I know a woman who keeps a photograph of his house in her handbag.) Then in the mid 90s the French sexed it up. Food had to move, to writhe, to shimmer, to arch its back in ecstasy and let you, the viewer, catch it's sensual exhalation of flavour and texture and do with it what you will, you brute. Hopefully you are doing it in a dark room with the door tightly closed and a clean tea-towel to hand. Loose-flan bottoms are the new up-skirt shots, the motion of whisking to stiff peaks the new money-shots.

Then there are the endless books filled with roccoco tableaux, the Carvaggio still-life that sells Tessa Kiros.

Marcella Hazan got by on pen and ink line drawings, the austere simplicity of which did not divert millions from trying the best-ever recipe for chocolate mousse or roast chicken with lemons (available on request - just to see if anyone is reading this). Her foolproof and straightforward methods and notes on how to choose ingredients are supported only by utter confidence in her craft and generations of successful dishes. This gives the reader space to choose and does not presume their palate is so jaded and cloyed that they need ever-increasing kinkery to tickle their tastebuds.The illustrations show method not product. A bit like Alex Comfort. But without that creepy bearded chap.

As an amateur it is hard not to produce Readers' Wives style pictures. I mean, you remember Audrey? Similarly too much apricot glaze on a frangipane tart has much the same effect as lipgloss on a 5 year old American pageant contestant.

Of course, some dishes are simply unphotographable.
Robert Carrier, can you explain this? Is it not something the cat produced?
Robert had to fill 20 fabulous Cookery Cards for each pack of the series in 1968. They are, on the whole wonderful. But very occasionally ill-advised.
Orginal blog man James Lileks collated and venerated this kind of food photography.


I had two simple goals: a) to recreate in homage the cover of
the first edition of the seminal part-work The Cordon Bleu Monthly Cookery Course first published in 1968. This merits a whole article itself. I use it constantly. This picture tripped my wires as a kid and was very possibly the reason why I took to cooking b) to make a simple dish look stylish, attractive and tasty.

For both these goals I enlisted the help and the kitchen of my friend Allison, art teacher and interior designer. She has recreated, without an ounce of up-herself-ness, a French Provincial Kitchen in the Perth Suburbs complete with chandeliers, eathernware honey jars and a kitchen garden in which she keeps bees. She should know a thing or two.

Fortunately the food did not require too much fluffing. The caramelised oranges are completely gorgeous as they are, and indeed the making process yielded some of the most sensous images I shall ever take. Here are some from my private collection.

The Carbonade of beef had the right kind of unctuous exterior and depth of tone to wing it. Yet when it came to the photographing, who knew that putting brilliant white globes of cauliflower in the foreground would eclipse the meat? I just didn't think of it. Below you can see my friend Alison's beautiful dining setting but not much of the dish, nice composition but dreadful lighting

And that's what gave me the idea for this piece. This is where a professional with Leichas and light reflectors and meters and fundamentally basic knowledge would have flicked the lime-light stealing brassica from the dish and replaced it with a nice dense... well who know it may have been a tiny pair of purple patent leather mary-jane shoes or a cow's snout, it would just depend on the directions of the art-director and the market for the piece.

No, it was not the food itself that had us foxed, but a) the background and b) the props. Who knew that there are two competing shades of orange in a terracotta pot and sliced glazed carrots with thyme and honey? And who knew that the pyramid of cream-filled brandysnaps and the formless yet stable mass of oranges would defy any logically shaped background prop and always look mad? Ow, my eyes, take away the sunflowers and those jars are just plain crazy.

The answers are: The professionals. They know. They get paid to know. They plan and position and practise.

In future I shall stick to visually accurate, spontaneous and heartfelt images rather than acrobatically enticing or visually cleverer than I actually am images, (a motto many of us could well take on board in other rooms of the house, I'll warrant). Unless I'm getting paid. (Ditto)Any images I can capture of the process along the may which a)do not steam the lense of my camera or b) show my navvy/skivvy man-hands.

Would anyone like any of the recipes from this post? Do let me know.


  1. I liked reading the rest of this post enough to forgive you for making me think of 5 year old pageant contestants.

  2. omg my mum had that book with the brandy snaps on the front!