Thursday, January 13, 2011

Potshots @ Food Shots

I have a love/hate relationship with food photography. 
Just to set the record straight from the beginning – I love food and I also love photography.  One of my favorite parts of studying graphic communications for 4 years was being able to take photographs, and developing and printing them.  I loved the whole process, and I loved to see other people’s photos.  I still enjoy and appreciate beautifully composted pictures of food.  Food magazines would be a bit depressing without that glamour shot of some expertly prepared dish on the cover.  And when I do crack open the occasional cook/recipe-book (a rare thing for me) I have to admit that well shot photos are both inspirational and educational.  Of course I, too, like taking pictures of the food I prepare, both as a personal journal of my culinary journey, and also to share with people.  Indeed, pictures and photography have been an important part of my life for a very long time.
Somewhere along the line I grew a sense of discernment, however.  I think it was some time when I was a wee lad, and my mother took me to a fast food restaurant.  As we sat at the table I couldn’t help but notice a vast difference between the carelessly assembled pieces of “meat” and “bread” that was served to us under the, perhaps laughable, moniker of ‘burgers, and the 6 foot tall brightly colored photographs on the windows - pictures of what could only be called the Platonic Ideal of hamburgers. Being a mere child I asked my mother why our food was not like that?  What had gone horribly wrong in the kitchen that we had to be served these soggy meat sandwiches, rather than the promised GOD among burgers?  Alright, I may not have used those exact words, but I was certainly smart enough to know the difference between the photographs and the real thing.  My mother explained to me that when they make those advertisements they have special chefs who make the über food, and in some cases the pictures aren’t even of real food.
Those frauds!  Charlatans! From that time forward I have always looked upon food advertisement with a certain amount of contempt for the mountebanks who would try to pull the wool over the eyes of the wise.  Oh, we’re onto your game, and we won’t be fooled by your photo-buggery!  Of course … when I find myself waiting in line for that order of chalupa and volcano nachos and think about how I ended up there, it’s usually because some commercial with flying tortillas, lettuce, and tomato set off a Pavlovian response and the next thing I know I’m back home eating low-grade Taco Bell Brand kangaroo meat, wishing I had remembered that discussion with my mother so many years before.  C’est la vie.
Yet, I have a level of respect for the photographers who make that kind of magic happen.  It’s a testament to how powerful a really good photo can be.  Really good photos are, a majority of the time, taken by really good photographers.  The kind of photographers I wanted to be like, when I was in high school.
Now-a-days my aspirations are a bit more subdued.  I only hope to take decent pictures of the food I make so when I tell people my stories I have interesting visuals to offer.  The pictures you’re going to find on this blog will probably never be spectacular, as long as I’m taking them.  In a way I don’t want them to be spectacular.  By no means do I want crappy pictures here, don’t get me wrong.  But I’m reminded of all the food blogs I’ve rifled through whose pictures are spectacular.  I don’t like that.  Those blogs who offer a paltry half-paragraph or two, a brief recipe, and a plethora of exquisitely plated food, professionally lit, and shot like a pro.  I hate those blogs.
I know, I sound curmudgeonly right about now, and I apologize.  First of all, those blogs are dishonest.  They aren’t about food.  They should be barely considered a food blog.  They’re a photography blog.  Photography blogs are excellent!  But a blogger should not be confused about what their own blog is about.  I think blogs like that should keep doing what they’re doing, but stop pretending to be about the food.  I’m convinced that most of the times the photo sessions take longer than it actually took to prepare the food.
This brings me to the second reason that these photo-centric food blogs have fallen into disfavor with me.  When the emphasis is on photography it seems to de-food-a-fy (like “dehumanize”, but for food – use it, credit me) the subject.  Which is fine by me if it’s a photography blog, because photography blogs are about photos.  But if you’re going to call yourself a food blog please give me more than pretty pictures.  Food is more than just light bouncing off the surface of a roast and being captured with a lens or a retina.
Did you ever notice that when you eat dinner you don’t just sit down at the table and look at the food from all sorts of angles with various exciting lighting?  Maybe some people do that, but for me dinner uses all the senses!  Tell me about cooking the food in those great photos, please!  What did it smell like?  Did it make any cool sounds as you sautéed it, or bit into that crust?  What made the flavors special?  Did it makes you think?  Maybe about a childhood memory?  Food encompasses all our senses, and even our thoughts.  Maybe I’m different, but those are the things I want to have more of in food blogs.  Keep the awesome photos, but if you want to be called a food blog, I’m of the opinion that you ought to give me more insight into food than just the sight of it.
I feel like I ought to add a bit of a disclaimer here:  I realize these opinions of mine might make it sound to some people like I am in some way opposed to food photography.  Not in the least.  Food photography is vitally important in the blog, magazine, and recipe-book worlds.  I appreciate, even if I dislike in a way, those publications whose modus operandi is to present excellent food photos with recipes and minimal commentary.  I just don’t like the fact that everyone feels the need to cater to the carnal lust for pretty pictures and shallow content.  Therefore it’s in that spirit that I decided to keep photographs out of this entry.  As a bit of an experiment, I’m curious if I’ll get nearly as many hits to this entry as I do to entries with pictures on it.  I’ll be sure to let you know the results.
So which do you prefer?  Long winded food blogs with depth and details, or pictures shows with photographic professionals?  Can there be a balance betwixt the two?

“It's weird that photographers spend years or even a whole lifetime, trying to capture moments that added together, don't even amount to a couple of hours.”
- James Lalropui Keivom


  1. when i was in high school my mom and i would go to WOOLWORTHS one day a week after school for a malted shake. one day she pointed to the "steak sandwich" picture and suggested we share one. When the waitress brought it out to us our jaws dropped. My mom said, "excuse me, we want that nice fat juicy steak from the picture". The waitress smiled and said,"i am sorry dear. that is what we use". IT WAS STEAKUMS!!!!!! I do not always need a picture for a recipe but if you are going to put one MAKE IT BELIEVEABLE.

  2. I like your writing and your passion. I can be seriously opinionated about a lot of things, so do my best (knowing the focus of my food blog) to not get on any of my soap boxes too often lest I singe the hairs of my readers. I started blogging with a non-food related blog first, and reserved most of my opinions for that one. Sadly, my food blog takes so much time, I rarely write on the other one now. Go figure. And I miss writing.

    As far as food and photography goes, I've learned that although there are some who will read a well-written blog, most are just looking for the photos. Even worse, at times, it's all about cutesy desserts. There also seems to be quite the comment popularity contest going on as well which can be fairly annoying. But somewhere along the line (it's been almost 4 years now...) I decided process photos were important. First, I wanted people to actually believe I made the final product. Second, because taking shots along the way provided an opportunity to learn more about photography -- something I've always been interested in but never had a lot of time to invest in), and finally because many people are visual by nature, and very busy. Providing well-done process shots helps them decide if they want to make a recipe, and whether they have time.

    All in all, it's an interesting way to spend an incredible amount of time, don't you think?

  3. Kelly:
    It is! This entry was sort of experimental, because I truly do love photos, and plan on exploiting the draw that they have from now on, though.
    Me being picky as I am, I must admit that your blog is my favorite food blog! Because you do have some of the most gorgeous food photos, but you give me so much more than just pictures when you post! I love that you give "Notes:" after your recipes, too. And that you have more than just cutesy desserts :)
    Thanks for reading!

    I remember you telling me that story about your mother during the exact incident I'm talking about! I almost called you up to recite it for me so I could include it, but I like it more that you've written it yourself.