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More food thoughts

February 28, 2012

















. . . . . .

I want to say thank you to everyone for your incredibly insightful, interesting comments on my last post about food photography & honesty. It was great to hear so many different perspectives and thoughts, and also to hear that so many people are feeling the way I do.

I tried to post follow-up comments with some of my additional thoughts in the comments section of that post. Today, I wanted to share a few additional thoughts as well as a few images showing food photography that I find inspiring.

The photos I’m sharing above are photos from “Beyond Nose to Tail: A Kind of British Cooking, Part II” by Fergus Henderson & Justin Piers Gellatly of St. John, my favorite place in London. The photography for this cookbook was shot by Jason Lowe, who is one of my food photography heroes. I wanted to share these photos with you because it’s one of my all-time favorites, and I think these photos perfectly fit with what I’d like to see more of in food photography.

Why are these photos so successful, and why do they inspire me? First, if you’ve ever been to St. John, you will recognize that these pictures fit the overall aesthetic of the restaurant very well – the clean & white (almost sterile) background with simple, suprising, honest food. There is also a cheeky sense of humor that comes through in these photos – which is very much a part of Fergus’ approach to cooking and to life. Therefore, the photos seem to be a natural extension of the subject matter.

Secondly, many of the photos are portraits of the personalities that make up St. John – chefs, owners, hosts, waitstaff, enthusiasts. And their personalities really shine through here, and they give color to the St. John world.

Thirdly, there is a great combination here of artistic food photos (i.e., that overhead picture of the tabletop with the potatoes arranged around the table) and more realistic photos of the plated food. All of the photos are straightforward and they never feel precious or too “safe”. They have a clear point of view and most importantly, they are interesting! They make me understand and feel the “vibe” of St. John; I get a very clear picture of the aesthetic of this place and the food.

Ultimately, these photos are beautiful, but not always typically so. There is a sense of joy about the food and sharing it.  They are thoughtful and mindfully composed. They surprise me and make me think.
(And if you don’t own this cookbook, you should get your hands on a copy ASAP. It’s worth it!)


. . . . .

Additionally, I want to say that I didn’t mean to suggest in my previous post that I’d like to see more ugly photos of food. That’s not really my point and it’s not what I mean by taking an “honest” photo. Instead, I want to see interesting photos that have a clear point of view and tell a story. Photos that don’t feel contrived, that stand apart from the all-too-common “I just ate this and I wanted to share it with you” photos that are snapped on your cameraphone. That’s an entirely separate type of food photo, and it’s not what I’m interested in here.  You can read more of my thoughts on this here.

There is a lot more I could say about the difference between food photography on food blogs, commercial food photography and fine art photography, but I think you can get a sense of this from reading the comments on my previous post.  Food photos will always have a different purpose & use, and I think this is an important consideration.

My main point is this: I’m interested in taking more thoughtful and unique photos of food.  I want people to think about food photography differently – it’s more than simply showing you a completed, plated dish.  Find a way to tell a story and make people think.  Put away your precious spoons and mason jars and other props, and stop purposefully styling the food to look artfully messed-up.  It’s a tired look, and I’m excited to move beyond it.

Later this week, I’ll share some online links to food-related photography that inspires me.

42 Comments
  1. February 28, 2012 10:26 am

    fascinating discussion. mostly, i’m interested to see how this informs your work. lots to look forward to, i’m sure.

  2. February 28, 2012 10:27 am

    “Put away your precious spoons and mason jars and other props, and stop purposefully styling the food to look artfully messed-up. It’s a tired look, and I’m excited to move beyond it.”

    Exactly my thoughts. although, even as of most recently, I am guilty of that too. But I agree. Your previous post is making me rethink it all (I was rethinking it before) but something about your post galvanized me to think about it to the point of near-obsession.

  3. February 28, 2012 10:37 am

    Lots of people talk about food. Less people tell the stories behind that food. I’m pleased that you’re trying to.

  4. February 28, 2012 10:42 am

    I have to agree with Lucia, it is fun that you are trying to tell the behind the scenes of food and food preparation. I look forward to how this shapes your future work.

  5. February 28, 2012 10:48 am

    I really like what you said in your last post and I think it’s true, that these photos are much more interesting and more “real” because they capture the character of the restaurant and of the people in each photo. These pictures make you look twice. I think the reason why many photographers go with the mason jars and the well-placed streak of sauce is because photographing a real mess (like the overflowing jar in the photo above) and making it look beautiful is much harder. Can’t wait to see more inspiring food photos!

  6. February 28, 2012 10:55 am

    these are really great thoughts, brian. a really wonderful discussion as well. eggleston is my champion. i really like this quote re: his food photography… (found here: http://www.londonfoodfilmfiesta.co.uk/PHOTOGRAPHY/WILLIAM%20EGGLESTON.htm)

    “Behind [Eggleston’s] deceptive casualness lies an acute and instinctive sense of colour and form, and under his gaze the ordinary is invested with powerful significance.
”

  7. February 28, 2012 11:04 am

    i really enjoyed reading your last post, and this follow up. and i’m glad that you’ve shared images that are inspiring you – it makes the experience of reading your thoughts even more full, to see the type of work that you’re referring to. i’ve certainly been seeing food photography around the internet differently this past week. thank you for that.

  8. February 28, 2012 11:33 am

    You might enjoy the food photography done for the British redesign of Falcon Enamelware:

    http://www.septemberindustry.co.uk/morse-studio-new-website/

    Though most likely staged, it was some of the first ‘honest’ cooking photography I’ve seen.

  9. February 28, 2012 11:41 am

    I’ve long loved that picture of Fergus Henderson! It’s such a great proclamation of wit and character. I am very intrigued to see how you photographically develop this line of thought you are on, as it is an important one. Like many, of late I have felt that honesty, thoughtfulness and uniqueness have been slowly eroding as everyone careens through life at a frenetic pace. Does anyone truly stop and think anymore?

    I have also found that most food related pictures fail to invoke the 1000-words that imagery is alleged to paint. As a person who writes stuff, when a picture can only make me state ‘that’s nice’ or ‘yum’ I feel shortchanged. I want to be inspired to spout verse, lines upon lines of prose or literally feel my heart pound in it’s cage. Is that a selfish wish? I feel the old masters of photography were able to produce such a quality each and every time..

  10. February 28, 2012 11:55 am

    i didn’t comment but totally agree with your last post. one thing i have always wondered about food blogs – why are pancakes always photographed in stacks of like ten? with a perfect wedge cut out of all ten? does anyone actually eat them that way?

    miss you!

  11. February 28, 2012 12:33 pm

    I have to say, honestly, most food photography gives me indigestion and I loathe any meal, real or pictured, contrived to within an inch of abstraction. Actually, an inch is too generous.

    Stunning photographs of elegant simplicity.

  12. janet permalink
    February 28, 2012 12:35 pm

    This is great way to head. I like process. Growing, shopping, cleaning, chopping, mess, neatness, compost. This photo share is great. Your blog is very good. Thanks

  13. randall permalink
    February 28, 2012 1:03 pm

    Food as Fashion vs. plain old boring Food…

    Maybe this is a non-sequiter, because I don’t really know if I follow this idea or not, but…

    I read something somewhere (and for the life of me I can’t remember where) that you really only need a handful of kitchen utensils to make quality food and you can probably get all of those things for like 50 bucks at a restaurant supply store. The fetishization of food and food culture by “foodies” has kind of gotten a bit out of control (and I’ll admit that I may be guilty of this on occasion) and you’re right that it needs a more honest representation or on the other hand maybe it needs no representation at all.

    It’s not just a notion that is limited to food and I think that this may be where I sync with the idea, but it seems that there are a lot of people who just seem to jump on something because it is the flavor of the week and it seems like food is no exception.

    It’s kind of like when you go into someone’s kitchen and they’ve got all the “correct” appliances, viking range, sub zero fridge, granite counter tops, farm house sink, kitchen-aid mixer, wusthof knives, etc. all-clad pots and pans but you just know that that kitchen has never seen any real action besides reheating take-out leftovers and you definitely know that the owner doesn’t know what it is like to have roux burning on your hands.

    Anyway, that’s my inane rambling for the day. Thanks.

  14. February 28, 2012 1:49 pm

    Looking forward to seeing more of the food-related photography that you enjoy…thanks for sharing the book & images above.
    I really like the work of Aya Brackett…though her unique approach to styling is a significant component of her imagery, it doesn’t feel precious or overworked to me. I also adore the work of Marie-Pierre Morel (and all of Stephane Reynaud’s cookbooks that include Morel’s work).
    Thanks for starting a good (and important) conversation.

    • February 28, 2012 6:28 pm

      Lo,
      I enjoyed looking at Aya Brackett’s portfolio, thanks to your recommendation! I too enjoy Marie-Pierre Morel’s work, and love the sense of humor in Stephane Reynaud’s cookbooks.

  15. February 28, 2012 3:46 pm

    I’m really glad to have read this post, and the previous one – it’s such a refreshing discussion. I’m tired of the photography I see on food blogs, it all looks the same to me at the moment. But the photos you posted from St John are stunning. I love the humour and the story – everyone has a cheeky smile on their face, or a twinkle in their eye – and that’s what food should do – it should make you excited and happy. Thanks for being honest about your feelings – I love your photos and can’t wait to see more!

  16. February 28, 2012 4:38 pm

    a man after my own heart!

    i’ve a nigel slater book – a real favourite – called “thirst”, a book on juicing. the photographer angela moore (artist is probably more fitting) made brave, beautiful, sometimes messy but always WON-derful images of juicing equipment in other people’s kitchens, of windfall apples in less than fabulous lighting conditions, just beautiful. inspirational stuff.

    think we’re at a point when brave photographic choices need to be made in order to make a book/magazine piece into something else, to make us see the food in a different light. beyond nose to tail is a great book, lowe was really allowed to play.

    be brave, brian!

  17. February 28, 2012 6:06 pm

    This is fantastic! I’m a huge fan of Fergus Henderson (from afar, as I’ve never visited England), and didn’t know about this new book. I can’t wait to get my hands on it. Having just discovered Jason Lowe over at OEN, I’m excited to see more of his work. What better than images like these to illustrate your point? We mustn’t underestimate the importance of surprise and delight.

  18. February 28, 2012 6:21 pm

    I just read about this (actually, its predecessor) in Adam Gopik’s new book (The Table Comes First). Thanks for the peek. And yes – photography of all kinds should be genuine. Thanks for bringing this up for discussion.

  19. February 28, 2012 6:21 pm

    Gopnik, that is.

  20. February 28, 2012 9:40 pm

    again, a really interesting topic- I must say though, what I am over- is this semi-elitist current “realism”. That is becoming it’s own new trend. It’s almost as bad as the food movement itself in terms of organic, local, seasonal, etc etc. I think the current trend of “natural” photography, semi-documentary style of folks just eating as if it were so off hand… this perfect lifestyle….I’m kind of over the diptychs of everything and the oh so perfectness of it all. I think each time I shoot a plate of food-how do I want this to look, and what’s important about this? What does this mean? How does it please me? How will it please others, if it does at all. And where is the art in this, where is the food, what is the intention here…
    I really love your photography, but I also really love your thoughts. They are equal in a way…aren’t they? or at very least as important. Or perhaps more so the words or the intention behind the art. I dunno. I am wary of the “new” natural in it’s fad form as well as I am the overdone “messy, over-stylized” food shots with perfect antique spoons and twine. I think what you are doing is a break from all of it really. But, I also think once something really beautiful happens/is made- the rest results in over dramatized copies.
    There is a quiet on your photographs and a painterly effect that I absolutely love. I’ll end my rant with that…I hope to see more from you and well, AND others on their own creative bent exploring and showing their own visions artfully and not following the masses to replicate.

  21. February 29, 2012 2:04 am

    thank’ for sharing…

  22. February 29, 2012 2:47 am

    Also wanted to say thanks for being so brave with your thoughts. Their great! I have been so inspired by these discussions. Most of all I am grateful because it has reminded me to do my own thing, create things for myself not for an audience. It is a bit scary because it means exposing myself and being truthful with myself. Thanks again Mr B. Ferry!

  23. February 29, 2012 10:34 am

    I’m really loving this topic. I was thinking about how you described the St.John atmosphere, “clean and white”, “sterile” with “simple, surprising, honest food”. I like this because it becomes more about the food and the people you’re with. The atmosphere is important, as it should be, but it’s hard to really enjoy the food and feel comfortable when you’re distracted.

  24. February 29, 2012 1:35 pm

    Another reason to visit St. Johns next time I’m in London… that book looks ace!

    And about the food discussion, I’ll only say that even though I like the stage food photos, well, more than like, they really don’t bother me (maybe because I live alone and most of the time I cook only for myself and you have spice things up in your dish with a little decoration from time to time, it makes eating alone less dull… in my opinion). Regardless of all that, I totally get your point… I would love to see alternatives, especially from the people that are enjoying their meals with other humans beings… it’s always nice to feel an honest human touch here and there… food with soul. Yes, I’m up for it too! :)

  25. slategreystripes permalink
    February 29, 2012 2:23 pm

    “That meat looks just like wings…does anyone have a barbie to hand?”

  26. March 1, 2012 12:10 am

    This book is excellent ! And I like the idea of a story… A picture with a story… Thank you for the discussion !

  27. March 1, 2012 7:14 am

    I found this book a while ago at a UK car boot sale, imagine my surprise when she only charged me £3.00 for it!
    D x

  28. March 1, 2012 8:28 am

    I truly enjoy reading your thoughts on making photographs and happy to discover new photographers here as well. I like how Jason Lowe references nature and patterns in his food photographs, literally grounded the food in its source and how his photographs of food read like intimate artistic portraits of soup with fern-like garnishes, for example. Look forward to more photos and links. Enjoy your trip to London.

  29. March 2, 2012 1:33 am

    I love the simpleness of all of those photos. While I do wish that they were all in colour, the black and white does work very well. I think the first my favourite one is the one of the guy cutting, with the blurred knife.

  30. March 2, 2012 5:23 am

    Looking forward to that, Brian.

  31. Ben permalink
    March 3, 2012 1:47 pm

    If I was seeking more “honest” food photography, I’m not sure I would necessarily turn to Jason Lowe and/or the St John cookbook. Lowe, and more particularly St John, have perfected a brand. Look at the St John Hotel and the endless, recent Fergus Henderson media appearances. Lowe, meanwhile, seems to photograph nearly every major cookbook in the U.K. and even though there is variation, I do think he has a well-established “look” that gets repetitive and gives you the sense of him having a monopoly. His photography in cookbooks can seem to be more important than the recipes themselves, and certainly it’s responsible for so many being sold without people actually cooking more. Interesting BBC food programme on the topic here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00s54dg

    In the case of the second St John cookbook, Lowe’s photography is more unusual but I still feel the book is part of a branding exercise that the photography doesn’t altogether escape: the photo of a packet of branded “Trotter Gear”, that went on sale at Selfridges when the book was released and has a whole section devoted to cooking with it (http://www.stjohnbreadandwine.com/more/news/?id=57&StartRow=106); the very posed photograph of Fergus Henderson with a slice of cake; the little prune buns photo that seems to take care to include the label of the St John house wine and also seems contrived.

    Of course, a lot of the photos of the actual food are fantastic. My favorite’s the steamed lemon and vanilla syrup sponge, which has amazing coloring.

    Have you seen Paul Bertolli’s “Cooking by Hand”, with its beautiful photography by Gail Skoff and Judy Dater in a neat layout?

    • March 15, 2012 9:41 pm

      Ben,
      By “honest”, I do not mean to suggest that photography must stand apart from a brand or avoid selling something. Also, I don’t think selling something or being commercial (or “perfecting a brand”) is inherently dishonest. I guess a better word for what I’m after is “unique” – and I think the second St. John cookbook is a good example of unique, cheeky, thoughtful food photography. I don’t really need to see a photo of the finished dish to be inspired, myself. Posed photographs are not the issue, in my eyes: instead, I’m talking about photos that look like every other photograph out there.

      The St. John cookbook is the result of a successful restaurant; of course the St. John logo and certain aspects of their brand identity will be in the shots. I quite like this.

      I’ll have to check out “Cooking by Hand” – thanks for the rec.

  32. March 6, 2012 2:01 am

    Food photography, a subset of photography at large, is art – subjective to interpretation and appreciation. I would knock mason jars, paper straws and the propped-styled/staged-but-trying-not-to-look-like-so trend because that is really just one small stream running off an entire ocean.

    Thank you for following up on your previous post. I think if we all look far enough, we shouldn’t tire ourselves with the boundaries of twine-wrapped napkins and antique spoons. But how we express ourselves may be limited to a certain style – even your work is just a niche in the diversity that is art.

  33. settleandchase permalink
    March 6, 2012 9:41 am

    great shots..this book looks great! I just love Jason Lowe’s photographs – completely real.

  34. March 7, 2012 7:00 pm

    After seeing this, I’m so for sure gonna get that cookbook. Looks so charming and real. I was also reading your other post about food photography and I’m starting to feel famished with creative, true picture making. Thanks for putting this at the forefront; need to definitely figure this ish out.

  35. March 13, 2012 2:49 am

    admissions: a) i’ve been following your blog for quite a few years and love your photography b) i haven’t looked at it in a couple of weeks, so i missed the realistic/ugly food discussion c) most importantly, the first thing i noticed when looking at this post was your fingers on the book d) my initial reaction was that you have extraordinarily ugly/fantastic fingers, and i continued to scroll down just to see them, overlooking all the food images.

    it made me smile to then find out the topic was a real portrayal of food.

    your point has been made: ugliness is much more mesmerizing than perfection. well played.

  36. blackberriesandbloodoranges permalink
    May 10, 2012 5:35 pm

    Thank you for this and the earlier post. I am coming to them a bit late but they put into language and reinforce many thoughts I have been having about food photography/blogs for a while. I am so tired of the twee place settings and sprigs of lavender coupled with editing that just makes the whole thing look too bright, almost overexposed. I think that anyone who has worked in a professional kitchen (restaurant or bakery) might have a different relationship to photographing the process of and/or the end result of cooking or baking. At least, that is what I, as a baker, tend to find in my own food photography. More texture and grittiness, an unwillingness to want everything to be a smooth, perfect surface and striving (whether intentional or not) to reflect the labor and personality that go into everything that is produced in a kitchen.

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