Some thoughts on food and photographs, and food photography

The Observer Food Monthly, one of the best food-related publications available online, recently held a food photography competition. The results have been posted, and all the winning and runner-up photos are terrific. The winner of the "Food Glorious Food" category, a very humorous arrangement of some jelly babies, made me laugh out loud, but the one that struck me the most is the overall winner, a beautiful black and white photo by Ikuko Tsuchiya titled "The Widow in her kitchen".

It really made me re-think the nature of most of the photographs I've been posting here. I've gone mostly for the sort of "food porn" shot, especially since I got my serious SLR some months ago: part of the picture in focus, the rest blurred, everything made to look very, well, pornographic. It's disembodied food. It's the style popularized by many food magazines, and it does work well provided one has a decent camera with a macro lens, or at least some sort of good macro option. But it's not all there is to food. Food is not just there to be gazed at; it's there to be eaten, interacted with, and enjoyed.

One of the more linked-to posts here on Just Hungry is my how-to about taking photos on the road. I think that I over-emphasized the technical aspects of photo taking, which wasn't quite my intention. I do like the food-porn shot especially when it is done exceptionally well, but it is bothering me slightly that this is the only style that seems to be around these days, both online and on paper.

One reason I love taking photos at markets is because you can see people interacting with food. Whether it's the vendors lauding their wares, or the people earnestly examining it, it's a wonderful, human, scene.

I've been slowly organizing my digital photo album since it went over the 10,000 file mark. I have tons and tons of food porn pictures in there. But the ones that made me stop and smile were the ones that had people in them. People enjoying food. A lot of them aren't as beautiful as the food porn ones - the early ones in particular have various problems with red-eye and such - but they bring back all kinds of memories. Here are a couple:


This must have been taken in 2000 or so, before my mother and stepfather sold their old house. My sister, mother (in the middle) and stepfather are enjoying a lobster feast - my mom in particular! I can't remember a more delicious lobster than the one I had that day. Not the best of pictures by any means (I took it with my first digital camera ever, a clunky Agfa model) but the moment is priceless for me.

Olive man, Nyons, Provence, France, June 2006

This olive seller at the market in Nyons, France was positively poetic as he described just how his hand-cured olives and handmade tapenade was superior.

While many photos here will continue to be of the "Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my" closeup variety, I think that I am going to try to incorporate a few more images here at least of food with the people who eat it or produce it. It is part of the storytelling process.

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i'm totally with you on that, and in fact have been working up a post on this very subject. the technical aspects don't concern me so much--not in my photos nor others; i'm more interested in the amateur shots of people enjoying their food or interacting with others these days, and am charmed when i find a foodblogger unconcerned with looking "professional."

santos, I occasionally get email from new food bloggers and such saying how their photos are "bad" etc - and this does bother me a bit. I am more interested in the stories they have to tell. While I do love looking at fantastically photographed food pics as much as anyone, I guess what makes a food blog worth re-visiting for me again and again is the writing, above all else.

(I do make an exception for the extraordinary photos of people like Keiko at Nordjus of course...but she is a true artist, both as a photographer and as a food stylist. Same for Nicky and Oliver at delicious.days, ...and there are several others)

In any case, I'm really glad that the Observer food photo contest highlighted the ones with a really human presence, and I'm hoping that some of that influences food photos we see on blogs and other places.

Good call, Maki. Although close up food porn shots always capture my attention because they look so beautiful, the gritty shots of street stalls or market or people enjoying dinner with friends tell you just as much about the food and, more importantly, why we love food. That's why I love the photos featured in Robyn's Eating Asia blog because so many of them involve the locals, either eating or selling.

Cin, Eating Asia is indeed a great example - thanks for reminding me! Another one is noodlepie - even though Graham has now relocated to France, I hope he keeps on writing and photographing street food.

"A poorly made picture that moves us is worth hundreds of empty masterpieces of technique."
- David Vestal

Great quote Nadia!

One thing about the close-up photo shot though - it's more convenient to shoot one of those for a recipe entry, since the food is there, rather than to wait for the human interaction...

I agree with you in that it is important to humanise people's relationship to food but you have to consider the context in which imagery is presented.

'Food porn' shot using macro lenses and that takes advantage of camera movements on large format are only styles and their application depends on whether they're accompanying a recipe in a magazine, a themed editorial assignment as much as they are about the photographer's personal style and approach to the subject.

Alex, I agree that it is a certain style. I use that style most often on this site myself - it's a great way to literally get close up to food. However, I think that alternate styles are sorely missing, in food magazines and online. It's not that easy to get good interaction-shots, but I'd love to see more of them. Also as santos said it's not necessary for new food bloggers to strive always for the food porn shot in my opinion - as long as the stories they have to tell are compelling.

Hi Maki ~ Would love to know what your reaction is to the new photography style in Gourmet. Maybe it would be a good follow-up post to this one, which I found fascinating (and just forwarded to a couple of people after taking note of it when first posted).

Alanna, just briefly I think Gourmet's new style is pretty interesting. It makes food seem less unreal somehow, and quite artistic.