40 Photographs That Changed the Way We Eat
“Milk Drop Coronet,” 1957, Harold Edgerton
Edgerton, an electrical engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, experimented with shutter motors and strobe lights to capture this millisecond in a milk drop’s splatter—a moment frozen in time. His milk photos led to the development of the electronic flash, forever changing photography.
Julia Child on the Set of The French Chef, 1963, Paul Child
On her first cooking show after publishing her landmark book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child made cooking fun and fearless. Child’s husband took this photo at a promo shoot, which poked fun at the amount of work it took to produce the show. The tight behind-the-scenes work paved the way for how cooking shows are made today.
Latte Art At Third Rail, 2010, Ashley Gilbertson
Credit for the way we drink coffee in America today goes to the baristas and shift managers and small-shop owners who decided that OK wasn’t good enough, that every cappuccino could—and should—be tasty and memorable, an expression of craft and technique. This change didn’t come from the large-scale chains attuned to the bottom line; it came from the nerds who couldn’t help themselves, who took a job working behind a counter and realized that coffee could be art. — Oliver Strand
Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-Ins, 1960, Jack Moebes
When Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Billy Smith, and Clarence Henderson took their seats at the whites-only counter at Woolworth, the waitresses ignored their coffee and food orders. They stayed put until closing and returned the next day. Photos of their sit-in ignited a movement: A few days later, 300 people showed up to peacefully protest the segregated establishment. Their collective efforts ultimately led to desegregation–first of the Woolworth lunch counter, on July 25, 1960, and later of the country at large.
“Stilleben,” 1910 , Wladimir Schohin
In a single frame, photographer Wladimir Schohin advanced photography by successfully rendering color. He relied on autochrome, a notoriously difficult process that uses a food product, potato starch, to produce pigment. “[It] marked a distinct change from photographic still lives of the 19th century and rejected the allegorical traditions of painting,” writes curator Susan Bright for aperture.org.
Dinner As Diplomacy, 1972 , Ollie Atkins
When President Richard Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai sat down together in Shanghai—the first rapprochement in 25 years—it was at a 600-person banquet. Atkins was one of six American photographers allowed to cover the meal, which included dumplings, fried rice, and shark’s fin soup. Nixon’s favorite was Peking duck, and Americans took note: After the dinner, Chinese restaurants in the U.S. were mobbed by diners wanting a taste. The banquet sealed Nixon’s reputation as a statesman in an election year and made inroads for the growth of Chinese cuisine in America.
Small Farm Chicken at Buvette, 2014, Gentl and Hyers
In this image, which harks back to Carey’s work, warm, dappled light gives the form of a slaughtered hen a sense of energy and grace. It’s a prime example of a knack for framing beauty that has made Andrea Gentl and Martin Hyers such sought-after photographers—you can see their work on magazine covers across the nation.
Outstanding in the Field, 2017
If there’s a moment that summarizes the farm-to-table movement, it’s this: a long table, laden with food harvested from neighboring fields, presided over by a local chef, to raise money for the community—in this case, for Northern California wine country fire relief. The moment—and the photo—was organized by Outstanding in the Field, which has been organizing open-air meals since 1999.
Marco Pierre White, circa 1990 , Bob Carlos Clarke
For about a year, Clarke, a fashion photographer, was a fly on the wall at Harveys, Marco Pierre White’s first restaurant after training under Pierre Koffmann and Nico Ladenis. Their collaboration led to White Heat, part autobiography, part cookbook. The dynamic photos of White and his crew helped attract a new generation to the culinary field but also helped popularize the image of the “bad boy” chef, glorifying a kitchen culture of chauvinism and substance abuse that persists today.
Danny Meyer, 1985
Before Eleven Madison Park, Shake Shack, or Gramercy Tavern, there was Union Square Cafe. Here, first-time restaurateur Meyer, 27, stands in front of the space that would launch the influential Union Square Hospitality Group, whose award-winning restaurants continue to pave the way for the industry, from growing chefs like Tom Colicchio to championing the no-tipping movement.
Food Magazine Covers
Some magazine covers can feel formulaic— grabby cover lines, a close-up of a familiar dish. But these three magazines broke the mold: For 68 years, Gourmet magazine showcased gorgeous photography with its incredibly minimal yet modern covers. Cherry Bombe brought a flash of fashion, putting emerging female leaders—like model turned cookbook author Chrissy Teigen—on its covers and kick-starting a conversation about women in food that’s especially relevant today. And just a day before shipping the first issue of Lucky Peach, art director Walter Green handwrote cover lines over a photo of raw chickens, rejecting the restrained austerity of covers and inviting more fun and experimentation.
“Frozen Foods,” 1977 , Irving Penn
One hundred and sixty five—that’s the number of covers Irving Penn shot for Vogue during his 66-year run at the fashion magazine. However, for food photographers and stylists today, works like this sculpture of frozen food influenced every generation that followed. “I enjoy the simplified aesthetic of his work,” says photographer Jen Causey. “I hope that translates to my work.” Food stylist Victoria Granof (see “On Food Photography,”) worked alongside Penn for a decade at Vogue, and this sense of just-enough is his signature. “From him, I learned how to pare an image down to its essence, when enough is enough, and how to compose an image that directs the viewer’s eye to what you want them to see,” says Granof.
Waters & Chez Panisse Staff, 1982, Susan Wood
When Alice Waters opened her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse in 1971, the first dinner menu consisted of pâté en croute, canard aux olives, plum tart, and café, priced at $3.95. The dishes seemed simple, but the ingredients were revolutionary. Take the canard aux olives: while other restaurants at the time served duck dishes using frozen poultry, Waters bought fresh ducks from Chinatown earlier that morning. Waters’ insistence on the best, freshest ingredients established her as a pioneer in the farm-to-table movement. Chez Panisse’s success—captured here by photographer Susan Wood as the staff raised a glass of champagne to ring in New Year’s Day, 1982—paved the way for the farm-to-table movement, and the ascent of organic food in America.
“Still Life With Waterfowl,” 1873 , Charles Philippe Auguste Carey
One of the earliest photographers, Carey helped establish the artistic possibilities of the new medium. “The thing that makes Carey’s work so amazing is that food, separated by centuries, is the same in its most raw form,” says photographer Andrea Gentl. “This should be a reminder that, in spite of our smartphones and drones, we are living, breathing people, like our ancestors, and that should help to remind us that all people of the earth share these primal, basic needs.”
Apple Pyequick, 1947 , Victor Keppler
An early adopter of color photography, Victor Keppler used the technology to produce this image, used by General Mills to promote Apple Pyequick pie mix. Though convincingly realistic, it uses only four colors.
The Cereal Gun, General Mills, 1958
"The technology that defined what we eat for breakfast was the explosive puffing gun, which made possible the airy, crispy, toasty puffs that now dominate the cereal aisle. In this photo, Cheerios explode out of a General Mills breakfast cereal puffing gun. I love everything about this photo: the safety goggles, the sense of excitement, and the crazy explosion of breakfast cereal." —Peter J. Kim, Executive Director, Museum of Food and Drink
Menestra En Texturas, 1994 , Francesc Guillamet
In this total reimagining of a classic vegetable stew—featuring almond sorbet; a variety of vegetable mousses, purees, and granitas; basil water; and beet foam—elBulli chef Ferran Adrià applied new techniques and played with texture, appearance, and (most important) a diner’s expectations. With it, a new era of conceptual food began, shifting from a focus on Mediterranean flavors to what was later dubbed “techno-emotional cuisine,” igniting a culinary revolution around the world. — Sofia Perez
The Judgment of Paris, 1976, Bella Spurrier
No one took Englishman Steven Spurrier seriously when he hosted a blind taste test at his Paris wine shop. Only one journalist showed up to the event, and the judges, all French oenophiles, expected the French wines to win. To everyone’s shock, the California wines—a 1973 Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena and 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag’s Leap—came in first. In a moment, California wines were catapulted to the world stage.
“Lemonade and Fruit Salad,” circa 1943 , Nickolas Muray
From 1935 through the ’50s, Hungarian-born Muray took color photographs for the popular American women’s magazine McCall’s. Using the three-color carbro process, Muray photographed bright, colorful spreads that demonstrated the importance of presentation.
Le Pavillon, 1962, Ralph Morse
When Henri Soulé came to the U.S. to run a restaurant at the French pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair, he ignited a love of French cuisine that persists to this day. After the fair ended, he opened Le Pavillon in New York, which launched the U.S. careers of greats like Pépin and Roger Fessaguet and set a new fine-dining standard.
Lady Gaga Wearing Steak, 2010 , Frederick M. Brown
Food in fashion made a big statement in Lady Gaga’s “meat dress,” worn to the MTV Video Music Awards. Styled by Nicola Formichetti, the outfit was criticized by animal rights activists. Lady Gaga wore the dress to protest the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Chef Leah Chase, 2013 , Robbie Caponetto
Dooky Chase’s opened in 1941, and it quickly became a meeting place for all of New Orleans. Five years later, entrepreneur Leah Lange–who held jobs waitressing, managing boxers, and more—married into the Chase family, stepped into the kitchen, and grew the sandwich shop into a restaurant that put Creole home cooking on the map. Chase, 95, still runs the kitchen.
Argentinian Matambre, 1964 , John Dominis
For Life’s “Great Dinners” series, the magazine featured festive meals, like matambre, a roll of flank steak stuffed with vegetables and chiles from Argentina. Like Modernist Cuisine would decades later, to get up close, Dominis sawed the vessel in half. But the extra flourish of smoke—cigarette smoke, to be exact—is all his own.
Sliced Weber, 2011 , Ryan Matthew Smith
These mind-blowing images for Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine were made by splicing over 30 takes into one image. Smith’s team used a band saw to slice grills, woks, and more in half to capture the dynamism of the cooking process.
“Trail’s End Restaurant, Kanab, Utah,” 1973, Stephen Shore
In today’s Instagram age, the act of photographing a meal is common. But back then, it wasn’t so. Photographer Stephen Shore told The Guardian, “Food was an aspect of daily life I hadn’t seen photographed much.” Drawn to the melting butter, cored cantaloupe, and Formica table, he said, “This was what America looked like then.”
Coffee And Cigarettes, 2003
The 2003 film Coffee and Cigarettes, directed by Jim Jarmusch, was composed of eleven vignettes, each focusing on everyday interactions that occur while people drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. While the actors in each vignette change — ranging from Bill Murray to Iggy Pop — the visual style remains consistent. The film is shot entirely in black and white and every segment includes a long, lingering shot of coffee and cigarettes, sometimes haphazardly sprawled across a diner table, other times set neatly atop a silver platter. Though not focused on food per se, those striking birds-eye views of the table influenced a rising generation of food photographers, who adopted a similar perspective in their own work.
#pizza, 2015 , Rick Poon
With almost 30 million public posts, # pizza is among the most popular food hashtags on Instagram. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Taking pictures of food has become so ubiquitous that it’s rare to eat a meal without seeing a flash go off. Now, diners go out of their way for a doughnut they saw on their feed, and chefs create “Instagrammable” menu items, proving social media has an undeniable impact on the way we eat.
More than just cameo appearances, food and drink have become essential characters on screen. In the 1990s, “hangout” sitcoms like Friends cast food establishments as communal gathering centers rather than solely spots for power lunches and dates. The 2004 film Sideways, which chronicles two friends on a weeklong road trip through California’s wine country, did more than earn an Oscar—it transformed the wine industry. Winemakers credit the movie with the rise of Pinot Noir. (Sales increased by 16 percent from 2005 through 2008.) And throughout the 2000s, Carrie Bradshaw and her girl gang in Sex and the City were often seen sipping these pink cocktails in martini glasses: Cosmopolitans, made with citrus-flavored vodka, Cointreau, cranberry juice, and lime. It came to represent a New York City lifestyle accessible to women everywhere—it was much more feasible to order a Cosmo at the local bar than to drop $500 on a pair of Manolo Blahnik pumps.
Photographers Get Jiggly With It
The process of producing gelatin by extracting collagen from animal bones was time-consuming and expensive, yet the invention of instant gelatin in the early 1900s made congealed dishes more accessible. Fast, easy, and cost-effective, instant gelatin enabled home cooks to mold entire meals and remake leftovers into a brand-new dish. Jellied salads became particularly popular in the period after World War II with the help of Jell-O’s bright, snappy marketing, as the photographic legacy of the era attests: Americans were obsessed with Jell-O. It was economical to make, tasty to eat, and impressive to photograph.
“A Half-Mile of Pork,” circa 1894, B.L. Singley
In this photo of a slaughterhouse, made to be viewed in an early 3-D photo viewer, “the lines between art and documentary are blurred,” writes curator Susan Bright in Feast for the Eyes. A decade after this photo, similar coverage of slaughterhouses prompted Americans to question the cleanliness of their meat, leading to the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 and the creation of the FDA.
Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book , 1954
Betty Crocker, a made-up character created by the flour-milling business Washburn Crosby Company, epitomized the American homemaker. In 1950, the first edition of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book was published with colorful, bountiful images. The pictures (used here with permission from Feast for the Eyes), which promised readers they could create big, beautiful feasts, embody the opulent postwar mind-set.
La Technique, 1976 , Léon Perrer
In 1976, chef Jacques Pépin published La Technique, which cataloged almost 200 of the most important culinary techniques. The groundbreaking set of photos by Perer, above (republished with permission from Feast for the Eyes) helped Americans learn how to cook through close-ups of Pépin’s hands executing every step of each process, from hollowing out artichokes to trimming shell steak.
Though recipes were long shared orally, home cooks began writing down recipes as literacy rates increased. Then, as Americans became more interested in nutrition in the early 20th century, companies like Weight Watchers began offering recipe cards (like those shown here, excerpted from the history of food photography, Feast for the Eyes) with precise amounts and detailed directions. Subscribers received stacks of cards to trade with friends—and started writing down their own recipes to pass on.