The Evolution of Food Photography

What’s the value of an image in the age of social media? How good was Irving Penn, really? What was in the ice cream? Five pros go deep underground to dish it out.

Food Photography Round Table
Photo: Landon Nordeman

Little-known fact: Food personality and F&W contributor Andrew Zimmern wrote his college thesis on the daguerreotype, the first commercially available photograph. That’s one reason why I invited him, along with photographer Christina Holmes, chef and influencer Camille Becerra, and food stylist Victoria Granof, to join me to talk about the evolution of food photography. The medium has changed more in the past 10 years—due in part to digital tech, social media, and more sophisticated food consumers—than any other time in the 192-year history of the photograph.

We convened in a brick-arched room 30 feet below the streets of Brooklyn, in a former 1850s-era brewery most recently reinvented as a cheese-aging facility called Crown Finish Caves. Ripe with history, it felt like the right setting for our talk. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Faking It

Hunter Lewis: Victoria, were there really mashed potatoes in the ice cream 20 years ago?

Victoria Granof: It wasn’t mashed potatoes. It was Crisco, Karo syrup, and powdered sugar.

Camille Becerra: Who invented that formula?

Granof: The biggest cokehead food stylist in L.A. He was a genius, and he was so out of his mind. Half the time, I was like, “Is he serious? Am I supposed to mix the Crisco and powdered sugar?” Everything back then was slow, slow, slow because our eyes could appreciate one image on good paper. That image was more valuable than the millions of images and all of this content that we have to create now. You would have one day to do maybe four images. [Now it’s twice that.] In the ’90s, I would have to keep the food looking perfect and unflawed. You’d have to work through 50 baguettes to get one with the right holes.

Christina Holmes: I remember loading the 4-by-5 camera shots when I was an assistant in my first job.

Granof: Remember the Polaroid test? You would have to wait for a minute and a half if it was a black-and-white Polaroid, two and a half for color. And it was like, dun, dun, dun, the longest two and a half minutes of your life. People ask me, “What was Irving Penn like?” He would shoot film and then send that out. Whatever he’d photograph would come back, and a good 50 percent of the time, it was done. It would be 11 a.m., and he’d say, “Alright. I have it.” And then we’d leave because he had it and he knew it, and he was willing to say, “This is the way it is.” We had the luxury of having a client [Vogue] that agreed.

Andrew Zimmern: Well, no one was going to say to Irving Penn, “Eh, could the bread look a little more breadier? It looks a little staid. It looks a little messy.” You’re actually paying for him to say, “That’s it.”

Lewis: Is that pure experience and confidence to know when to stop?

Granof: Exactly. It’s taking the risk of stopping.

Becerra: Yeah, or having the voice to say that you know that you got it.

Lewis: Is there more truth in food imagery now? The American consumer is different.

Granof: They see so many pictures that they know what’s real. So when I’m styling something, I have to make it look real because everyone knows what “real” looks like now. They know what a cheesecake will do, and how it behaves, and the little crumbs that fall off of it and the little bits that stick to the knife. They want to see that or they think they’re being lied to. Food has become something that we can enjoy passively, like you would enjoy painting or sculpture or—

Becerra: Music.

Zimmern: I look at it as pop music.

Granof: It’s pop culture.

The Insta Era

Lewis: Camille, what did you take a picture of today?

Becerra: I just took a stop-motion video of everyone here at the roundtable.

Lewis: Are we becoming more of a video culture rather than a picture culture?

Becerra: I feel like Stories don’t have to be so permanent and perfect and—

Granof: Fake.

Becerra: We’ll just stay “styled.”

Holmes: I like to say “considered.”

Granof: Nobody takes pictures of the garbage in the sink.

Becerra: That’s why Stories are so good. They are the garbage in the sink.

Granof: I still think people shine their copper before they put it in the sink.

Zimmern: The iPhone’s only 10 years old, right? Once the iPhone came out, everything went from 10 miles an hour to a thousand miles an hour. More people in some countries in Africa have phones that are photo-capable than have electricity.

Granof: Wow.

Zimmern: Part of the social media phenomenon in America is our desire to see pictures of ourselves and know the world in a way that we couldn’t before. We devour it at high speed, and it’s disposable, and a lot of it is, “Look at me.”

Holmes: It’s the new world of photography.

Zimmern: Last night at dinner, at a restaurant that’s only two or three weeks old, the server said, “This is our best pasta, and this is my favorite entrée. Don’t miss this.” I asked him a question about one of the dishes and he said, “Oh, that’s our most Instagrammed dish.” I had never heard a server say that before. My jaw hit the floor.

Granof: I have a whole bunch of Spanish lawyers following me on Instagram all of a sudden. It’s social currency. What was our social currency before?

Becerra: Bars. Movie theaters.

Lewis: Charm.

Granof: Culture. Knowledge.

To Shoot, or Not to Shoot?

Lewis: Marco Canora put cigar boxes on the table at Hearth, basically saying, “Put your phone away and engage.” What should picture-taking etiquette be in a public space?

Becerra: It depends who you’re going out to eat with. If you’re with friends, there’s kind of an unwritten rule: “Okay, you love it. Take a quick picture.” But it’s not easy to take a good photo because of the lighting, because of the table surface, because of the plates, because of the utensils. More than anything, the goal of the design of my restaurant De Maria was to allow people to take a beautiful picture of the food. It was about, “Hey, when I go out to eat, I want to take a nice picture and all the elements are wrong.” Why not make it easier for someone?

Granof: There’s a restaurant in Bushwick, Brooklyn, called Carthage Must Be Destroyed. It’s one of the most picturesque restaurants ever, and they have a strict no-photography policy. There’s three shots of that restaurant and everybody’s posting the same shots, so it’s not even their experience.

Zimmern: I feel compelled to document 90 percent of what I’m eating. But I don’t do it like Yoshiro Nakamatsu, the Japanese inventor who photographs literally everything he eats. He has the photos in this giant warehouse, and you could go through and look: curry and rice, broiled mackerel. He says that he is going to live to be 144 years old because of his diet. It’s important to him to see where he ate, how he ate, what changed at what age.

Amateur Hour

Becerra: When I first started on Instagram, I was like, “I want to be a better photographer, and this is a platform for me to do this.” I would take three pictures a day. I was very intent on learning by putting my stuff out there. It’s a different picture when I share it with 4,000 people. It pushed me to understand photography.

Zimmern: I’m not a good picture taker. I don’t use filters. My whole thing is, I’m with a lost tribe in the Amazon that nobody has access to but me, and there’s a 90-year-old medicine man and there’s a 3-year-old llama fetus that was buried in the ground, and now they’re boiling soup with it, and we’re all going to drink this stuff. And so I can make something sticky by attaching a story to it. But a great photographer can put a story into the image itself.

Holmes: Okay, so what makes a professional? I was on a flight coming back to New York. A guy next to me said, “Oh, what do you do for a living?” And I said, “I’m a photographer.” And he said, “Well, what kind? Are you a real photographer or are you a fake photographer?” I didn’t know how to respond to that.

Granof: What did he think a fake photographer was?

Holmes: An Instagrammer. We’re in a moment where you don’t have to apprentice anymore. It’s such a departure, but also it creates a huge opportunity because you have a platform.

Granof: The equipment doesn’t require you to spend 10 years as an apprentice.

Holmes: Well, look back to the end of the 19th century, when the first Kodak point-and-shoot cameras were put out there. They had the same opportunity, and they didn’t have to know how to take pictures.

Zimmern: Go back 50 years earlier when the medium was actually invented. Professionals didn’t know what they were doing. The big dirty secret is that the professionals were the ones who could afford to buy the equipment and learn how to use it. Around the 1880s, as more people began dabbling, we start to see photographers whose work has an artistic aesthetic, and that’s when things begin to change.

Lewis: Tell us about your college thesis.

Zimmern: It was called “The Daguerreotype: Genetic Predecessor to the Photograph and Its Ramifications Towards Defining Cultural Nationalism in America.”

Becerra: What.

Granof: Is that published somewhere?

Zimmern: I’ll publish it for you for one perfect baguette slice.

The Bottom Line

Lewis: How do you create an image of lasting value?

Granof: Dollar value? Emotional value?

Lewis: Time value. Time spent looking at it.

Zimmern: It has to tell a story, especially when it comes to food. I’ve been saying it for 20 years: Food is good. Food with a story is better. Food with a story you’ve never heard of is best of all, and food with a story you’ve never heard of but that you can relate to is the holy grail.

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