A new wave of projects and commissions that utilise food as a material in itself are being cooked up in the world of food photography and styling. Imagery is both real and fantastical, edible yet conceptual – but not always aiming to tingle the taste-buds. Contradictory as this might seem, there is a growing trend for food being used more creatively, as a prop, to set the scene, or in new experimental forms.
From self-initiated art projects through to fashion advertising and editorial shoots, expect the unexpected, with graphically-led compositions and messy, stomach-churning styles.
“Food styling is still quite new, I know it’s popping up more and more, but in terms of how much depth there is to it, it’s still relatively unexplored,” says food stylist and chef Iain Graham. “I’ve got into it at a time when it’s blossoming, from making props to fashion stuff.”
“There are so many things you can do with food – the colours and the textures. It brings some personality to the products,” says photographer Aaron Tilley, who has worked with Graham before on foodie shoots for the likes of contemporary food and culture journal The Gourmand and lifestyle mag Kinfolk.
“I just think of it like a really fun material,” says illustrator Kyle Bean, who often set designs for Graham and Tilley’s shoots. “Because it’s something that everybody comes into contact with every day, it’s got that relatability.”
Art director Gemma Fletcher agrees: “As more people want to run ads in different spaces, it’s a nice element that is universally interesting because it affects everybody,” she says. Only recently working on food related projects, Fletcher is already recognising a growing demand for more conceptual styles across the industry. “I think The Gourmand are really setting the tone for food photography…. [Founder David Lane] has just got an ability to really help distil an idea into its pure essence. I think that’s what’s so good about the photography in that magazine because it’s so conceptually strong but as simple as it possibly can be.”
Highly conceptual, abstract styles are, perhaps surprisingly, even making their way into some cookery books, aiming to catch the attention of readers through displaying ingredients in unusual or innovative ways without relying on traditional meal-based imagery.
“Photographer Carl Kleiner did a cookbook for Ikea, where he turned flour into geometric shapes, and organised it with lines of raisins and things,” Bean describes. “ It didn’t make you think ‘I want to eat that’ – it doesn’t look delicious. It’s fascinating that you can make something very graphic out of food. It also makes you think of Ikea – you don’t think of Ikea as having delicious food, it’s a very efficient Swedish system.”
Food imagery is no longer used only to entice you to eat. It’s a feast for the eyes but not always for the belly, with unconventional presentation and fantastical creations being the new flavours of the month.
“Aaron and I did a shoot last year for The Gourmand – a ridiculous idea. It was forbidden fruit, with a series of different fruits with self-defense mechanisms – a pear with pins coming out of it, so a ‘prickly pair’, and a floating orange in flames, like a fireball, which we had covered in lighter fluid – it was all real. In no way did it make you think ‘mmm, I want to eat that’, it just became the material,” Bean describes. “It’s all about the theatre and doing stuff with food that you wouldn’t expect.”
Graham too is well known for his imaginative food styling, from an octopus candelabra for Cidade, the Brazilian equivalent of Harrods, to crafting games from food for Kinfolk, where, in collaboration with Bean and Tilley, he has created pork pie dice and Turkish Delight checkers.
These more experimental projects go against the super slick, over-photoshopped food imagery still evident in some mainstream advertising, where it isn’t clear whether there was any real food photographed at all.
“It’s a reaction to that – making it more obvious that this is real, not trickery,” Bean says.
Graham agrees: “I think that takes the fun out of it, if it turns out you just cheated,” he says. “The expectation from the photographer is that [the stylist] makes something amazing not ‘cheap’.
Images might be cleaned up in post, but authenticity is the preference for the content. Gone are the days of heating up a wet tampon in the microwave to produce localised steam – artificiality is out and indulgence, playfulness and creative curiosities are in.
“I think we are going to see more expressive and messy food shoots. You’re seeing it a bit more with Root and Bone magazine,” Fletcher says, “appealing to all the senses, but more extreme.… For example, photographer Maisie Cousins’ aesthetic isn’t about anything technical, it’s about being raw, visceral and playing with textures.”
In today’s hyper-visual world, with more screens being checked more frequently, imagemakers need to find new ways to communicate in the saturated landscape of food porn and dinner plate snaps.
“Because, 1 – things have to work on a smaller screen with everyone using mobiles to interact with things; and 2 – because of the whole anti-perfection thing they get bored of seeing the same things all the time,” Fletcher suggests. “If you see something extreme or visceral you get drawn into it, whereas there’s so much white noise the rest of the time.”
“It’s slightly shocking,” Bean agrees. “As you are so used to seeing food presented to you in a way that makes you want to eat it. It’s interesting to see it presented to you in a way that makes you feel a bit ill.”
Rather than incentivising the viewer to eat, these new aesthetic forms aim to provoke a different type of reaction. It is about being highly sensory, and even sometimes still about taste, but not grounded in appetite-based desire. It is a style that could seem antithetical to food brands at first, but looks set to be an interesting shift in visual communication beyond just food related industries.
- Pluto – Chocolate bombe, with sprayed tempered 80% chocolate
- Mars – Trifle, with a jelly core, layered custard and sponge, and a burnt Italian meringue crust
- Saturn – Matcha mousse cake, with a white chocolate core, layered matcha mousse, sponge, and grated pistachio and ground almond rings
- Mercury – Treacle tart, with a brandy snap core and clotted cream and oat crunch crust
“Kyle is the master of all the architecture, making sure everything is structurally sound, and Iain made all the edible elements,” Fletcher says. “We used school science diagrams as our main reference.”
“We were thinking of the ones which display different sections of planet, where you see a chunk taken out of a planet and there’s the core, the magma layer, the crust, what they are all made of – the composition of each planet,” Bean describes.
“Inside there’s different layers of polystyrene spheres. So I made this rig and then Iain came over to my studio and measured it all up … then he would make his stuff to the exact same size as this,” Bean continues. “All of what you can see in the shot is edible.”
“There are lights from the top … a flag to graduate the background, darken it and add mood at the top … stands and supports for the cake …and we are shooting through a trace frame, which softens the gridded light, almost as if it is coming from the sun,”
“We wanted there to be still an element of the kitchen, even though it is set in space, so there’s something that grounds it in reality,” Graham describes. “So we thought black marble, because it has that slightly celestial look.”
Only a few minor tricks were used to create the Space Cakes. In order to get the Mars jelly cores out of the mould an unpleasant amount of gelatin was used, Graham admitted. He also shattered the illusion of the perfect chocolate bombe bubbles by cracking the edible shell to reveal colourful balls from a children’s ball-pool within.
Photographer: Aaron Tilley
Set Designer: Kyle Bean
Food Stylist: Iain Graham
Art Director: Gem Fletcher
Food styling assistant: Sam Dixon
Photo assistant: Catrine Håland