From mouth-watering plates of saucy spaghetti and crumbly chocolate brownies, to perfectly preened fast food, from abstract still life work to fantastical edible creations – contemporary food styling and photography is seeing a new variety of aesthetic forms and flavours emerging.
But what exactly is a food stylist? “Being a food stylist is all about making food look its best for the camera, whatever it may be,” says freelance stylist and chef Iain Graham. “People give me funny looks when I tell them my job title. I think most think I’m making it up.”
Graham is known for his unconventional food styling for fashion ads and music videos, but also works on more traditional styling commissions, creating food for cookbooks and restaurant ads, to which he still often brings a little extra personality and humour. “The less conventional side of food styling could be anything. If you ever see a film like Star Wars, or Alice in Wonderland and you see cakes or banquet tables then you can bet a food stylist was involved. I’ve set ‘bling’ jewellery in a massive jelly, made tribal headdresses out of food, even worked on facial tattoos using food,” he says. “The more conventional work that I do for restaurants is usually ‘accentuated authentic’. Everyone wants to show their actual food in the best possible light, not over-promise on the pictures.”
Although much of Graham’s more creative work might appear less than appetising, he strives for authenticity in his more ‘foody’ shots. “I like that people want to eat what’s in the picture, and that the recipe works and can look like that,” he says. “There is nothing more annoying than a recipe that doesn’t come out like the picture!”
Photographer Kevin Summers suggests that there is a desire for food photography to look more real than ever before, although the notion of what is ‘real’ tends to vary between clients. It all boils down to ‘food appeal’, he says. “‘Food appeal’ generally refers to the mouth-watering appeal of a product, for example melting edges of an ice cream or condensation on a glass of white wine. Something that happens to the product that draws the viewer in,” he says.
And many in the industry agree. “The food being photographed needs to be good enough to eat,” says food stylist Rose Reynolds, emphasising ‘be’ rather than just ‘look’. After initially studying for a degree in environmental health, Reynolds soon realised that peering into dirty deep fat fryers wasn’t hitting the spot, and went on to complete a cookery diploma at Leiths School of Food and Wine. After assisting, she is now styling food for cookbooks and weekend supplements for national newspapers including the Guardian.
“In my opinion, food is far more interesting with smudges and curls and breaking out of bowls and spilling onto surfaces. Natural crumbs are amazing – they happen in real life – things get too brown and turn sticky, bubble over and dribble down the sides of pans. Embrace the imperfect, it looks far more edible and interesting,” she says. “Associated mess and crumbs are very welcome as is the food looking like it has been eaten into a little bit here and there – it creates a sense of the food being enjoyed.” She also suggests that overhead shots show no sign of slowing down, and in terms of the prop stylist (also a real job), zinc, copper and industrial styles are apparently in and shabby chic kitchenalia are out (for now).
Often working alongside Reynolds is photographer Jill Mead who has witnessed first hand the shifting aesthetic trends away from perfection and towards realism. “When I think back to my assisting days, food photography was so much more styled and fussy. I once spent a whole day searching through boxes of lemons for the perfect specimen; the only one I liked was a mouldy, dusty one, an incredible green colour and shrivelling into a brain-like form. It’s hardly a surprise I wasn’t asked back!” she says.
“I represent the ‘messy, real life, home, family’ side of food photography, and have been known to literally strip a recipe back to a mere crumb on a plate,” Mead continues. “Recipe books and magazines need the food to look delicious, but also achievable. In my opinion it’s normal to have cracks in cakes and messy spaghetti.”
With the rise of food blogging and photo sharing apps, food photography has become increasingly popular, and although Mead would ban camera phone food porn snapping from any restaurant she ran, she acknowledges its influence on the way we visually engage with food. “With the advent of Instagram and literally every meal being shot, I think it needs to be all about the reality – the ‘in your face’, the immediacy,” she says. “Readers, bloggers and writers are all scrutinising every recipe – they all know an onion from a shallot, and the whole concept of trickery and artifice has disappeared into the magician’s hat.”
This is generally true when it comes to work done in post, because although certain food images for advertising can still be heavily touched-up, few are digitally manipulated. And the majority of stylists also now shun the use of inedible items in the food itself such as motor oil as a stand-in for unphotogenic sauces, or PVA glue as milk, and opt instead for food that not only looks edible, but is edible too. As photographer Jonathan Gregson explains: “Food photography has historically come under fire for being misrepresentative, and so authenticity is of the utmost importance to clients,” he says. “If we are shooting a burger for a billboard campaign, we will always use the product the consumer receives irrespective of how enticing it may or may not be!”
Graham similarly feels that post production should be used to refine shapes and clean up errors, despite his often more fantastical creations. “I feel like if I can’t physically do what’s in the image, if we are making a kind of patchwork quilt of images, then I’ve failed,” he says. He has even created tea spilling from a cup using agar jelly, saving digital work for shoots such as one with an exploding blender, which he shot for real and then added to another image of the models to avoid ruining £10k worth of clothes.
That’s not to say stylists don’t still get a little help from a few key tools on set. Reynolds favours a blow torch to warm up cold food, a water spritzer to freshen it up, toothpicks for propping up elements, a syringe to remove unwanted liquids, and the usual sharp knives for precision and cotton buds to wipe smudges.
Graham’s work demands a slightly more unusual bag of tricks, including fishing wire to suspend items, dulling spray to remove sheen on food, and his most prized possession – Zap-A-Gap glue. “It’s amazing, you can glue anything to anything!” says Graham. “I had a job where I had made a UV gin bottle out of jelly. When I turned it out I hadn’t really thought about standing it up. I had a small sheet of glass in the studio and decided to give the Zap-A-Gap a try. So I glue this wet jelly to the glass, and after 10 seconds it was stuck fast.”
Recent commissions have included ads for Harrods and the Brazilian equivalent Cidade Jardim, whose relaxed attitude allowed for his creativity to run wild. “I made leopard print cakes, massive super tall ice-creams and even an octopus candelabra,” he says.
One of his most unusual jobs was for food and culture journal The Gourmand, which involved creating edible feline treats from a human perspective, and was shot with live cats on set. “I thought of this wood pigeon sundae – an ice cream that on closer inspection was largely made of birds – and a Black Forest gateaux, replacing the cherries with prawns and lobster, with dried salmon skin as chocolate flakes: a Black Sea Gateaux,” he describes. “My favourite was making the ‘sugared’ mice. I had to order a bag of frozen mice from the pet food store and ended up painting them with food colouring with my four-year-old son who thought it was the coolest thing ever.”
He describes his aesthetic as “dark humour”, and relishes depicting the excesses that we associate with food. He also suggests a changing relationship between photography and the role of both food and the stylist. “Food is becoming more of a prop or an accessory in things like fashion and still life,” he says. “What I do has almost become a small subdivision of set design rather than food styling, with my food items being used to convey luxury or humour.”
Similarly, Mead also describes an increased popularity with both classical, extravagant, painterly compositions and also minimal styles. “There is a resurgence in an ‘old master’ look – incredible food styling, with sublime photography. I’d call it ‘Historic Heston’,” she says. “Also, more pared back imagery – such as Cereal Magazine – conceptual and recognisable.”
Photographers for Cereal include Gregson, who, similar to Mead started off in reportage and editorial travel photography, considering himself an ‘accidental’ food photographer. He too notes a shift in aesthetic details, away from “stiff plates”, pin sharp depth of field and artificial lighting, towards natural light and a sense of familiarity and comfort. Aside from his more traditional food photos however, his experimental still life work for Cereal has allowed him to push boundaries and has led clients to ask for a similar style. “[Cereal’s] open briefs have allowed me to approach food in a different way,” he says. “It isn’t about the moment of eating, rather it focuses on texture and form.”
Ultimately, the aim of many food photographs is to entice you to eat it, and therefore buy it or cook it. As Graham suggests: “I think it’s already heading towards a more abstract style, but there will always need to be those nice heart-warming images of Christmas dinner, or a perfect bowl of spaghetti, because that’s what makes you want to eat it.” And although the end goal of the imagery might be the same, these days it’s less about microwaving wet tampons to mimic localised steam or a frosty fresh hairspray finish, and more about creating those perfectly imperfect dishes of real food that truly tingle the taste buds.
However, imaginative use of food that widens eyes as well as mouths is what keeps clients coming back for second helpings. “A photographer’s portfolio needs to represent the trends in the market now to ensure they are ‘current’, but equally important is illustrating creativity and innovation,” says Gregson. “Trends will come and go and turn full circle, but as long as there are innovators in the field it will continue to keep us interested, and more importantly, hungry.”