The Aesthetic and Cultural Significance of Food Photography

This second article in a series of the history of food photography presents food photography as genre that deserves aesthetic merit by drawing your attention to the aesthetic and cultural importance of the images.

When food first became a subject in photography, images imitated still life paintings and were classed as a form of social documentary, whereby the food was viewed as a cultural item. A collection of this documentary was compiled by curator Virginia Heckert at the Getty museum’s photography department, in an exhibition titled ‘In Focus: Tasteful Pictures’. The images reveal the history of photography and this exhibition shows the very first examples of food photography. Edward Quigley’s six peas in a pod, taken in black and white, observe the beauty of the form of peas, paying particular attention to their lighting and shape.

In contrast, the exhibition includes a notable black and white food photograph from Man Ray in 1931. Titled ‘Kitchen (cuisine)’, it was not commissioned for a cookbook or magazine, but for a Paris utility’s advertising campaign that encouraged the use of electricity in homes. The image of a cooked chicken shows what electricity can do using an electric oven; the spiral pattern (a photogram) communicates a heating element of an oven or, more simply, symbolises electricity.

This art and social documentary photography also occurred in colour. Irving Penn’s still-life images for Vogue and House and Garden magazine in the 1940’s resemble art photographs with food as a subject like those in the In Focus: Tasteful Pictures exhibition, showing ingredients, but used to illustrate the lifestyle pages of magazines.

The placement of the objects seems random yet stylised. Reflections of the studio lights in the spoons and image aren’t retouched; random flecks of pepper remain even though some have strayed from the centre of the image. Around this time, food images began to be used commercially for advertising. Perhaps it is in the form of advertising that food photography lost credibility as an art genre; images were no longer works of art, but promoters of consumer goods.

While the first colour photograph was produced in 1861, colour photography in cookbooks wasn’t used until the 1930’s; colour printing was difficult. Colour food photography can be traced back to 1935, when Nickolas Murray first adapted the three-colour carbro process. McCall’s commissioned Murray to create colour photographs for their cooking and food pages. He used the colour carbro process to make rich and colourful photographs of food spreads for the magazine and for other advertisers through the 1950’s. Within the context of commercial photography, the rich colours in these images grabbed the reader’s attention.

Food photography progressed. Colour food photography appeared not only in single sheet advertisements but also in cookbooks. The earliest cookbooks merely recorded the cooks’ favourite recipes, so that they could even be successfully recreated by the simplest palates. Like any kind of book, the development of cookbooks paralleled the progress of printing technology. While colour photography was still in its early stages in the 1950’s, block prints frequently appeared in cookbooks, not actual photographs. Illustrations were popular too and black and white photographs usually accompanied the recipes.

A few years later, colour photographs appeared in the first edition of Larousse Gastronomique. Although it included 36 colour photographs, this large and expensive book still contained 1,850 black and white images. World War Two slowed the production of colour photography for many due to cost and reduced consumer demand. However, after the war came a boom in ladies magazines, awash with colour advertisements and recipes.

The first American magazine devoted to food and wine, Gourmet, began life in January 1941. Gourmet covers in the 1950’s usually featured a textured background, strewn with floral arrangements, its centrepiece often a noteworthy serving ware, combined carefully to suggest a well-travelled life. Not just a food magazine, Gourmet suggested ideals in post-war lifestyle.

Arguably, the most revolutionary cookbook was the Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook, which contained lavish colour photography. While the first edition of the book is no longer in print, opinions vary about its significance. The amount of photographs was substantial but the aesthetic quality was perhaps poor. However, the use of food photography in this commercial outlet was significant, marking a rise in production, thus a demand for food photographs. None the less, Betty Crocker was still significant in cookery at the time. This fictional character, created by the Washburn-Crosby Company in 1921, became an advertising tool to make the company more personable. Before the ‘Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook’, various promotional pamphlets and baking books without colour photographs were released in the 1930’s and 1940’s to aid wartime cooking.

Even cookbooks for young cooks started to incorporate photography. Better Homes and Gardens Junior Cook Book (for the Hostess and Host of Tomorrow) in 1955 had step-by-step instructions, line drawings and numerous black and white shots. While food photography appeared more and more in cookbooks and magazines, these photographs didn’t necessarily have a better aesthetic quality than the previous illustrations. But this is just the beginning of a long history of commercial food photography for further discussion in my next article.

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