The History of Food Photography in The Late 20th Century Cookbook

This is the third article in a series on the history of food photography, which looks at food photography in cookbooks, and its significance in advertising in the late 20thcentury.

When rationing was abolished in the UK in 1954, new food trends started to emerge with processed, quick meals, significantly changing Britain’s approach to home cooking. Photographer George De Gennaro began photographing food in the 1950s. He commented in an interview with Charlotte Plimmer in ‘Food in Focus’:

“In those days, the pictures looked as though they were taken from the top of a ladder, six or eight feet away. And the food was so artificially doctored up that it gave the profession a horrible name”­.

Perhaps it is these technical aspects that meant food photography of this period was not taken seriously as an art genre. Directly influenced by still life painters and as a regular contributor to “Better Homes and Garden” magazine in the 1970’s, he chose to capture food from a different angle, coming in close and capturing movement.

A pasta photograph, published in “Eastman Kodak’s Applied Photography” shot in 1963, shows this technique of freezing motion. Shooting in one day, using 10 large format exposures, Gennaro used one 3200 watt/seconds flash, reflecting the light back in by using reflectors. It was shot at f32 at 1/50 of a second using Kodak Ektachrome 64 film. What is significant about this image is that it demonstrates the same painterly skill of 17thcentury still life, and is clearly influenced by the effects of lighting used by impressionist painters of the 19thcentury.

The price of colour reproductions greatly affected how many colour pictures appeared in cookbooks and magazines. It was much cheaper and easier to produce line drawings than colour photographs. At the start of the 1950’s cookbooks tended to have illustrations and black and white photographs. The 1953 sixth printing first edition of “Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook” contained black and white photographs on nearly every single page of the 400-page cookbook, with a full colour photograph only at the start of every chapter.  Similarly, “The Modern Family Cookbook” by Meta Given, published the same year, contains only 36 colour photographs to over 1000 recipes. There is a very low ratio of pictures to text or recipes. Cookbook collectors have found these sorts of cookbooks hard to get hold of now, yet many cherish the food photographs in them.

In the 1960’s, colour photographs seem to be more prevalent;Mrs Beeton’s “All about Cookery” fourth impression, published in 1964, has colour photographs throughout, which was not seen in older versions of the book. Other significant cookbooks of the time were Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, “The Joy of Cooking” and the “Better Homes and Gardens Cookbooks”.

The aesthetics of the food images at this time are interesting to consider. Ice cream was substituted with mash potatoes and papier-mâché mock-ups were sometimes used instead of real poultry. These substitutions were a result of hot studio lamps but as cameras and film speed and sensitivity improved, more genuine food products were introduced. I’ll discuss food styling in more depth in one of my future articles as I feel it’s essential to examine this as a subject alone.

Tessa Traeger, in an interview with Charlotte Plimmer in ‘Food in Focus’, pointed out that,

“You can find out more, and more quickly, about the history and culture of a nation by looking at its food than in any other way. Food is a direct expression of a country’s spirit”.

It is clear that food trends were reflected in current trends in society, particularly by the rise of cookbooks in the mid-20thCentury.

Prior to 1977, nothing had been written on the importance or significance of food photography and the symbols used in advertising photography. This changed when Roland Barthes wrote an interesting analysis of a Panzani advertisement highlighting the importance of images used in advertising. The connotations of the image are undoubtedly intentional in advertising because what is shown of the advertising messages exists already in the mind of the viewer by certain attributes of the product. It is these messages that have to be transmitted as clearly as possible in the image.

He looked at the food image in terms of signs and how we decode that sign, referring to the associations given in the choice of props, colours and composition. The image shows a scene represented as the return from the market: fresh produce, a suggestion of domestic preparation, and a half-open bag, spilling open. Barthes refers to the composition of the image, relaying back to the influence of still life paintings on food photography. It reminds us of the ‘nature morte’ or ‘still life’. The image tries to give the viewer a sense of having-been-there, and the photograph acts as ‘evidence’ of this as nature seems to have ‘spontaneously’ produced this scene. It is this actuality that seems to be the general rule for food photographers when producing images.

There were radical changes in colour photography in the late 1970’s to early 1980’s, transformed by Japanese colour printing which gave a much better clarity of colour to the images. These technological advances modernised colour printing; the improved precision of the colours used to make the printing plates changed the possibilities of reproducing food images. More magenta, cyan and yellow meant that the amount of black ink usually used was reduced, making the colours brighter andbolder.

The technique was so significant that in 1982, homemaking guru Martha Stewart insisted not only on Japanese printing, but also on photographs of every dish for her first book, “Entertaining”. As a caterer, she knew that the viewers’ sense of taste was heavily influenced by the look of the food. It was at this time that food photography as a genre proliferated as magazines dedicated to food started to appear in the late 1980’s.

In this article we have seen that food photographers do take influence from still life paintings, in terms of realism, effects of light, composition and arrangement and in particular, indicators of lifestyle. Keeping in mind Barthes’ reflections on the social effects of food photography, in the next article I will look at how the advancements in printing techniques and improvements in technical aspects heavily influenced the aesthetics of food photography in the late 20thcentury, paying particular attention to food magazines.

Further Information

Helen Grace ventura Thompson’s website:

Helen’s food photography Blog:

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