The Trends in Food Photography in The Late 20th Century

This 4th article in a series on the history of food photography will examine the trends in food photography in the late 20th century, where technical aspects heavily influenced the aesthetics of food photography, changing consumer attitudes to food. This led to the introduction of food magazines and the growth of aesthetics of the food itself. I will also explore how food stylists, key proponents to any successful food photo shoot, developed all sorts of tricks to prolong the life of the food products being photographed, promoting the ‘art’ of food photography.

Food photography in the 1980’s shifted from mere illustration to lifestyle, reflected by society when many had a higher disposable income; there was a trend of very heavily dressed lifestyle shots. Gourmet magazine, in particular, always had a glossy cover of a debonair dish with detailed props. For the tablescapes of the ’80s, in the thrall of nouvelle cuisine, presentation mattered. Twenty five years ago magazines and cookery books ran double page spreads with several dishes in them, the emphasis being on an atmospheric photograph. The focus then was on ambience and lifestyle, rather than just the single food product.

In the 1980’s, everything in the frame was glossy and in focus. While Gourmet magazine conquered the US market, such lifestyle images paved the way for magazines dedicated to food in the UK. In November 1989, the first food magazine was launched, BBC Good Food magazine, which published recipes from a number of BBC cookery shows, like Food and Drink (1982 – 2001). What is significant about this is that prior to the release of Good Food magazine, there were no magazines dedicated to just food, yet the popularity in cookery television shows sparked a consumer demand for such a magazine. While the picture content of the first issue is rather minimal, the magazine was filled with glossy food advertisements in order to fund the magazine through its first issue.

After the first few issues in 1990, funded by bigger budgets, the magazine expanded its picture content. The covers always had a white background, with the food shot in studio, showing a single dish, sometimes with a side or decorative plate. This consistency was arguably to establish brand recognition in the consumer market, rather than a lack of aesthetic experimentation. The magazine proved popular and, after running for five years, coloured backgrounds appeared on the cover with multiple food dishes, emphasising lifestyle and not just the single food dish.

The brand became well established after the success of the annual BBC Good Food show in Birmingham, responsible for the popularity of celebrity chefs like Gary Rhodes and eventually launched a sister magazine, Vegetarian Good Food.

Emphasis on ‘lifestyle’ seemed to be key to food photography at this time as is shown in one of Martin Chaffer’s photographs that he shot for a Marks and Spencer brochure featuring cookware in 1988. The importance of food and prop stylists was part of the significant transition into better quality images, where sets were dressed beautifully to accompany the dishes. The convincing set of a country kitchen took three days and two teams to build it. The scene is composed of multiple exposures of the fire and other parts of the set, which were spotlighted with separate hot, tungsten lights. Quality of lighting was and is an important aspect of any food image to provide the right atmosphere. Though studio flash had been invented in the early 1970’s, it was expensive to use flash to light food, particularly on an editorial budget. In order to combat these hot lamps, food stylists employed a number of techniques to make the food look its best. The centrepiece – the chicken, was prepared by being undercooked to keep it firm then brushed with caramel to brown it.

These details, crafted by food stylists, are a fascinating enough subject on their own, and their technical handiwork is crucial to food photography as an art form. Bradley Olman shot the image of a table laden with ice cream for It’s Me, an American advertorial magazine available in Lane Bryant department stores for plus-size women. The article listed a number of recipes for dietary ice cream however the dishes of ‘ice cream’ were in fact artfully coloured flour-and-water fakes. All the other food in the set up was real. Olman worked on the set with two assistants, a food stylist and the magazine editor to achieve this aesthetically ‘perfect’ image. Some may argue that this is misleading to a consumer but the aim was always to strive for aesthetic perfection and not reality. When looking at images of food, it has to be taken into account the amount of time and effort that is put in to make the food last long enough for the photographer to capture it in the best possible light and setting. Food wilts, cracks, melts, and changes colour so food stylists have to work to each element’s particular life span, keeping everything alive and looking beautiful for the camera. It is this visual consistency in arrangement that forces us to liken such food images to still life paintings of the 17th and 18th Century.

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