Food Photography Through the Ages

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William Henry Fox Talbot, A Fruit Piece calotype, 1844. Image via Project Gutenberg.

One of the earliest food photographs—if not the earliest food photograph—comes from a book of prints generally considered to be the first commercially available book with photographic illustrations. Written by the inventor of an early form of photography, The Pencil of Nature included 24 calotype images pasted into the book. Talbot’s goal was “to place on record some of the early beginnings of a new art, before the period, which we trust is approaching, of its being brought to maturity by the aid of British talent”; while he saw photography as an art form in itself, he also explicitly ties its goals and styles to those of painting (Talbot 25).

While some of the images include commentary on their genres or contents—copies of drawings and text, portraits, photographs of buildings—this image is one of several accompanied by a description of the photographic process, specifically the fact that (unlike the daguerreotype) the calotype was reproducible. The process created a negative, from which “a very great number of copies can be obtained in succession, so long as great care is taken of the original picture” (64). From this, we can note two things. First, that the still life of fruit was so recognizable as a genre that it could serve as a prototype in an introductory book, yet the actual contents of the image were so irrelevant to said genre that they required no elaboration (unlike many of the architectural photos in the book). Second, that even from the very start, food photography has been linked to reproduction and reproducibility.

Irving Penn, Frozen Foods, 1977. Image via Vogue.

Fast forward 130 years and things have both changed drastically in food photography and stayed the same. Irving Penn is best known for his fashion photography, but in his years at Vogue he photographed a little bit of everything. A version of this image originally accompanied a short article on iced soups, including recipes, and though that stretches the limits of the term “documentary” photography, I couldn’t resist discussing this photograph because of the way it plays with so many of the genres and codes of the medium.

A brief Vogue retrospective of Penn’s food photography notes his training as a painter and “Vermeer-like” eye (Borelli-Persson). When you open a fashion magazine like Vogue, you expect a certain elegance to pervade throughout. Where food is concerned, an over-the-top extravaganza won’t do*; even the most practical food has to be striking, edgy, and chic. The minimalist still-life structure of the composition codes it as something closer to Art than “mere” illustration, to the extent that a signed limited-edition version sold for $106,250 in 2015.

*Penn’s work wasn’t exactly standard for 1970s food photography, but even the laughably garish spreads we more often associate with the era have plenty in common with Talbot’s image—note the still life with cheese pineapple from the article linked above.

Jordan Moeny, untitled Instagram photo, 2017. Taken with Pixel 2 phone.

My sister and I have a regularly scheduled “cake day” where we bake a cake for no reason other than because we want to, so cake has unintentionally become part of my “personal brand” lately, if you will. Even though I’m a casual baker rather than a food blogger, photos like this reflect the food blog photo “type” or genre, which overlaps to an extent with professional food photography but is both more relaxed and more limited than what you might find in the glossy pages of a food magazine. (Few food bloggers, for example, would go for the abstract style of Penn’s photo, but they’re also allowed a measure of personality and playfulness that magazines often avoid.)

Hallmarks of the genre include the shallow depth of field close up and the over-the-top, attention-getting image; glitter, sprinkles, and lettering are also very “in” right now in the food blogging world. Like Talbot’s images, these photos are designed to be replicated, reblogged, Pinned, and shared. That is, to an extent, the nature of Instagram more generally as well: the app’s algorithm favors photos that get a lot of interaction (likes and comments) so users are encouraged, either explicitly or implicitly through comparison to the other images on their feeds, to get the perfect shot every time—even if that means taking 20 photos of your sister holding a cake.

“Fox Talbot’s Pencil of Nature.” Glasgow University Library. Accessed March 27, 2018.

“Irving Penn’s Unforgettable Food Photography in Vogue.” Vogue. Accessed March 27, 2018.

Talbot, William Henry Fox. The Pencil of Nature, 2010.