Daily Picture Show

The Appetizing Art Of Food Photography

"All the major things in our lives we celebrate around food or drink," Larry Nighswander, photography director at Saveur magazine, told me over the phone. I had called him wanting to know more about the evolution of food photography.

And in another phone conversation, photographer Penny De Los Santos said pretty much the same thing. She recalled an assignment in which she photographed Iraqi refugees in Lebanon — "a group of men," she described them, "that remembered their home countries and families and lives in Iraq by cooking together." Nothing brings us together like food, so it makes sense that we like photographs of it.

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"And photographers and artists have painted and photographed food from the beginning," Nighswander continued. "I'm guessing that if you looked back at cave dwellings, there were probably scratchings of some sort of food." But our representations have come a long way since the Pleistocene days. Take the first issue of Gourmet magazine from January 1941, for example: mostly illustrations, mostly black and white. Or look at this 1981 Bon Appetit cover compared with this one from 2009.

It's undeniable that food photography has become both a genre and a vocation — and not just for professionals. In the past few years, a crop of food-photo-blogs has emerged — like La Tartine Gourmande and Smitten Kitchen. These folks, it seems, care just as much about the photography as they do the food, and have married the two in an attractive online format. Needless to say, if you walk into any restaurant, odds are you'll see people like you and me snapping plates on iPhones and PowerShots.

De Los Santos says that while she'll have to step up her game to stay competitive, it's also a good sign that more people are photographing food. "I think now there's a trend to really honor the food," she said. "I think it's great — it's on everyone's mind and that means we're thinking about it."

Plate by Penny De Los Santos i i
Penny De Los Santos
Plate by Penny De Los Santos
Penny De Los Santos

Of course there may still be some dirty tricks in food photography out there — especially in ads and commercials. But here's hoping we're at least graduating from Elmer's Glue and fake food. If the point is to whet our appetites, after all, there's no better way to do it than with the real deal.

De Los Santos, who considers herself a documentary and food culture photographer, shared a selection of recent work. Also take a look at this Los Angeles exhibition on food photography, and this article by Smithsonian's Shannon Perich about one of the early food photographers to use color.

Want to hone your food photography skills? Check out this article on "The Ten Tastiest Food Photography Tips."

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