A History of Food Photography

Food photography, although not covered in many history books, has been a subject since the early 1800s. As a competition celebrating diverse food photography globally, Pink Lady® Food Photographer of the Year, wanted to discover more about its journey through history.

Throughout time, as food has been much consumed, it has also been photographed. Until recently, food photography was considered crass and unworthy of artistic attention, yet food across the globe is much more than nourishment in our consumerist culture. Rather, the subject of food through time demonstrates symbolic meaning.

Methods, equipment, and style used in food photography have, however, changed this significantly. It has now become a platform for artistic representation and experimentation. In modern times, interest in food photography has become much more widespread and diverse. Photographing food has become a part of our everyday dining experiences, and the development of social media platforms has accelerated this.

Despite its complex changing nature, food photography can be seen to have originated from still life paintings and arguably had developed through this art form. We wanted to explore  food photography from its origins, throughout key movements in history, and how the genre has been used artistically through time.

Since its inception in 2011, Pink Lady® Food Photographer of the Year has covered the full cultural range of the depiction of food in society. Each category can also be seen to highlight the complex development of food photography through time, and photographs entered to the competition through the years can be seen to illustrate this changing nature of the subject. We wanted to highlight some changing styles and techniques which we have analysed, suggest our tips and tricks, and showcase how they can be used in food photography today.

A TIMELINE HISTORY OF FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY ORIGINS

In examining the history of food photography, we must first look at its origins. Food photography can be seen as originating from still life paintings in the 1800s. They can be seen to use key aspects of interest that we also see in contemporary work – from effects of light, composition, allegory and meaning, to indicators of class and lifestyle.

Many of these old paintings display food as the subject matter, drawing attention to its natural beauty. Artists such Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio composed realistic depictions of fruit. In this, we see the origins of food styling, where objects were meticulously arranged to boast their painting skills. These paintings highlight aspects of still life techniques which have been transferred to food photography since.

Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio  Basket of Fruit, c. 1595–1596 history of food photography
Image: Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio  Basket of Fruit, c. 1595–1596

Europe 17th and 18th century

Rome and cities of the Netherlands and Northern France were the leading regions of still life painting, depicting tables of food, game in kitchens, and where sweet dishes were imperative. Spanish still life, ‘bodegon’ (literally ‘cellar’) focused on just a few kinds of food in a small area.

Meanwhile England, produced its own conventions; dishes set out on the table usually had some hint of recent consumption but with no-one in sight, as if the pantry was emptied to form a beautiful arrangement of meat, bread, cheese and fruit. The food seemed more attainable if there were no people around. Dutch painters of the 17th century piled succulent foods high amongst fine tableware, reinforcing the idea that a full larder was a sign of wealth.

The 18th century saw more elaborate still life paintings - carefully chosen food with unusual shape or texture. Grand banquets appeared in their entirety.

Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, a significant still life painter, produced many realist paintings in the 1700’s. Everyday objects gained dreamlike elements yet blended into a realistic atmosphere. Much of his work showed seasonal food at religious events. Juxtaposing food and kitchen utensils suggested that a meal was being prepared. This display of class and status by wealthy people at the time is a significant historical point when assessing contemporary food photography.

Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin - The Meat Day Meal, 1731 history of food photography
Image: Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin - The Meat Day Meal, 1731.

19th Century

‘Food’ photographs first appeared in the early 19th century resembling still lifes, focusing on realism, composition, and importantly lighting effects - essential to any photograph. Photography’s first still life was a table set for a meal, by Nicephore Niepce in 1827. However, the most well-known images are Henry Fox Talbot’s ‘The Pencil of Nature’ of 1846, showing fruit baskets on patterned tablecloths. Their compositions are reminiscent of 17th century Flemish still-life paintings.

Plate XIV from The Pencil of Nature, A Fruit Piece, William Henry Fox Talbot © Science Museum Group collection history of food photography
Image: Plate XIV from The Pencil of Nature, A Fruit Piece, William Henry Fox Talbot © Science Museum Group collection.

The newly established medium of photography radically renewed the Impressionist art movement.  Impressionism in still life paintings focussed on consumption and class - the painter created a seemingly natural scene of objects despite conscientious arrangement. Rather than mirroring a scene like these early still-life photographs, artists personally depicted their own visual experience.

Although monochrome pictures began to appear in early cookery books, the process was slow. Professional photographers used the half-tone process for cheaper reproduction. By breaking the images into a series of dots, it was much easier to reproduce the full tonal range of a photograph in print.

Food illustrations were often seen in cookbooks. Chromolithographs featured in ‘Le Livre de Cuisine’ (“The Royal Cookery Book”) by well-known French chef, Jules Gouffe. Printed in Paris, 1867, the book contains 25 chromolithograph plates printed in colour. Images like this chromolithograph plate may have influenced contemporary images of abundant food. As photography became a popular medium, advancements in printing paved the way for easier production.

Timbale a la milanaise from 'Livre de Cuisine' Jules Gouffé (1867) history of food photography
Image: Illustration of Timbale a la milanaise from 'Livre de Cuisine' Jules Gouffé (1867)

AN INTRODUCTION OF COLOUR

While the first colour photograph appeared in 1861, colour photography in cookbooks waited until the 1930’s - colour printing was difficult. Colour food photography appeared as early as 1935, when Nickolas Muray 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 1950s. Within the context of commercial photography, the images’ rich colours grab the reader’s attention. Black and white photography in food has, though, continued to be used to this day.

A History of Food Photography introduction of colour
Image: Chocolate pie, photograph for use in McCall's Magazine, circa 1944 / Nickolas Muray/Courtesy of the National Museum of American History Photographic History Collection

THE DEVELOPMENT OF FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY IN COMPETITION

From styled food for magazines to images of families eating together in celebration of religious festivals through to food influencers and chef food in action. From Street Food to food growing in its natural setting, Pink Lady® Food Photographer of the Years categories cover all aspects of food photography both culturally and globally.

We wanted to look back at a couple of the styles and techniques that food photography has displayed through time to how these have been, and can be, applied to food photography now.

PROPS

First, we wanted to explore the use of props – from cutlery, cups, plates and chopping boards, to tablecloths, napkins and even salt and pepper shakers. Props have been continually used through the development of food photography to set the scene of a photograph, making food the centre of attention.

How have props been used through time…

Traditionally props used in still life paintings suggested many different elements about a meal. Gold or silver at the table in Renaissance times instilled wealth and elegance. In the 17th century, the prominence of silverware in paintings symbolised upper class values.

Copper Cauldron with a Pitcher and a Slice of Salmon (oil) by Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin food photography origin
Image: Copper Cauldron with a Pitcher and a Slice of Salmon (oil) by Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin

The painting above shows the use of props in the 18th century. The cooking pot and skimmer suggest that the salmon and mushrooms are about to be cooked. If these were removed from the scene replaced by pewter dishes for example, it would mean the food is ready to be served. Paintings before the 18th century tended not to show a fork amongst the cutlery as just a spoon and knife were usually used.

Our tips for prop use…

Sometimes you have no control over props and surroundings. When shooting photojournalistic images at a street market for example, you need to think quickly with no time to move things out the way. But when you do have control over props, think:

  • What scene are you trying to show? A modern dinner? Or something more rustic or old-fashioned?
  • What’s the season? Christmas? Summer with a BBQ?
  • Are you close to the food? Further away?
  • Should viewers feel they are about to consume the meal? Do they need a knife and fork?
  • Is food about to be cooked? Or all ready for serving?"

How props have been used now…

Muscles Ready to Eat Food at the Table food photography props
Muscles Ready to Eat - Food at the Table, 2019

Like some of the early paintings, similar props can be seen to be used today. This finalist image, ‘Muscles Ready to Eat’, highlights how props now are still used to set the scene. The props help us identify that the dish is ready to be eaten.

Maderia Cake Marks & Spencer Food Portraiture food photography
Maderia Cake - Marks & Spencer Food Portraiture, 2020

Props are also now used in food photography with an element of action. Rather than a finished meal, they are used as a narrative to the production of food. Here, Hein Van Tonder has captured movement through his photograph with the use of an icing spoon. The prop itself is giving us a story to the photograph, with the food remaining the centre of attention. This can been seen a lot in other finalist work from Marks & Spencer Food Portraiture.

Bake Off Production Paradise Jonathan Gregson food photography
Bake Off - Production Paradise Previously Published, 2018

With the increasing importance of food styling, props have been used in much more inventive ways though food photography. Here, the props can be seen as being as important as the food itself. In this finalist image, we can see that the props themselves are used to suggest the food that is being produced, in addition to the raw ingredients. In modern food photography, the props can be seen to be just as beautiful as the food.

COLOUR PHOTOGRAPHY

How colour has developed through time…

The development of colour has undoubtedly changed the nature of photography, and specifically food photography. For some photographers, such as Claire Aho, a pioneer in Finnish colour photography, colour and its inception inspired their work.

Before the development of colour photography, photographers had no choice but to shoot in black and white as this was all that was available. Photographers like Edward Weston and Edward Quigley focused on the dramatic interaction of light and shadow to emphasize the texture of the chosen objects in their photographs.

Peas in a Pod, circa 1935 by Edward W. Quigley A silver gelatin print food photography
Image: Peas in a Pod, circa 1935 by Edward W. Quigley.  A silver gelatin print.

When you look at the arrangement of the peas in Quigley’s image, it draws your attention to their shape and beauty, while Weston’s tight crop and dramatic lighting promotes the pepper’s twisting curves. These aspects make for very visually dynamic images.

Pepper No. 30 (1930) by Edward Weston food photography
Image: Pepper No. 30 (1930) by Edward Weston

Prior to colour film, many food photographs for cookbooks and magazine advertisements were shot in black and white and had colour, usually pastels, crayons, watercolours, or oils painted over them. Hand-coloured photographs were a well-respected art form in Japan in the 1800s; one great advantage of hand colouring was that the pigments used in the oil-based paints increased the shelf life and quality of the photographs.

Our tips for enhancing colour…

These days, there are many ways to do colour-enhance photographs digitally, as well as by hand. By enhancing certain colours in the images, you can draw the viewers’ attention to say, the redness of some tomatoes at a market scene or the freshness of green herbs in a dish.

Black and White food photography now…

Perfect Fish One Vision Imaging Cream of the Crop food photography
Perfect Fish - One Vision Imaging Cream of the Crop, 2020

Black and white photography is still used today by choice to emphasise texture. Valentina Bollea displays how black and white photography accentuates the lines and details of these fish. Even though the photograph is comprised of food only, the patterning and lack of colour creates more of an artistry to the image, where we are drawn in to learn what food is actually in the image.

My Cousin Champagne Taittinger Wedding Food Photographer
My Cousin - Champagne Taittinger Wedding Food Photographer

As in the past, black and white is used in food photography now to emphasise texture, lighting, and shadows. In the image above, Marlon Bunday draws the viewers attention to the floral icing decoration on the cake. The lack of colour brings about an importance to those parts of the cake that she is wanting to highlight.

food in the filed philip field ostrich horizon food photography
Ostrich Horizon - Food in the Field, 2018

Black and white photography is not just used in food portraiture. Food photography has grown to reflect the whole of the food industry. Pink Lady® Food Photographer of the Year has introduced many categories to represent food across the global industry, from Bring Home the Harvest to World Food Programme Food for Life. In the image above, Philip Field uses black and white to create a distinction between the Food and the Field.

This is just a snapshot of how food photography has developed through time, but we hope that it has provided an insight and inspiration into styles and techniques that remain the same in our constantly changing nature of food photography.  

To learn more tips and tricks, or to gain useful insight into the competition please visit our blogs section.

Inspire yourself and be immersed in the breath-taking photos of our previous winners, please visit our finalists' gallery.

Want to try your hand at Food photography and enter our competition? Register now

With thanks to Helen Grace Ventura Thomson for her contribution.

Recent Posts

Categories

Archives

Subscribe to our newsletter

Keep up to date with the latest news and events