What is the role of food photography in contemporary food culture?

Sfogliatella calda

The birthday cake stood on the counter. A thick coating of fluffy whipped cream cloaked its three layers and toasty shredded coconut was sprinkled delicately on top. I paused for a moment to appreciate the beauty of my creation. Then I pierced the surface with tall pink candles, struck a match and began to sing. I didn’t take a photo.

The photo is the currency of the food blogging world. Nowadays they’re glossy, high-def and edited until the viewer can discern the outline of each sugar crystal or grill mark. These images, which generate a high-volume of clicks on photo-heavy recipe aggregators, are increasingly the most agreeable way to separate a successful food publication from an amateur one. Theoretically, a beautiful photo means a high-quality blog and skilled cook, whereas a poor photo indicates the blog is a dilettante’s side-project. In reality, it’s not so simple. These images don’t reveal quality recipes or good food writing. Since photo-heavy blogs are the Internet standard, a popular website requires shocking images that target what browsers find click-worthy. As the blog-visitor scrolls through the post, the glossy photos will outshine any lapses in culinary knowledge. Good-bye food photography. Meet food porn.

Although food blogs and social media have a played a crucial role in the transition from photography to fetishized dishes, examining food photography’s many guises suggests that social forces beyond digital media have shifted food’s portrayal. Although it’s painfully cliché to claim ‘you eat with your eyes’, today’s photograph-studded cookbooks suggest this is an unmitigated truth. Whether the Barefoot Contessa’s perfect presentation or Thug Kitchen’s powerfully bright colours, today’s most popular cookbooks are packed with images ready to make the reader salivate. But high-octane images haven’t always been compulsory in food publishing. Until recently, many cookbooks included only a couple colour photos as handy inserts in the centre, far away from the recipe featured in the photo. These pictures didn’t always portray the most elaborate or most popular dishes, but suggested the range of recipes the book contained. Some cookbooks eschewed these photos entirely, decorating recipes with simple line drawings or using deft descriptions to depict the dish solely in the cook’s imagination.

Pomme Frites in Brussels

Then, something changed. Increasingly, cookbooks began to publish numerous photos of the included recipes. These images have become so pervasive that many home cooks admit they are less likely to buy a book without photos. Some add that they’re less likely to make an un-photographed dish from a cookbook they already own. Whereas images previously increased the reader’s appetite for cooking, they’ve shifted into becoming a necessary for cookbook publishers eager to garner an audience for their book.

All this was on my mind as I decided on my mother’s birthday cake. I thumbed through cookbooks and surfed the web, gawking at countless images of textbook perfect desserts. Pressed for time, I barely registered the recipes without photos attached. The gorgeous cakes in Miette tempted me with their precise lines and intricate details, while Dorie Greenspan’s party cake had me imagining pulling the photo out of the oven. But the cake that proved most intriguing was the one that permitted no pre-made fantasy: David Lebovitz’s un-photographed coconut and rum layer cake from Ready For Dessert. The words sat plainly on the page, ready for my mixer to beat them into being without the pressure to match the ideal of a highly styled photo.

Although most of the debate on food porn focuses on how we eat, the onslaught of food photography alters our cooking process more than it modifies our diets. The perfect food photograph serves as a secondary recipe, offering a visual code to ensure each variation accurately reflects the presented token manifestation. This could function well with easily replicable process shots, helping the inexperienced cook achieve stiff egg whites look like or a golden brown cake. Unfortunately, variables such as image editing, disparities between ovens and difference in raw products nullify the practical effects for a photo of a finished dish. Unlike the abstract written recipe, the photo permits no margin of error: the dish will either match or differ from the model. The inevitable disparity between image and home-cooked dish is frequently cited in columns dedicated to reproducing cookbook recipes. Given the impossibility of re-creating certain effects, such as the perfect edges on a Miette cake, the cook must question how these images benefit them.

Pasticceria a Bergamo

For bakers, the multi-layered frosted cake is the epitome of food porn. Following this instinct, I adhered to Lebovitz’s recipe for what promised to be a three-tiered stunner. I brought all the eggs to room temperature and got out my scale to measure the flour and sugar to the gram. Twice I cleaned the bowl for whipping the egg whites to make sure there was no speck of grease that might threaten the spring my sponge cake would gain in the oven. Lebovitz offered no pictures, only good words. In turn, I supplied the lessons my mother gave me when I was learning to bake. This combination of expert guidance, personal recollection and spur-of-the-moment decisions, told me when the custard was thick and the whipped cream was fluffy. Cake might be indulgent for the people eating it, but it’s more gratifying for the baker who enjoys the secret processes and subtly hair-raising judgement calls that make baking a passion for some and a perplexing pastime for others.

Increasingly, cooking is satisfying not only because the baker may revel in the nitty-gritty processes, but also because these steps aren’t photographed and hidden exclusively for those who choose to interact with the process. Unsurprisingly, image-heavy blog posts typically feature subtle variations on a single glamour shot. If an unfinished dish is photographed, it will be shown either as an array of arbitrary ingredients or as a fully formed batter. Both stages are announced as food porn. The raw ingredients act as the porn star dressed in street clothes, ready to shock the viewer with their tempting transformations. Lusciously thick batters are ingredients swirled into illicit desires: this is the devilishly delicious product that mom forbade. Dough is presented as food, revealing no clues as to how the disparate ingredients were revamped into an alluring substance. The steps in-between must be hidden because they would ruin the baker’s alchemy and expose the object of food porn for what it is: a simple process within reach of anyone with a Kitchen Aid mixer.

If crafting the perfect cake calls for two cups of patience, I fall woefully short of the required ingredients. After chilling the custard in the fridge for about an hour, it had barely cooled to room temperature, but I got ready to assemble the cake. I dissolved the sugar in some water and added a hefty dose of vanilla as a substitute for the rum Lebovitz calls for. Grabbing a bread knife, I tried to cut the cake into three even layers but ended up with vaguely lopsided, jagged pieces that were just intact. I threw the sugar soak on the layers and smeared on the custard with a wooden spreader. There it was! A mostly assembled cake with a slight tilt was ready to go into the fridge to get ready for serving.

Except for the glamour shots in Miette, complete with high tech equipment, cookbooks cannot show cake decorating because undone doesn’t make a food porn op. In addition to displaying a meal, food porn articulates the imaginary process behind the dish’s creation. Popular food images show the dish already plated, adorned with a lovely placemat and heavy cutlery. The pretend place setting allows the viewer to jump over the garlic chopping and hot oil the recipes called for. In the absence of these details, they can pretend that their perfect meal has been perfectly prepped just for them. While a nerdy tech shot of a cake being sliced into three equal layers might satisfy the ambitious baker, the ready-made meal entices a wide audience. Revealing the ample technique involved in the dish’s creation would complicate the food and cast the viewer into the role of cook, crying at onions, sweating behind the stove and peering anxiously into the oven. Cooking doesn’t seduce the viewer, the food embodies various fantasies, which in turn entice them.

Cookie from Laura's Bakery

Finally, my cake was ready to do more than entice. I gingerly removed it from the fridge, whipped up some cream for the frosting and spread it thickly over the cake. After a long day in the kitchen, I couldn’t detach the cake from its process and its ingredients. I saw the cream, eggs, flour, sugar and coconut that came together to make each bite so delicious. Then I sang happy birthday and closed my eyes as I convinced my mother that cutting the birthday cake was the privilege of the newly older. And we ate.

Food porn succeeds because it allows the spectator to indulge all their fantasies about food while avoiding anxieties regarding excess consumption. When looking at a picture of a cupcake, butter, sugar, flour and eggs don’t matter because they have effectively disappeared. Only the beauty of indulgence gets displayed. When looking at a picture of a healthy dish, the viewer can ignore the Chinese take away they were tempted to have for dinner. Food porn doesn’t show food, but symbolises how food makes people feel, allowing the viewer to experience the elicited emotions through vicarious consumption.

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