While the earliest cookbooks were image free, in the modern world everyone with a smartphone is a food stylist
Once upon a time, the proof of the pudding was in the eating. No more. These days, in the era of constant connection to the Internet, the proof of the pudding is in the proving that you ate it in the first place, with Instagram and Twitter littered with artfully shot images of dinner plates. Everything in the frame in positioned perfectly, from fork tines glistening in the candlelight to a veritable miso soup mise en scène, coils of ramen noodles coaxed into positions bordering on coquettish.
Food photography is a topic of such a growing importance in the modern world that it almost seems that the image of a dish is more important than the food itself. The medium rare is the message, McLuhan might have said had he lived to scroll through endless photos of stacked cookies, towering hamburgers, or impossibly cute bento boxes. In an era where food is consumed more through the eyes than through the mouths, those of us living in the developed world have developed as refined aesthetes of the edible, with thousands of webpages produced by every online publication dedicated to teaching you the need-to-know tips for snapping that perfect Snapchat photo.
It was not always like this. Food photography predates the digital camera, of course, but contemporary cookbooks, as much coffee table tomes as recipe guides, differ significantly from early cookbooks, which often lacked even the most basic of illustrations. The Accomplisht Cook, Robert May’s 1660 book that is considered the first proper of its kind in the English language, comes with a few simple illustrations of table plans and a frontispiece, and that set the standard for most books until well into the 20th century. Admittedly, more than 20% of May’s book is dedicated to different kinds of soups, broths and bisques, and one line drawing of a bowl is as good as the next.
Magazines drove the change towards visual representations of food in print, which Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management having first been serialised for the Victorian public in the 1860s. When the collection was printed as one, the publishers took advantage of the new process of chromolithography to include full-page black-and-white and later colour images of fruits, roast meats, puddings and kitchen equipment.
A guide to puddings from Isabella Beeton's book, with the 1930 edition adding colour illustrations for the first time [Wiki Commons]
It is only after the Second World War, again propelled by magazine publishing, that food photography truly took off, with a handful of colour images positioned at the beginning of chapters and on cover, coupled with black and white images throughout offering often confusing instruction. It was a slow conversion, during the 1950s, that saw cookbooks adopt large-scale colour illustrations as a standard.
By the 1960s, the food publishing industry saw the importance of image and text reach parity, often with the photos or drawings themselves determining what eye-catching recipes even made it into a book. It was during this time that proto-food stylists first emerged, working in cramped studios with hot lights and bulky camera equipment, manipulating the food being photographed into the most appealing positions possible. The process could take hours for a single shot, with foodstuffs coated with all manners of toxic ingredients to add sheen, maintain colour, or keep shape, keeping tacos open with kitchen sponges, soaking cereals in shampoo, spraying glasses with deodorant to add a refreshing layer of condensation.
Today, despite how impatient we might get when breaking bread with family or friends and having to wait until they’ve taken, uploaded and shared an image on social media, is all about speed and naturalism. Ambient light is the only source of illumination, its limitations or excesses amended through choice of digital filter as a smartphone app becomes a kind of post-production suite. And it’s not just the food that matters, but also the casualness or formality of the dining situation, the choice of crockery and delft, the entire ceremony, even if it’s just a bag of chips after a night on the town.
It is now a legitimate expectation for every western consumer that any recipe book they pick up sees almost every recipe matched with an image to the point that some people can feel cheated if they don’t. So elaborate has food photography become that any celebrity chef worth their Maldon salt must be as handy with a DSLR as they are with a chopping knife.