Food photography as a prism to the world
The culture of food is an engaging element to explore visually in food photography. Food has steadily become a way to appreciate the world and its diverse heritage, culture and history – it also serves as a gateway to the past. We’re familiar with the trends of clean eating, ‘field to fork’ and the concept of ethical eating. And that image buyers are looking for visuals that evoke stories that reach beyond the plate.
Some of the most popular cook books from last year highlighted the cuisines of Spain, Poland and Iran. The cuisine is bought to life in the photography. In Saffron Tales the images celebrate the textures and colors found on the Iranian dining table. In this article – Poetry in pistachios and pomegranates – the fascinating heritage and legends of Iran are revealed through the lens of food. The pomegranate for example, indigenous to Iran has a “near-mythical status”. In ancient Persian mythology the hero warrior Isfandiar is said to have eaten its seeds and become invincible!
Food photographer Anna Ivanova in this interview describes her excitement in being “acquainted with new cultures and cuisines” on her travels. Her visits to family run restaurants in the East Mediterranean region have inspired the styling and look to her work. Penny De Los Santos, a senior contributing photographer to Saveur magazine photographs food culture. In her bio she describes how “her evolution into food photography has allowed her to explore and celebrate culture, history and community through the lens of food”.
Like in travel photography there is now more storytelling in food photography. One of the pleasures of travelling abroad is to ‘eat like a local’ and discover a place through its cuisine. Travel companies are using more food images to push a destination. Eating street food has become a whole new narrative with image laden books and articles celebrating the joys of eating this kind of cuisine.
The tradition of foraging for food from the forest has emerged from Scandinavia. This has resulted in the creation of restaurants serving seasonal food picked from the great outdoors. It provides a more visceral appreciation of the food and where it has come from. This in turn influences the look of food photography. We’re seeing more unusual ingredients and foods from the forest. A darker canvas and chiaroscuro lighting sets off the earthiness and colours of the ingredients. The past is also reflected in the styling of a shoot with old fashioned cooking utensils, a nod to what our female forebears would have used.
British cuisine has been shaped over the years by immigration. In a recent London restaurant review the lead title was ‘Italian-Middle Eastern-Mexican fusion? Why not, if it works so beautifully’. Talk about colliding cultures! The book Empire of Booze tells another story; a history of the British Empire told through drink.
Photographer Tor Eigeland has for many years been telling stories about some of the least known cuisines through his photography. His travels to Damascus in Syria before the war reveal how its culture and history are entwined in the cuisine. In this article, it tells of the story of the success of Ghraoui Chocolate and how “history may be on Ghraoui’s side as he pursues making his family name internationally synonymous with chocolate. Damascus is already known for sweets throughout the Middle East, going back to the heyday of the Silk Roads, when the city was a major trading entrepôt, welcoming caravans of up to 3000 camels”.
The narrative of food culture is a compelling thing. There is so much tragedy behind the Syrian diaspora but the culture continues as I remind myself when I see a Syrian restaurant has opened, close to where I live in the UK. And in Berlin, Germany, this article reveals how ‘Berliners get an appetite for refugees’ cuisine’. For food has become “a means for cultural exchange” and an “important way” for refugees “to connect with their host Berliners”.
It’s apt to end I think with this quote from the Polish cookery book Polska from it’s author Zuza Zak.
“Food’s vital attribute is its placement precisely at the border between the world of nature and the world of culture”.