In interviews with five photographers from the United States and Canada, Mark Oppenheimer explores an essential element of 21st-century visual culture: the food photo. Whether taken by a professional with an expensive lens and a support team, or by a passionate amateur wielding a smartphone, images of food abound in our world. Settle in for a good read about what motivates the pros, and what they think makes their work not just good, but deliciously transformative.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, the French photographer who revolutionized the art of photography in the 20th century, famously coined the term “decisive moment.” He referred to it as the perfect alignment of all the elements of a scene, resulting in a compelling image that captures the essence of the subject.
Well-constructed, professional food shots can be as intimate as a portrait, visually revealing flavor, texture, temperature, and temptation. The missing bite out of a piece of cake allows us to imagine that we are enjoying that cake. As photographer Scott Goldsmith says, “a good food photograph should evoke intrigue, curiosity, and desire.”
Driven by social media and smartphones, food photography has been democratized to the point that it is undeniably part of our visual culture, encouraging us to connect over our shared love of food, and to learn about and explore different cultures through their cuisines. Food photographs are documents that will one day serve as a visual record of our culinary and cultural history, making the photo albums on our phones both biographies and travelogues. Our images connect us to the story of our lives and to cherished aspects of culture and tradition.
Following are excerpts from recent interviews with five skilled food photographers, sharing valuable insights into their art, as well as showcasing some of their finest work.
Donna Griffith is an award-winning Canadian photographer known for capturing the beauty and essence of interior design, architecture, and food. Working with top designers, architects, and chefs, her images have been featured in House & Home, Style at Home, Canadian Living, and more.
How do you approach a food shot differently than a portrait?
Food doesn’t talk back. When you’re working with food, you pretty much control everything, although there will be times some food doesn’t want to behave and things melt or wilt.
Laura Petrilla has been chasing the light ever since she was a teenager. At 16, she managed a neighborhood photo studio. By 19, Laura had booked her first photography assignment. In addition to her work as a photographer, Laura is also a trained birth doula. She resides in Pennsylvania with her two daughters, Freya and Fauna.
Are you shooting a plate of food or telling a story?
It’s a story when I’m working with chefs. We work together to curate and build the shot, and I see the story come to life. There’s a kind of ebb and flow, a dance of harmony, which helps find the harmony within the photo.
Over a four-decade career, Penina Meisels has received a James Beard Award and an Addy Award, and her photos are in the collections of the Smithsonian, the National Sporting Library, and the Library of Congress. With more than 30 books to her name, Penina has collaborated with Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Joann Weir, and Williams Sonoma. She lives in Santa Fe with her loyal corgi, Dr. Watson.
How do you work within the constraints of an assignment?
One of the reasons I love doing cookbooks is that it’s editorial work. The constraints involve following the recipes that are given to us. Sometimes the author will give us snapshots of what that dish is supposed to look like. Sometimes we follow, sometimes we don’t. There’s creative license.
Scott Goldsmith is a seasoned photojournalist with an expertise in food photography. Whether photographing a landscape, a portrait, or a plate of food, Scott approaches his subjects with a heartfelt and compassionate openness, evoking a sense of vulnerability.
How do you prepare a shot when you’re going on location?
Unlike most food photographers, I can’t script it. I like it best when nothing is preconceived. I just have to see it and feel it; to know whether it’s working or not. My best work happens when I’m inspired by unique locations.
As a child, Tira Howard captured her world with a point-and-shoot camera. After studying writing and acting in college, she returned to photography in 2013. She once considered being a war correspondent but abandoned the idea after her husband reminded her of her family responsibilities. Tira and her family reside in Santa Fe.
How do you engage a viewer’s emotions in the shot when you can only imply the other senses?
You’re telling another human’s brain to read the frame in a way that feels good. Moving the eye from left to right, with lighting and composition, letting the rule of thirds work, following the kind of spiraling of the Fibonacci sequence, because it’s naturally occurring. And it often elicits its own emotional response. Pleasure, like sweets, is universally enjoyed.
Story by Mark Oppenheimer / Photography by Donna Griffith, Laura Petrilla, Penina Meisels, Scott Goldsmith, and Tira Howard
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