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Food Photography, Over the Years

By Julia Turshen

New Recipes for Good Eating (1949)

I’ve always wanted a book like “Feast for the Eyes,” which charts the chronological history of the ways in which food has been photographed, recorded and shared for over a century. It starts in the 1800s, with the first photographs to depict food front and centre, and brings us to the present, with the many kinds of images we are so used to seeing now. And with the evolution of food photography, we also see the evolution of style, technology, politics, media and even home cooking. We are reminded over and over that everything new is hardly ever new.

For a cookbook author and lifelong lover of cookbooks like myself, “Feast for the Eyes” (US$60, available June 15 and for pre-order now) is also an evocative walk down memory lane. On so many pages, I’m reminded of the times I fell in love not only with the idea of creating recipes, but also with the images that accompanied them. Pictures of food have always been my preferred way to kick-start a daydream. They’re an instant passport to somewhere else.

In some notable instances in the book, food comes second, like in the image of the young black students sitting at a segregated lunch counter in the 1960s. But whether it takes a back seat — or centre stage — food is the focus of the still life images, conceptual fine-art photography and cookbook spreads featured in the book.

Here are a baker’s dozen of my favourites, which I discussed recently with the book’s author, Susan Bright, and Denise Wolff, its editor.

Peter J. CohenPhotographer unknown, found wedding photograph of couple beside their cake.
Photographer unknown, found wedding photograph of couple beside their cake.

I love how this one captures food as part of our biggest moments in life. It’s the most common way to celebrate and gather, and taking a snapshot gives that intimate moment some lasting legacy. It becomes clear that everything we do on social media has been done for a long time. We just share it differently. The private has become so much more public.

Courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ, LondonSarah Lucas, “Self Portrait With Fried Eggs,” 1996.
Sarah Lucas, “Self Portrait With Fried Eggs,” 1996.

Speaking of symbols before they were emojis, this iconic image from Sarah Lucas is at once so loaded and also so light. Wolff points out how flexible food can be, and that “it can be funny and subversive at the same time.”

Courtesy of National Media Museum/Science & Society Picture LibraryWilliam Henry Fox Talbot, “A Fruit Piece,” 1845.
William Henry Fox Talbot, “A Fruit Piece,” 1845.

This is right around the time food photography begins. Bright notes that we had previously seen food in picnics and in the background of things, but never in photographs that were just about the food. “It’s not just the first picture with food,” she told me, “but the first picture of food.” I just love the way that pineapple tips to the right. The beginning of food styling!

Photographer unknown, front cover of “New Recipes for Good Eating,” 1949.
Photographer unknown, front cover of “New Recipes for Good Eating,” 1949.

 This is the cover of a cookbook assembled by Crisco. Who is frying doughnuts with a kitchen that clean? “They were selling you lifestyle,” Wolff says. “Even though it looks a little silly to us now, it is selling us a certain dream of a certain type of family. This one is slightly sinister the more you look at it.” Bright observes that progress and shortcuts have always been a theme in American food photography. The image, interestingly, doesn’t correspond with the food situation at the time. “They’re pushing something that wasn’t really a reality,” she adds. Selling an idea, whether or not it exists in reality, seems to have long been part of the fantasy that’s tied to so much food photography.

Nickolas Muray Photo Archives, Courtesy of George Eastman Museum, Gift of Mrs. Nickolas MurayNickolas Muray, “Lemonade and Fruit Salad,” McCall’s magazine, circa 1943.
Nickolas Muray, “Lemonade and Fruit Salad,” McCall’s magazine, circa 1943.

The fantasy continues. There’s so much about this image that is so artificial and processed, but also wonderfully beautiful and precise. As Wolff says, “it’s interesting to look back at someone who did this before it was a cliché. People who are shooting commercially right now are very aware of this commercial history. In this sort of epic picnic, all is so perfectly placed. What’s weird is that I don’t know that I want to eat it…” This is around the time where you really see the birth of food styling and how everything in this photo was likely inedible, as it was shot under very intense light.

Richard MeekRichard Meek, cover of “The Cooking of Scandanavia, Time-Life Foods of the World,” 1968.
Richard Meek, cover of “The Cooking of Scandanavia, Time-Life Foods of the World,” 1968.

I inherited this series, “Time-Life Foods of the World,” from my aunt after she passed away, and these books were a pivotal part of my cookbook education. It’s always felt so appealing to be able to have the whole world on a single bookshelf. Bright aptly describes this series as consisting of “shortcuts into national identity.” It’s interesting to note that none of the covers of the books have text, and you have to look at the spine to know which country the book represents.

Léon PererLéon Perer, pages from “La Technique,” 1976.
Léon Perer, pages from “La Technique,” 1976.

Many chefs swear by Jacques Pépin’s “La Technique” and keep their copies close to the kitchen to use for reference. A series of photos that show the process of how to do just about everything cooking-related are like attending culinary school from your armchair. As a home cook who writes recipes for other home cooks, I rarely turn to my own copy for day-to-day use. I do love looking at it, though, for the story of transformation shown over and over again. While I never have needed to turn a lemon into a pig, it’s nice to know that I could — and how.

Ronny Jaques; © Lans ChristensenSpread of Gourmet covers, from left: Ronny Jaques, April 1981; Ronny Jaques, May 1982; Lans Christensen, June 1982.
Spread of Gourmet covers, from left: Ronny Jaques, April 1981; Ronny Jaques, May 1982; Lans Christensen, June 1982.

“We wouldn’t have these other magazines if we didn’t have Gourmet,” Bright says. The covers of Gourmet are reminiscent of the Time-Life series since they featured big, simple, incredibly beautiful photos that occupied the entire cover space and were accompanied by very little text. As Wolff says, “They conveyed something where not only did I want to eat what was depicted, I also wanted the lifestyle that went with it. I wanted everything in it.”

Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Courtesy of Autograph ABP.Rotimi Fani-Kayode, “Nothing to Lose 1,” 1981.
Rotimi Fani-Kayode, “Nothing to Lose 1,” 1981.

For the British-Nigerian artist Rotimi Fani-Kayode, food is not just something to eat. Seeing food depicted in fine-art photography helps us grasp just how symbolic and ritualistic food can be. And the idea of it being a living thing that gets ingested, something you quite literally take into your own body, is a huge part of Fani-Kayode’s “Bodies of Experience” series (of which this photo is a part).

Martin Parr/Magnum PhotosMartin Parr, “West Bay, England,” 2000.
Martin Parr, “West Bay, England,” 2000.

What a portrait of a place! I love that the flag is there, but not in the forefront. Nevertheless, “in an instant we know where we are,” as Bright says. To Wolff’s delight, “Even the sea gulls love fish and chips.”

Weegee/International Center of Photography, Courtesy of Steven Kasher GalleryWeegee, “Phillip J. Stazzone Is on WPA and Enjoys His Favorite Food as He’s Heard That the Army Doesn’t Go in Very Strong for Serving Spaghetti,” 1940.
Weegee, “Phillip J. Stazzone Is on WPA and Enjoys His Favorite Food as He’s Heard That the Army Doesn’t Go in Very Strong for Serving Spaghetti,” 1940.

The photographer Weegee helps introduce context to food — and in this photo, the subject consuming the spaghetti is just as important as the spaghetti itself. “We see how it can be kind of disgusting,” Wolff says. “You don’t know if it’s going in or coming out!” Bright adds.

pinterest.comHarold Edgerton, “Bullet Through Apple,” 1964
Harold Edgerton, “Bullet Through Apple,” 1964

An incredibly iconic image; it’s hard to think about photos of food without Harold Edgerton’s bullet series. “It’s supposed to be scientific, but he’s got these colourful backgrounds,” Bright says. “There’s a mixture of entertainment, science and art all mixed together. It’s held up by the thing that’s going through it. It’s quasi-science and also about might.”

pinterest.comIrving Penn, “Frozen Foods with String Beans, New York, 1977.”
Irving Penn, “Frozen Foods with String Beans, New York, 1977.”

My mother, Rochelle Udell, actually art-directed this Irving Penn photograph during her heyday at Condé Nast. It’s such an iconic photo and it’s so funny to think that some of this produce was in her actual freezer, as well as in that of the food stylist’s. Bright says that the “dates on these photographs astound me because they seem so now. There’s real modernity and simplicity. There’s never anything out of place with Penn. The thaw is just beginning, there’s a waiting. For me, that’s what makes the image: It’s just when the colour changes…” When I spoke to my mother about this, she reflected on Penn’s fascination with decay, seen so much in his many images of smoked cigarettes and dead flowers. “He stops time,” she said. “All photos hold a moment, but he holds it all a little longer. It’s a long, slow breath; you can feel end of life.” And with this one, there’s the promise of new beginnings. When the seeming rigor mortis thaws, it will all miraculously come back to life.


Julia Turshen is the author of “Small Victories.”


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