Food Photography: It Is Not Just About the Food

Food Photography: It Is Not Just About the Food

The mania surrounding food photography is a pretty recent phenomenon. In the last decade, what used to be a niche in photography took social media by storm and ever since has been one of the favorite topics for a huge amount of accounts. It is supposedly the second most popular subject of photography fanatics on Instagram after the selfie tsunami. I sat down to talk with Hein van Tonder, a food photographer carving his way into the food royalty.

Professional food photography is a collaborative effort, usually involving an art director, a photographer, a food stylist, a prop stylist, and their respective assistants. Hein van Tonder does everything on his own, starting with the conception or alteration of recipes, to their execution, and all the way to the photography. Finally, he does not use colorants or other fake chemical effects that give a great visual result but render the dish inedible. Does the one-man show explain his rapid ascension in the industry?

Van Tonder started his blog three years ago and through that became a professional food photographer and stylist. He has contributed and worked for Cuisine et Vin de France, Taste Magazine, Food and Home Magazine, Sunday Times Food Weekly, Checkers, and Clemengold amongst others. He has also photographed two books which both have been published this month.

Food photography is a very specific genre, as it demands a passion and a deep understanding of the products: let's remember that ice cream melts, caramel sticks, and fresh herbs wither. Hein has always had a great love for food and cooking, and so, it seemed natural for him to eventually add photography to the mix. His style is unfussy, approachable, and not too serious. He loves to jump from dark and moody to light and bright depending on the dish he is photographing. This flexibility of tone always puts the dish first, giving it an authentic mood that goes straight to the point: your appetite.

How many times have you heard: "You eat with your eyes first"? Food contains all of the elements of design that can make a striking image. Color, texture, pattern, line, shape, and form are all there, yet the key ingredient is to capture the image in a way that makes the viewer want, no, need to eat what they are seeing, even if they just finished a three-day Christmas marathon of Polish specialties.

A beautifully executed food image will make the viewer's mouth water and their stomach rumble! Moreover, great food photographers are rising to the task of bringing to life the most famous metaphor of the literary circles of the beginning of the twentieth century: the Madeleine of Marcel Proust (the French novelist used a sponge cake to illustrate the strength of sensory triggers). Van Tonder is no exception; for him, it is not just about a pretty picture, it is about creating an image that will ignite a feeling in the viewer:

 Food is a common thread for all of us. We all have memories that include food or a dish that we remember. We eat to stay alive, but we also eat when we celebrate, and we eat in times of sadness, so it is an integral part of our lives.

Using a Nikon D750, a 50mm lens and a 105mm Macro lens he shoots only in natural light. In his process, pre-production takes a lot of time time as it includes making the food that he is going to shoot. Retouching is usually a breeze, as he tries to capture the dishes as naturally as possible so his editing is minimal.

The simplicity of his setup is not to be taken for granted, as one cannot become a great food photographer without an extensive understanding of light, color palettes, and styling trends.

The concept of “food pornography” is attributed to American Feminist Critic Rosalind Coward in her 1984 book Female Desire. The term was used in the 1980s and 1990s in other academic papers and some culinary news articles, but it was in 2005 that it spread to the masses when a Flickr photo group was created with that name.

I asked van Tonder if he thought food porn and the craziness surrounding it on social media made it harder or easier for food photographers to get their images out to the world and get noticed. He agreed that the amount of food imagery out there makes it tricky to get the work noticed, but a beautiful, well-crafted image will always stand out. Social media has given many talented people (him included) an opportunity to turn a passion into a profession. One just needs to stand out with consistency.

I have always wondered why food photography does not seem to have the same traction in the art world as other photography themes. The masses and the professionals are quick to label a nude photograph as art, while food photography seems stuck in the illustration function. By comparison, the genre of still life in painting can be traced back to the 16th century, the "natural beauty” movement later giving food compositions its recognition (thus, paintings of dishes are common artworks in galleries and museums). French Inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce snapped the first food photograph in 1832 of a table with a bowl, a few utensils, a goblet, and a heel of bread. We have come a long way from that first snap, and van Tonder told me that there is a great move internationally from photographers to elevate food photography as an art form. Let's see what happens. Is this genre of photography still to receive its full recognition?

Some examples of famous still life paintings depicting food.

In the meantime, after browsing through Hein van Tonder's portfolio, I am famished and need to sink my teeth into a cake! Bon appétit!

All images used with permission of Hein van Tonder.

Anna Dabrowska's picture

Anna Dabrowska is a beauty and fashion photographer based in Paris.

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Beautiful work. Really stands out from the flood of blogger shots splattered on the web.

When someone says "Art Photography" to me, one of the first names that comes to mind is Edward Weston.

Great reference. Thanks!

You're welcome, although it was intended to be a counter-example to your claim, "The masses and the professionals are quick to label a nude photograph as art, while food photography seems stuck in the illustration function."

I understand that but still feel comfortable with my claim. It is a question of percentages and there will always be exceptions.

If it's a question of percentages, then you may want to consider the number of photos of "nude" people on the internet and how many of them would be considered as art rather than pornography. It is the intention, perhaps, that is the deciding factor.

Analogously, most food pictures that we'll run across on the internet are intended as illustrations, with clever color choices and design, but with no artistic depth or greater meaning.

Instead, think of ANY famous fine art photographer who has photographed food. Mapplethorpe has taken nudes that mostly are considered art. What about his famous pineapple or grapes photos? Do people discard them as "illustration", or treat them differently than the rest of his body of work? No, because his intent is clearly artistic.

A very good article Anna, and the pictures are excellent!!

Thanks Norbert!

Hi Anna - great article, but isn't Rosalind Coward a UK journalist/critic/academic, not American?