The Vulgar Pleasure of 1970s Food Photography

In a fascinating series of articles over at The Foodie Bugle, food photographer Helen Grace Ventura Thompson describes how food photography has changed over the decades.

In the 1950s, she writes, “the pictures looked as though they were taken from the top of a ladder, six or eight feet away.”

Fancy Breakfast, 1958. Source: Glen.H/Flickr.

Fancy Breakfast, 1958. Source: Glen.H/Flickr.

Beginning in the 1960s, higher-end food photography was “coming in close and capturing movement.” As Ventura Thompson tells it, it began to “demonstrate[] the same painterly skill of 17th century still life” and the lighting effects of 19th century impressionists.

Vegetarian Feast, mid-1960s. Source: Glen.H/Flickr

Vegetarian Feast, mid-1960s. Source: Glen.H/Flickr

By the 1980s, there was a shift in food photography toward an emphasis on “ambiance and lifestyle” characterized by “romantic lighting, shallower angles, and more props.” Here’s a rather dramatic example:

1980s: Filet de sole Veronique and Summer Splendor. Souce: Greg.H/Flickr.

1980s: Filet de sole Veronique and Summer Splendor. Souce: Greg.H/Flickr.

By the 1990s, photographs began utilizing naturalistic close-ups and shallow death of field, with only a part of the subject in focus. The photographs featured white backgrounds, and were “shot either above or from the side, very minimal but with bright and vivid colors.” Food began to be photographed in natural daylight.

1990s food photography: barely in focus. Source: COD Newsroom/Flickr.

1990s food photography: possibly cupcakes, barely in focus. Source: COD Newsroom/Flickr.

In the 21st century, food photography has continued to bridge the gap between the commercial and art worlds. Individual ingredients are photographed from above, and there is a “focus on raw ingredients.” On the one hand, there is a return to the composed still life, on the other experimentation with a minimalism influenced heavily by fashion photography. On the other, more populist hand, is food porn, featuring“visual stimuli of erotically suggestive food” designed to “stir viewers’ senses.” In the 21st century , with the rise of iPhoneography, “food porn” has continued to flourish…and to irk chefs. In a recent piece from the Daily Beast, chef Rocco Iannone of Pappacarbone in Salerno, Italy, insists his photogenic food “is meant to be eaten, not bastardized by a badly-lit photo.” He is a leader in the fight among Italian chefs to curb the food porn phenomenon, which he says “is both an infringement of intellectual property and often insulting.” “I want to control my image,” he argues, “and if someone publicizes smudged plate or an inaccurate portrayal, that’s like defaming my name.” Restaurants in France, too, have begun banning “amateur food photography,” the article reports. Their grounds: “We are trying to give our clients a break in their lives.” When Rogue24 in Washington, D.C., opted to embed a no-photography rule in its 2-page diner’s contract, they gave similar rationale: “All guests should be able to enjoy the experiences that surround them at Rogue24 fee of distraction.

As for the 1970s, I have firsthand experience with that.

In college, a good friend and I took to taking Friday morning drives in the beautiful countryside around Charlottesville, Virginia. One such Friday took us about 30 miles away to Orange, home of James Madison’s Montpelier. A church rummage sale was taking place, and we stopped in. I found an avocado green box marked “Dinner Is Served.” Inside were recipe cards, copyright 1972, with the most hideous food photography: vegetables doused in blood-red sauces, unimaginable meat- and fish-loaves, and gelatin molds galore. Sure, the cards had probably faded with time, but the lighting and the colors and the angles and the plating…it was well worth 75 cents.

“Oh, are you learning to cook?” asked the nice, old lady who took my quarters. “Sure,” I said, “sure.”

I still look at the cards not infrequently and drag them out for dramatic effect at get-togethers. But, all these years later, I have yet to prepare a single one of their recipes. Perhaps tomorrow night.

photo(21)

Stuffed zucchini.

Stuffed bell peppers.

Stuffed bell peppers.

Filet of sole a la Lindor.

Filet of sole a la Lindor.

Turkey a la King.

Turkey a la King.

Liver a la Gourmet.

Liver a la Gourmet.

Tuna-cheese-macaroni loaf.

Tuna-cheese-macaroni loaf.

Stuffed crown roast of pork.

Stuffed crown roast of pork.

Chicken livers in sherry.

Chicken livers in sherry.

Tuna on toasted English muffins.

Tuna on toasted English muffins.

Medallions of beef (sauce Bearnaise).

Medallions of beef (sauce Bearnaise).

Advertisements

6 comments

  1. This post was great fun. Thanks:0)

  2. Wow very interesting, thanks for sharing this trend!

  3. […] more food for thought, see this amusing post on the “vulgar pleasure” of 1970s food photography and this post for a fascinating […]

  4. My French Heaven · · Reply

    What a fantastic post! These pictures remind me so much of my childhood and the cookbooks my mom used to use to teach me in the 70s. Great post!!!

  5. Bernadette · · Reply

    Oh dear, all this food has made me hungry. Thanks for the great post 🙂

  6. I have a cooking encyclopedia of the 70s at home, full of triumphant compositions very similar to these. My mother refuses to part from it: she says today’s cookbooks are only full of weird recipes. I’m saving it in the hope it becomes antique and gains value.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: