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Four changes in food photography

Our attitudes toward food have undergone a sea change in the last 10 years, thanks to writers like Michael Pollan and chefs like Alice Waters. Consider: In the 1940s, there was no point touting natural ingredients and local provenance because almost all food fit these criteria. But since the 1980s, industrial food has taken over—from Jell-O to dirt-cheap factory-raised chicken—and now we find ourselves trying to recapture an Arcadian, “organic” past. High-end chefs almost unanimously share the assumption that food should be sustainable; even haute burger joints advertise locally produced ingredients. So it’s only fitting that food photography, the key medium for making us hungry, has changed as well, to reflect our current view of just what a perfect meal comprises. The spread above, from the June 2009 issue of Gourmet, illustrates four themes at work.

From plate to place

Food magazines used to focus on the plate. But now the primary concern is where the food comes from, and the lens has shifted from the food itself to the culture that produced it. You’re now more likely to see the farmers themselves—and the people actually eating the cuisine—in the story of a meal.

Studio pros to photojournalists

These days, the old-school studio pros are giving way to photojournalists. “We think about ways to shoot so that you can see yourself with the food and in the event,” says Richard Ferretti, Gourmet’s creative director, who commissioned photographer Gabriele Stabile to shoot the images at left. Given current trends, magazines are more likely to shoot a backyard party and a slab of brisket on wax paper than a morsel of foie gras in a cloud of radish foam.

Magazine competition with television

According to Jessica Weber, a former creative director at Food & Wine and a photography judge at this year’s James Beard Awards, there’s another tension at work: Culinary magazines are increasingly competing with television, which is a more natural instructional medium. Subsequently, publications have shifted to cover what’s unknown, fleeting, or far-flung.

From tweezers to crumbs

Last, a certain studied offhandedness has become ubiquitous. Where food stylists formerly took an entire day to shoot a dish, working with gloves and brushes, art directors now prize stylists who make food look easy. “I give a lot of credit to Martha Stewart and her one crumb on the edge of the plate,” says Kathleen Purvis, the food editor at The Charlotte Observer. Ferretti agrees: “Organic has changed the ideal of what food looks like. It’s less about the tweezers and more about the handful.”