The final week of the photo composition class I’m taking at the Genesee Center just ended, and our last project was to compose a photo series. The type of series was left open-ended: it could be repetition of similar objects, a chronological series documenting an event, a documentary of a specific place, or illustration of a general theme/idea.
Since I’m always photographing food for this blog, I knew I wanted to do something with food photography, but every idea I thought of seemed really commonplace. Food preparation steps? Nah, tons of people do that already and it’s not really artistic enough for where I wanted to go with the project. Photographing the same meal but in different styles? That seemed promising, but what sorts of food photography styles are there? Then suddenly I had it: I would do my project on how food photography has evolved over the past 40-50 years!
Anyone would notice at first glance that food photos from 1960s and 1970s cookbooks are glaringly retro, but what exactly makes them appear that way? (Besides the content of the food itself… oh man, so much jello. Gross jello. Salmon jello or mustard jello, anyone?) I went looking for scans from old cookbooks (finding this hilarious blog in the process) and came up with this list of common photography elements in the retro photographs:
- Garnishes everywhere (parsley, radishes, olives, toothpicks!)
- Busy patterns (wallpaper, napkins, towels)
- Plants/flowers/candlesticks/saltshakers/random crap in the background
- Small food (rice, vegetables) arranged in a tight, even circle around main dish (like pot roast or goulash)
- 45 degree angle above food (generally no shots from directly above or on the same level as the dish)
- Deep depth of field (everything in these photos is in focus, no blurred backgrounds)
- Sharp shadows under dishes from strictly artificial lighting
- Low degree of contrast (no pure blacks or whites, everything looks a bit flat)
- Warm tones
Now that I had a general idea of what would make a food photo look retro, I could begin my photo series. During the past week, I took two photos of each dish I made: one in a retro style and one in a contemporary style. I didn’t go out of my way to make any retro recipes (so no jello); my goal was to take the food I usually prepare and see how different I could make the same dish look just by changing the composition and lighting.
So here it is! I’m really happy with the way my series turned out, and I hope you enjoy looking at it just as much as I enjoyed photographing it!
Egg Noodles with Cabbage and Onions