Styling: At the Intersection of Photography and Food

By Daryl Mogilewsky

I took a photography course last year while I was living in Austin, Texas. A few classes in, a fellow student asked the instructor if we would be covering “food photography” in the course material. Austin is a food hub, after all. The instructor replied with a slight smirk and a quip to the effect of, “there’s not much to go over.”

A year later, I find myself in Sheryl Julian’s Food Styling Seminar on a rainy Saturday afternoon at Boston University’s Food and Wine Program. The former Food Editor of the Boston Globe led the seminar this past weekend with Valerie Ryan, current Boston Globe columnist and food science instructor for the Gastronomy program.

“Your best friend is good food when you’re styling,” began Julian.

Corporate food styling can include the use of inedible alterations to achieve specific looks and even cultural preferences can create varying trends in the art form. However, Julian and Ryan are editorial food stylists, meaning they create edible dishes for shoots.

Their seminar covered editorial styling aesthetics from props and plating to the use of texture and color. More importantly to me, however, the seminar solidified the connection between stylist and photographer. Being a photographer is one thing, but knowing how to photograph beautiful food begins with the creation of beautiful food. Julian calls it “cooking to shoot.”

A food stylist, whether or not they are the actual photographer for a shoot, cooks the food, plates the food and creates context by selecting props and backdrops to set the scene. A knowledge of cooking is necessary. It is also necessary to know that pasta should be tossed in oil and looped around your fingers before being positioned on the plate, that Japanese and Chinese Chopsticks are different, that Maldon Salt and parsley photograph beautifully and that small props are vital. Food stylists are a particular breed of artist.

Now, as a gastronomy scholar in training, I must ask why it is that there is an entire art form and career track devoted to styling and photographing food. Through the Gastronomy program we learn to think more critically about why studying food is inherently interdisciplinary.

I could begin by asking:

Why do we take the time to construct photographs of edible food stuffs, in perfect lighting, on long rustic tables surrounded by strategically strewn crumbs?

I could then talk about styling from a media perspective and discuss how long tables inspire notions of community, triggering feelings of nostalgia in consumers. Additionally, I could ask why food styling has trended towards a more disheveled style, with the inclusion of crumbs and scraps in finished images. I could relate this to the shift away from the notion of the “gourmet” that ruled the food scene before the 1990’s. I could then ask how the word “foodie” relates to food photography and I could tie this to elitism and classism in our food systems.

And on and on we go.

When I told my photography instructor that I was moving to Boston to study food he rolled his eyes and told me to send him some wine and cheese. While wine, cheese and learning how to take tempting pictures of food make up a portion of food studies, it’s the interest in the scope and the depth of food that make us students of Gastronomy.

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