Decades ago, food styling was widely considered a form of visual trickery. A stylist’s job is to buy, cook, and arrange food for the camera, but the profession is better known for making food look unrealistically beautiful, and totally inedible–conning viewers with fake grill marks drawn in eyeliner and uncooked poultry painted to look just-out-of-the-oven.
These are people who wield kits full of Q-tips, tweezers, brushes, oils, and even Windex, ready to wipe away stray crumbs and drops on plates and turn dishes with average blemishes and imperfections into camera-ready models. But most of the food you see in photos isn’t as fake as you might think, food stylists say.
Elaborate trickery still plays a role in some advertising, where food has to sit for long periods of time under hot lights as everyone involved in the shoot weighs in on the image. But editorial food photography is adopting a more natural look.
Part of this is a legal issue–passing off fake food as real is false advertising–and part of it is technological. Slight touch-ups are easily done in the age of Photoshop to smooth out little imperfections. As camera technology has gotten better and cheaper, and amateur food photography has become more popular, people’s expectations of what professional food photography should look like have risen.
There are cultural underpinnings, too. After decades of consuming over-processed foods, Americans have turned to healthy eating. Labels like “natural,” “organic,” and “non-GMO” help sell billions of dollars of food a year. And with natural food, comes visual imperfection–organic produce is usually a bit smaller, a bit duller, and a bit more likely to have a bruise than regular produce. From a photography standpoint, that means messy food is in.
Kristy Mucci, a food stylist whose clients include the publisher Hachette, Food52, and Blue Hill Yogurt, says her first knowledge of the profession came from TV. “They were showing a woman painting lipstick on unripe strawberries,” she says. “Things like that just don’t happen” anymore.
Roscoe Betsill, a food and prop stylist who works in New York City and the Hudson Valley, has been in the business for 20 years, and says it’s been a gradual but significant change. “When I started, a lot of people were using fake food, [like] mashed potatoes for ice cream. Things were not fully cooked–a roast turkey might be painted with a solution that made it look cooked.”
But now, the bar for food photography is higher. When everyone with an iPhone turns brunch into a carefully filtered photo stream, there’s a greater awareness of what real food looks like. “There’s so many people taking pictures of food today,” Betsill says. “People are more attuned to what food photography is.”
Food fakery occasionally had legal ramifications. In 1970, the Federal Trade Commission issued a complaint charging the Campbell Soup Company with false advertising in its TV commercials. The company had put glass marbles in its condensed soup to make the solid ingredients rise to the top. This, the FTC decided, made it look like there were significantly more vegetables than really came in a can of Campbell’s. A lawsuit ensued, and the soup company eventually dropped the ads.
As a rule, the specific food a company is advertising has to be real. The food around the main product, though, doesn’t. The FTC spends most of its time policing dubious health claims, not chasing down deceptive food photos, anyway.
Little fixes, like a slightly squished corner of cheese on a hamburger or the color of an out-of-season tomato, can be easily remedied in Photoshop. “It used to be someone would have to go in and retouch photographs by hand,” Betsill says. “With Photoshop, it’s really easy to change something” in post-production, he says.
Organic food is now a $35 billion industry in the U.S.–up from just $1 billion in 1990. The label “natural”–which has no official FDA definition–helps sell $41 billion of food per year. The number of farmer’s markets in the U.S. has exploded over the past two decades. Consumers are increasingly interested in food that looks like it came off a farm, not like it was concocted in a lab. And magazine editors and photographers have embraced and perpetuated the trend with spreads of artfully unkempt dishes.
A new embrace of imperfect-looking food, compared to the stodgy, pristine look that once dominated the covers of Gourmet, means that what you’re looking at in the pages of a magazine probably does taste as good as it looks. “Most everything is starting to look really natural and organic,” Mucci says. “It’s awesome, because most of the time if that’s the case, the food isn’t being messed with in a way that you can’t eat it.” On the shoots she styles, there’s almost always edible food left over that the crew takes home.
And while Photoshop may make touch-ups relatively easy, the eagerness to edit a photo to perfection can backfire. “When someone has changed the color of the sauce, it just pops out to me,” Betsill says. Though he says this wasn’t always the case in food photography, now, the “food has to look real; it has to be believable,” he explains.
“Everybody assumes that nothing we make is edible,” Mucci explains. “I think that has changed so much.” For example, she uses Evian spray bottles of water (sold as a facial spray, but 100% water) to spruce up produce, and vinegar or vodka instead of Windex to clean up a plate. She might paint oil on pasta to keep it from looking dry, but she calls even that “kind of a bummer,” because then you don’t really want to eat it.
The natural trend doesn’t necessarily extend to advertising, says Susan Spungen, who served as the founding editorial director for Martha Stewart Living‘s food section and is now a stylist for print, commercials, and films (she worked on the steamy pie scene in last year’s Labor Day). “You’re trying to make it look as good as possible. Sometimes there’s more artifice involved,” she explains. While the product itself can’t be fake–you can’t use images of fake ice cream to sell Häagen-Dazs, for instance–the surrounding food, like the milk in a cereal commercial, can be altered. “It’s never milk. It’s always Elmer’s glue,” she explains, because it looks whiter on camera than real milk, and keeps the cereal from getting soggy.
When there’s a client, an art director, a photographer, a food stylist, a prop stylist, and others on set trying to make a perfect photo, the process takes a while. “There’s so many people involved that you have to adopt these things to make [foods] last longer while everyone discusses the minutia,” Spungen explains. Food styling, she says, is “really about making food behave somewhat, which might mean letting meat cool before you slice it, or refreshing herbs or lettuces in cold water–all things that will make [food] last a little longer.”
Because after all, whether it’s a magazine cover or an ad campaign, getting the perfect image matters to the bottom line. “It comes down to dollars and cents,” Spungen says. “The more that’s riding on it, the more convoluted the process becomes.” And that’s when the glue comes out.