Admiring friend: "My that's a beautiful baby you have there!"
Mother: "Oh, that's nothing - you should see his photograph."
From "The Image" by Dennie Bouston
Foods, like fashion models, often look better in photos than they do in real life.
The days are over when marbles were put in a bowl of vegetable soup to make it look chunkier. But there still are plenty of tricks to the trade which continue to make cooks wonder why their cakes don't look like the ones on the packages.
It's not surprising that food photographers are paid handsomely - up to $1,000 a day. But it is surprising that a good home economist who specializes in food styling may be even more important than the person who clicks the shutter.
Home economists who prepare food for the camera are part dietilian, part artist, part stoic. They can tick off the Basic Seven: but they can also make a mackerel look magnificient, and keep their cool amidst dimpling peas and fallen souffles.
"At least 90 percent of getting the job done well is up to the home economist," according to one successful free-lancer who has photographed almost every food there is for several companies. "If the food looks bad, there's nothing I can do."
The home economist prepares for a food "shoot" the way she might get ready for a dinner party. She shops, tests unfamiliar recipes in advance, and prepares food that will keep (breads for example) before the shoot. Counting preparation time, getting one good shot can take a full day.
Like a mechanic, the home economist never goes to the job without her tools. The basic kit includes toothpicks, cotton swabs, tweezers, eyedroppers, paint brushes, spray bottles, scissors and a variety of garnishes parsley, watercress, lemonst. She might also bring along her own knives and any equipment she will need that the photographer does not have in his studio kitchen.
To look good in photos, foods require special handling and cooking techniques. Salads, for example, are not tossed: They are built, piece by piece, to look tossed. Spaghetti is not drained and then dumped onto a plate this causes kinks, it is carefully lifted, a few strands at a time, from the hot water to cold water to the plate. Sauce is spooned onto the wavy tangle in minute quantities until the right effect is achieved; a few drops may even be artfully placed with an eyedropper. Sliced mushrooms are placed with tweezers.
Cake never looks dry in advertisements or magazine food layouts. Why not? In the world of food photography, cake is not just cut, it is "picked" with a long pointed stick that pulls out crumbs and gives the sliced surfaces a moist, textured look.
Turkey is usually only half-baked - in part, as a short cut loven time is money, but also because the skin of a fully cooked bird starts to shrivel and look dry. To bring out their jewel-like color, fresh vegetables are dunked in boiling water for a moment or two, then drained and rinsed in cold water. Frozen vegetables, like peas and green beans, are simply thawed, then photographed.
Some home economists prefer to fry eggs in oil, since butter can discolor the edges and will cling to the egg, hardening on the plate. One home economist trims her fried eggs with scissors as she balances them on in extra-long spatula to get rid of the very thin ragged edge on the egg white.
Hamburgers are frequently cooked just long enough to brown both sides, but not enough to make red juices ran out. The home economist may also hold the patty upright in her hands, turning it to brown the edges.
Bacon is sometimes baked on racks in a slow oven, rather than fried in a skillet, to curb shrinkage and curling at the edges. A lowcholesterol bacon substitute, made from soy products, creates the opposite problem for photographers. It looks too flat when cooked. The home economist places objects (wooden spoon handles, for example) under strips of the product.
Some foods are more difficult to work with than others. Ice cream, obviously, presents problems, especially if it has caramel or chocolate, ripples. "They keep moving around," said one home economist, "even when the ice cream is rocksolid."
As the photographer shoots, the home economist becomes an ice cream factory, her hands in a freezer, forming scoops, so several stand-ins will be ready as each new dish being photographed goes soft. Generally, she uses a dry utensil so the surface will be rough-textured and more photogenic than the slick, wet scoop you get in a shop. Shredded dry ice is sometimes sprinkled on the ice cream, once it's on the set, to keep it cold.
Souffles are a home economist's nightmare. They may be perfect when the oven door opens, and a sunken mass by the time the dish is placed on the set. (One photograher solves this logistical problem by photographing a souffle on the even rack.) There is no trick to getting a good souffle shot; there are only long hours and mountains of egg whites. An experienced home economist working for one national food magazine once spent 12 hours baking 12 crabmeat souffles before the editors were satisfied.
Food, shot in "still life," presents problems enough. Add people to the shot, and the frustrations multiply. One home economist, whose job for the day was to make pizzas, prepared 18 before the client, a cookware company, was happy. As No. 18, the crust perfectly puffed and brown, was rushed to the set with the cheese still melting, the child-model's tutor announced. "It's time for Buddy's break." Buddy took his break, and the home economist started kneading No. 19. "The crew was very down-in-the-mouth after that," she said.
Once the main dishes are prepared, the home economist adds her final touch - the garnish. It might be as simple as the cook's staple - parsley - or as elaborate as pimiento latticing on a molded tuna spread. Sometimes it makes the dish, as in the case of an unidentifiable casserole, adorned with a starburst pattern strips, or a baked fish, covered with paper-thin, sliced cucumber "scales." And sometimes a garnish hides something we aren't supposed to see, like fish eyes, thought to repulse some people. They are often discreetly capped with the tip of an olive or a carved carrot slice.
Just before the shooting begins, the home economist glosses and sprays the food to give it a fresh, moist look. She wipes cooking oil on fresh vegetables and fruits, often used as props, spritzes water on greens, paints hot dogs or bologna with Karo syrup. With a long pointed stick. She fluffs rice to separate the grains and sops unwanted drips with cotton swabs.
After the food is on the set, it is the photographer's turn to work wizardry. He lights the food to emphasize color and texture, to suggest a time of day or create a mood. Light on cereals, for example, can be set so it cuts across the food from a low angle, in the same way the early morning sun hits the breakfast table. Props, of course, also help set the mood: a bowl of eggs, a pitcher of milk, the morning newspaper. (Props are obtained by a stylist, a person employed by the photographer to find anything, at any time, from fresh holly to the national flower of Bolivia.)
The photographer can also create effects of heat and cold. To duplicate steam, cigarette smoke is sometimes blown through a straw near the food. A glass of beer or cola that appears cold may not be cold at all. Real condensation, which forms when warm air hits a cold glass, is troublesome because it runs. To create an illusion of cold and condensation, photographers sometimes use an eyedropper to apply beads of glycerin, a clear, sticky substance that clings to the glass.
To capture the look of melting butter on film, the photographer may use a heat source other than the food itself - a hand-held hair dryer, for example. Or, he may simply touch the pat with a knife that has been warmed under hot tap water.
Many photographers are frustrated home economists who like to fuss with the food. One man, who photographs for a large cereal account, like to arrange flakes in a bowl, one by one, spraying each with a clear lacquer for an extra-crisp look. When he shoots peas for package labels, he puts them in place, sets his lights, then turns each pea over, one at a time, just before shooting, since the exposed side tends to dimple and fade slightly.
What products are the most difficult to shoot? Canned meat is one. "What can you do?" asked one photographer. "The stuff looks like dog food. So you make a sandwich and use lots of lettuce and tomoto."
Beer is also considered to be a tough subject.It must look luminous, with sparkling bubbles and a satisfactorily slurpy white cap of foam. To get one good shot, a photographer might go through two cases of beer, pouring, shooting, dumping the beer, and starting over again.
"Those sessions are a boozer's dream," said one beer photographer.
Though home economists and photographers do use tricks that make the photo of the food look better than the food itself, their techniques are the soul of innocence compared to common practices a decade ago.
"Ten years ago, everybody cheated and nobody paid much attention," said Sue Spitler, formerly a dietitian and magazine food editor and now a full-time free-lance home economist and food consultant. "Cheating" meant making the prepared food or product appear to be something it wasn't by taking shortcuts, adding ingredients, even switching products.
A piece of apple pie, for example, would be "constructed" rather than baked, according to one veteran advertising man who has been directing food photography for 20 years. "We would put a styrofoam block between the top and bottom crust, with apple chunks on toothpicks stuck into the block, add the juices and shoot. Today, you just keep baking and slicing until you get the right piece."
Photographers also admit they used to switch products for advertising photos. Certain beers, for example, are still thought to pour better than others; some brands of bacon are believed to be less likely to shrink. If the client was an inferior brand, the photographer would simply substitute his favorite.
Extra ingredients were commonly added to packaged products (pot pies, for example) to plump them up. Prepared gravies were thickened with cornstarch to make them appear less watery.
Then Campbell's got fried. The Federal Trade Commission charged in 1969 that the ubiquitous soup maker and its advertising agency, BBD&O, had deceived consumers by placing clear marbles in the bottom of a bowl of vegetable soup, making the soup look chunkier than it really was. After that, food companies and advertising agencies issued detailed guidelines for photography, and stern warnings to employes: no more hanky-panky on the set. Standards are particularly strict for package shots and photos ofdishes made from recipes offered on labels or in ads. If unusual claims or effects are part of an ad, those present during the photo session may be called upon to sign an affidavit, swearing that no gimmickry was used.
Despite Campbell's soup and its marbles, there still are some blatantly phony items used today in food photos. One old stand-by, shaving cream, formerly was used as a substitute for whipping cream but faded from the scene when artifical toppings were introduced. A few photographers still use fake ice cubes (made of plastic) but at $20 a cube, they are an expensive, and often unnecessary deception.
One photographer admitted that the "milk" in the bowls he shoots for cereal package fronts is not really milk. Instead he concocts a thick whitsih glop that won't make the cereal soggy. (Indeed, it adheres in clumps to the cereal and sliced fruit.)
Home economists sometimes use instant mashed potatoes, colored pale green or pink, as "sherbet," but only when the item is being depicted generically.
But when did reality have anything to do with the art of advertising?
As Schiller said to Goethe, "Appearances should never attain reality, And if nature conquers, then must art retire."