The Intellectual Engagement of “Fine Art Food Photography”

Fine art food photography [faɪn][ˈɑːt][fo͞od][fə-tŏgˈrə-fē] (n.) – The term fine art food photography is quite subjective and refers to photographs executed with a highly trained eye for aesthetics, usually incorporating either references to art history or conceptual ideas of food or art theory. These ideas and concepts found in fine art food photography often carry with them a certain social, moral, metaphysical, political, or philosophical message.  Those photos which focus on selling food or simply documenting it, are not usually fine art. Fine art food photography could be thought of, but is definitely not limited to, images that would be suitable for exhibiting at an art gallery or museum.

Example: “I just saw a great exhibition of food photographs that look like Dali paintings on display at the contemporary art museum. They bring up so many interesting ideas about the nature of reality and dreams and how we obsess about diets and food all the time. It’s so subtle in its presentation though, it’s some of the best fine art food photography I’ve ever seen.” 

Roe Etheridge, Fruit, 2011 Fine Art Food Photography, fine art food photography definition, food styling photography dictionary, food styling photography glossary, food styling photography styling vocabulary, food styling photography styling jargon, food styling photography language, food styling photography slang
Fruit, 2011 by Roe Etheridge is an example of contemporary still life. Although it may look like a normal still life at first glance, perspective is skewed by the surprisingly shaped slices. This classifies as fine art food photography because of its complex and unique visual elements that point to something bigger, such as the incongruous fur rug and the masterful lines of composition. Especially when thought of as a continuation of the artist’s previous work, the extent to which each photographer manipulates reality is the clear theme. © Roe Etheridge.

What Does Fine Art Food Photography Look Like?

Because all fine art in general is quite subjective, depending greatly on how it is interpreted, fine art food photography can look very different from artist to artist and project to project. Traditionally, the genre of still life food photography was the only kind of food photography deemed to have artistic interest. With this style, artists focus on composition and lighting to make scenes that possess an often hard to describe beauty, usually referencing the long history of still life painting as well. Photographers like Henry Fox Talbot and Roger Fenton did just this, though were absolute pioneers in their own right for proving photography could be as beautiful as other more accepted visual art forms of the time.

With fine art food photography’s evolution other visual styles have become popularly accepted as fine art, from postmodern and performance related to surreal and dreamlike. In general, fine art food photography doesn’t have to be as flashy, brightly lit, or as full of effects as advertising or editorial food photography for example. This is because fine art food photography doesn’t necessarily have to be eye-catching, whereas in the two aforementioned genres this is an almost universal goal.

The ultimate intent in fine art food photography is to engage more than impress. This means that the photo should make the viewer think while they explore the details and possible meanings of the artwork. For example, imagine a shot of many fruit peels, bones, and crumbs with a glass of wine that spilled beside it, all arranged like a classic still life. The photo, by showing these remains of decadence, could be commenting on gluttony, the wealth behind classical art commissions, the nature of photography compared to painting, or simply the rebellious spirit of the artist himself.

Untitled Banquet Araki Fine Art Food Photography, fine art food photography definition, food styling photography dictionary, food styling photography glossary, food styling photography styling vocabulary, food styling photography styling jargon, food styling photography language, food styling photography slang
In his photobook The Banquet, Nobuyoshi Araki photographs every meal he eats with his wife who is dying of cancer. The photographs are unexpectedly moving, as the food symbolizes the body, its beauty, and its decay. Book published by © Errata Editions 2012.

The Conceptual and Deeper Side of Fine Art Food Photography

For food photography to be fine art it must allow for some kind of deeper interpretation from the viewer. If there is absolutely nothing that can be said of a photograph when asked “What does it mean?”, then it probably isn’t fine art. The concept could be related to food, or the food could represent a non-food related concept. Because food is such an integral part of human life, it can easily promote a discussion of metaphysical ideas. By surrounding a human body with thick cuts of raw meat, the resulting photo would not emphasize the superior consciousness of humans, but rather draw a parallel to the meat, possibly suggesting that we are all composed of animal matter, yet neglect to acknowledge this plain fact.

When discussing globalization, over-population, the environment, or poverty, food is always directly connected politically. A bowl of rice could be the brightest white in an otherwise dirty room, showing the scarcity and simplicity of a village’s diet and the light that even one bowl of grain can bring. Because fine art food photography, by definition, can be interpreted by viewers and critics on every possible level, the artist must also be aware of what certain food items stand for. An example is the banana, which depending on the context in which the art is being used, could be a symbol of US interference in Central America or a phallus. As you can imagine, you wouldn’t want your artistic intentions to be confused!

Medusa Marinara Vic Muniz Fine Art Food Photography, fine art food photography definition, food styling photography dictionary, food styling photography glossary, food styling photography styling vocabulary, food styling photography styling jargon, food styling photography language, food styling photography slang
Medusa Marinara, 1997 by Vic Muniz bluntly treats food as a basic and somewhat messy part of our existence. Spaghetti in red sauce is definitely not the most glamorous or fancy food, yet the imagery references the classic painting Medusa by Caravaggio. The idea is to highlight the perhaps exaggerated supernatural aura of classic art pieces by ridiculously mimicking them and humanizing them with food. © Vic Muniz.

Why the History of Food in Fine Art is Important

In other sub-genres of food photography, the work that has come before matters, but not so much as in fine art food photography. The art world canonizes previous artists, which turns their work into a sort of reference point for navigating difficult conceptual and stylistic realms. If a series of fine art food photographs borrows pop culture imagery and replaces some non-food objects with food for example, the artist, although perhaps not directly influenced, should be informed by the pop art movement that came before.

Fine art food photography is usually suggestive, people who need absolute answers and meaning may flail about without any linear explanations to grab a hold of. Food photographers recognize that it is extremely hard to make interesting artwork because so much has already been done, and people see so many images all the time. To create intriguing fine art images, weaving a web of interpretations using symbols and visual art history references is more effective than answering the question “What does it mean?” with one specific answer.

What is fine art photography to you? You can comment below to tell us what you think! Or, use Phoode’s contact page to request more dictionary definitions of industry jargon from the world of food photography and styling.

The Food Photographer’s Glossary

Do you find yourself wondering what, exactly, the food photography industry professionals you admire most are talking about? From time to time, all of us get tripped up on industry jargon. The food photographer’s glossary is a “cheat sheet” for food photographers of all experience levels. Aside from providing definitions, we’ll go in depth to explain the purpose of each term in a studio context. Dive in and explore some professional lingo – you may just pick up on a few photo tips along the way! CLICK ON