On Taking Pictures of Your Food

May 20, 2010 | By | COMMENTS

Photo on 2010-05-20 at 09.55 #2

For the past six years, I’ve taken a picture of almost everything I’ve eaten.

Yesterday, for example, I took a picture of my lunch. I was at The New French with my friend Diana and I had an interesting salmon salad with escarole and a Muscadet vinaigrette: I took a picture with my cell phone. The night before I’d made a spatchcocked chicken and of course I took pictures. Lunch that day was a humdrum hummus at Hummus Place, but you get the drift: I take pictures of what I eat.

What does this reveal about me and my enjoyment of food? Is this a problem? Recently, several chefs and food writers have come out with a message that would suggest: “yes.”

For example, superstar chef Grant Achatz, of Alinea in Chicago, recently wrote the following about photo-happy diners at Alinea:

“Many people take pictures of every course and some even take photos of the wines as well. I don’t necessarily mind this, but I wonder why people so passionate about food would sacrifice the integrity of the courses, instead prioritizing the documentation.”

This attitude has caught on. On the New York Times food blog Diner’s Journal, for example, an interviewer had this to say: “I’m tired of ‘food bloggers’ and others taking photos of food, at the same table or next to us, when we’re out to eat. The flash is distracting, and I loathe being forced to wait while my table companions insist on getting a blogworthy shot.”

(Why do they have “food bloggers” in quotes? I find that insulting!)

Well, let me address those immediate concerns first:

1. I rarely, if ever, use a flash in a restaurant. Filling the room with a blinding white light–especially a room that’s carefully lit–is the height of rudeness. The only time in recent memory that I used a flash was at The Strip House, a bawdy, bustling steakhouse; and I did that because we were in an isolated booth in the back, the flash wasn’t angled towards the larger room and I wanted to capture my dad’s pleasure with his entree:

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Even then, I spent the majority of the meal taking pictures without a flash. If you play around enough with the aperture, the shutter speed, the film speed and the manual focus, it’s entirely possible to do; and the pictures, while a little fuzzier, have a lot more character:

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That’s a shot of the wall done without a flash. I don’t think it’s gallery-worthy, but it reveals the mood of the room–red, dark, bordello-ish–and I didn’t bother anyone when I took it.

2. I don’t obsess so much over my pictures that I let the food get cold. Usually, my policy is: shoot shoot shoot fast fast fast until you get it right. It all happens in less than a minute. I take out my Canon Pureshot, turn off the flash, hover the camera over the food and start snapping. 90% of the time the first picture that I take is the one that I use. Like this picture I took this weekend at Perry Street with my mom:

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There’s so much natural light in Perry Street, it’s very easy to take a good picture fast. Usually I encounter the most trouble in a dark restaurant. When I’m in a dark restaurant, I do one of two things: (1) resign myself to blurry, dark pictures of the food; or (2) opt out of photographing the meal. Very rarely will I consider option 3; that’s the option where I work hard to get a good picture of every plate, despite the challenge of the room. And that only happens when I’m somewhere so extraordinary, so important that I feel like taking pictures is worth it.

The best example of that, of course, was our dinner at El Bulli.

The light over our table was better than it had to be, but still I wanted the pictures to be good.

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Were we guilty, as Grant Achatz might suggest, of compromising the integrity of the food?

I don’t think so: we worked fast. None of the food was particularly time sensitive; much of it wasn’t served hot and the dishes that were, we photographed quickly enough that they were still hot when we ate them. If, over the course of the meal, we felt like we were ruining our own experience by fixating on pictures, we would’ve stopped. (I say “we” because Craig took many of the pictures too.) But all of this leads to a larger question, one that this post is really about….

Why take pictures of your food?

Let’s ignore the practical answer, the one that involves your profession–whether you’re a blogger, a journalist or a professional food stylist–and consider the question in a larger sense. Is there anything to gain from taking pictures of your food at a meal?

Yes, I think there is. For starters: it forces you to pause and consider what’s in front of you. Animals devour food indiscriminately; as humans, we have the capacity to appreciate our food in a way that they don’t. Not just aesthetically (though that’s important) but also spiritually; if we’re eating a rabbit, perhaps it’s worthwhile to pause and consider the fact that a rabbit died so that we can eat dinner. To really look and to really consider what you’re eating before you eat it has value. It’s the equivalent, perhaps, of saying grace. Yet, instead of thanking God for your food, you’re simply acknowledging your food as something worthy of reflection. A secular version of a pre-meal prayer.

Taking pictures of your food also allows you to create an archive of experience that transports you, instantly, back to a specific place in time. Whereas conventional travel photos usually feature you and your travel companion posing with fixed smiles in front of national monuments and other cliched backdrops, a picture of that paella you ate outside in the Barcelonetta will instantly sweep you back:

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Finally, taking pictures of your food opens up a dialogue between you and the people serving you. Some restauranteurs will ask you bluntly “are you a food blogger?” (that happened when I went to Cucina in the Catskills); other times they’ll ask “Do you mind if I ask what you’re taking pictures for?” Either way, you end up engaging the people who make and serve food for a living on a subject for which you share an equal passion. Many a great conversation has started for me that way and it’s all because I was taking pictures of what I was eating.

Still, not everyone takes pictures of their food for the right reasons. Some do it for the purpose, merely, of showing-off: “Look what I ate at that Michelin 3-star in Paris.” Worse, some go to that Michelin 3-star solely for the purpose of taking pictures–to prove that they were there–rather than to actually experience the food.

Those types are rare, however. For the most part, those of us who take pictures of our food do so because we love to eat. After six years of photographing my food, I have very few regrets. I regret not taking better pictures at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris. I was once asked not to take pictures at Fresco by Scotto in midtown–fine, no problem there. Ultimately, because of my efforts I have a remarkable treasure, something very few eaters have and one that will last me the rest of my life: it’s the archive of this blog. Because I took pictures of my food, I can re-live much of the past six years almost instantly. It’s like H.G. Wells meets Proust right here on this page.

Time travel never tasted so good.

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