top of page

Beauty to tempt you

"we eat first with our eyes" Anon

"Unless the food is being photographed as evidence, the point is to make people want to grow, cook, eat, or even just enjoy looking at it." Chris Terry

Beauty is a bit on my mind today as this morning's book group meeting was about Impressionists. We didn't have a book, so we thought it would be a good idea to attend the two Impressionist exhibitions in Melbourne, and then each take some topic and talk about it. Of course lockdown stopped us visiting the exhibitions, but we persisted with the Impressionist idea anyway. My contribution was my discovery of the works of an English Impressionist called Philip Wilson Steer, who I had never heard of. Look him up sometime if you are interested in art. His paintings are beautiful.

Anyway - a bit irrelevant, but when I started thinking about what to write about today my head was still filled with beauty, and then as I picked up one of those old magazines, in my search for inspiration, I saw that I had bookmarked the photograph above - almost entirely because it was beautiful. To my eyes anyway - for as we know "beauty is in the eye of the beholder". A concept, which I have to say become quite apparent to me, although I kept quiet, in this morning's book group meeting. Suffice to say I was not particularly enamoured of some of my fellow members' choices of artists and paintings, as they probably were not with mine.

The dish on display above is called Ricotta, raspberry and passionfruit curd terrine and when you read the recipe you think, yes I could have a go at that. I could even make it with the grandkids. The home-made passionfruit curd is possibly a little tricky for them, although I don't really think so, but the rest is simple. Just whizz it all together and freeze. Making it look as beautiful as above might be another thing. These things always look easy to do, but it never works for me. Presentation is not a skill I possess.

That particular picture though is more than the food is it not? That platter the frozen terrine sits on is central to the whole thing. As is the dark colour of the background, and the careful placement of the black spoon with just a dab of the terrine on it.

On the opposite page is White chocolate bark to go with the coffee which will end your romantic meal. Also incredibly simple - basically just melt the chocolate, leave it to set and break into shards - sprinkling with sanding sugar - for the glitter. 'Sanding sugar'? What on earth is that? Apparently it's a clear sparkly baking sugar and good luck with finding it. But I suppose you would be able to find some similar decorative kind of sprinkle in the cake-making section of your local supermarket. Again - a gorgeous photo. I should also say that these two dishes are part of a section called Dinner by Design, and is meant to be the kind of dinner that Valli Little, delicious.' late Food Editor might have with her husband at home. Also the whole issue has been designated a 'design' issue and the theme has been wound through each section in the magazine. All of the photographs in each section are therefore following a particular style theme - a dark blue background to the pages in this section being the main thing. - and I just couldn't resist - here are the others in that section.

A definite style which is, somewhat obviously of course, because the same stylist and photographer created them - presumably in consultation with delicious.' own Art Director and Senior Designer. I m never sure who is really responsible for the finished product, or whether it is a joint effort. Who has the main input - the photographer or the stylist?

In this instance I decided to look them up. The photographer is Mark Roper who is now a Melbourne man, having spent his early life in London, and who has contributed photographs to books and all the fashionable glossy magazines. Food is just one of the strings to his bow, although it is a focus. The website link is to his portfolio - just photographs, no text. HIs agents Hart and Co. say of him:

"Mark’s photography reflects his personal style, he is relaxed and soft in his approach, capturing moments rather than orchestrating the tone."

Now I'm not a fan of squid but this stunning photograph is the one chosen by his agents to demonstrate his talent.

So simple when you see it, but the art lies in thinking of that particular composition does it not?

“Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.” Jonathan Swift

Then there's the stylist - in this case one David Morgan a Sydney man but also from London, who began his career as a pastry chef at the Connaught Hotel in London. I don't know how he moved from cooking to photographing, suffice to say he has worked with Bill Granger, Peter Gilmore, Greg Doyle, and others, Sainsbury's all the glossy magazines as well as various publishers. His website home page - shown below - is just gorgeous.

Mind you I guess one would have to ask who actually took the photograph? Who comes up with the concept? Does the photographer, and then the stylist makes it happen, or is it the other way round? Does the stylist come up with the concept and the photographer just shoots it? Can stylists also be photographers, and vice-versa? I suspect it's the stylist really, as apparently the stylist often also cooks the food, and is certainly responsible for making it look delectable, and arranging it on the plate. In his CV David Morgan also talks about designing campaigns and books, so I am guessing that the photographer's role is slightly secondary. They are responsible for the lighting though:

"the second thing people notice, after the food, "is how the light hits a certain part of the dish ... too much or too little, will make a viewer like or dislike a photograph." And all light is not created equal – shot under the energy-saving bulb in my kitchen, food has a sickly yellowy cast." Felicity Cloake/Hélène Dujardin

There are all sorts of stories on the web of the gruesome things that stylists do to make it look good - for example this:

"Behind most professional food photos is a stylist who tricks the viewer. These deceits range from a touch of lipstick to redden a strawberry, to “milkshakes” made from mashed potatoes. It’s not that food stylists are liars and cheats. They’re simply in the business of improvisation." Angelina Chapin - The Guardian

However, that article was written some time ago, and now, so they say, things have changed. Yes there is still some manipulation of course. These photo shoots take hours and you cannot expect the food to stay looking good for that long, but fundamentally what you see nowadays is the real food. One article put the change down to two things - digital cameras and Jamie Oliver:

"Jamie tried to make food styling a bit more real and to make people more honest about what the end result was going to look like ...

“Jamie was ground-breaking in how he plated stuff. He would use his hands a lot: tossing leaves in the dressing and then piling them on a plate. Jamie tried to make food styling a bit more real and make people more honest about what the end result was going to look like. That was one of the turning points.” Franki Unsworth

And it is certainly true of the photographs in his books - they somehow do not look quite as pristine as some others' work.

These days the approach, apparently, is to make it look more achievable:

“It should look like the picture because it’s achievable and I haven’t ‘tricked’ you; this is how it looked when it came out of the oven when I did it.” Rukmini Iyer

But while chefs aim to send a plate out looking perfect, food stylists must make it look enticing. “One of our jobs is to dumb down the food and make it look a little more broken into or as if it has been plated by someone who is not a trained chef,” says Unsworth. “You don’t want it to be so hard that you’re put off just by looking,” says Iyer. “You want things to be a little messy, a bit off. A bit of black pepper on the table, it adds to the home-made look of it.” Rukmini Iyer and Franki Unsworth

Achievable - well yes, but I have to say, that until you read the recipe for the dessert that started all this, would you think you could achieve it, or even if you achieved it, in the sense of it tasting good, would it look as good? Do you have as gorgeous a plate as the one in the photograph to put it on? Can you leave does of passionfruit curd just so?

The plate by the way comes from these two young ladies, Karen Davis and Pepa Martin who have, what is mainly a textile company specialising in indigo dyes, for which they sell equipment and workshops. Their company is called Shibori and they currently don't have any platters for sale. The textiles are rather lovely though.

But that's an aside, although it's always interesting to read about small businesses such as theirs.

So what is the aim of making food look beautiful? And should we be ashamed of being sucked in by its beauty?

"Unless the food is being photographed as evidence, the point is to make people want to grow, cook, eat, or even just enjoy looking at it." Chris Terry

It's a balancing act isn't it? If you make it look too gorgeous you might be put off trying to make it. Does that matter to the magazine or the book that has created it? After all you have bought the magazine or the book so they have achieved their aim. Do they care if you make the recipe? And if the pictures are not attractive enough, or, indeed, if there are no pictures then you might not buy at all. Now think of Stephanie Alexander's The Cook's Companion - a vital cookbook with very few pictures and none of them of the dishes in the book. And know that it is a world best seller. Think of those golden oldies from Elizabeth David, Robert Carrier, Julia Child and Jane Grigson. None of them had pictures, but masses of valuable recipes that I have made over and over again. Which is probably not quite fair, because back when they were first published photographing food was not really a thing. Think of Donna Hay's gorgeous cookbooks. I have two or three and I do consult them and I am tempted by immaculately, imaginatively styled recipes. Indeed I try the odd one here and there, but so far I have not found that definitive recipe that makes me love a particular dish and therefore the author - a sentiment echoed by my gourmet friend Monika too.

For me I think the pictures and the overall design are what makes me pick up a magazine, or a book, but what makes me buy it, is actually looking at a few of the recipes to see if I could actually think of making them, and that they are not all things I have lots of recipes for already. Then there's also the familiarity factor. I have my favourite cooks, I have grown to prefer delicious. over Gourmet Traveller which is often somewhat pretentious. How am I going to discover the next star cook though? Is it just hearsay? Or do I find them because the books they produce are so beautifully designed that I pick them up? They say you can't judge a book by its cover, but to a certain extent with cookbooks I think you can.

Do beautiful pictures mean beautiful food? Not necessarily of course. The food does matter but you can get an awful lot of pleasure and satisfaction from looking at beautiful pictures too.

I shall conclude with the 2020 and 2021 winners of the Food Styling award from the Pink Lady Food Photography Awards in England. I don't think the 2021 (on the right) is all that wonderful I have to say.

Of course the big change in food photography is that we all take photographs of food these days as demonstrated from this other winner from those awards in the Food at the Table section.

Which rather puts it into perspective really. Food is to be eaten not photographed.



Related Posts

See All


Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
bottom of page