Food Fluffers

In an age of drizzles, sprays, crumbles and crumbs, food stylists and photographers go the extra mile to make you drool.

Food Fluffers

When Brian Preston-Campbell reflects on his job, he sometimes thinks about the hamburger scene in the Michael Douglas film Falling Down. The movie’s antihero, a beleaguered everyman on an armed rampage, has just shot up a fast-food restaurant after receiving poor service. When he finally gets his Double Whammyburger, he stares down at it sorrowfully.

“Look at that,” he orders the manager, pointing to the beautiful picture of the burger on the display behind the register. “It’s plump, it’s juicy, it’s three inches thick. Now look at this sorry, miserable, squashed thing. Can anybody tell me what’s wrong with this picture?”

This scene, says Preston-Campbell, 41, describes “what a lot of people think about what I do for a living.” A professional food stylist, it’s Preston-Campbell’s job to make food that looks—and often is—too good to be true. But if the trigger-happy hero of  Falling Down had considered the time and skill that went into that hamburger photo, he might have felt some grudging respect for the craftsmen behind it. Making a burger fit to be photographed is a lot harder than making one to eat.

Preston-Campbell described the tricks behind making glamour-worthy patties. First, he said, fry the burger just enough to brown the outside, leaving the meat rare and the patty un-shrunk. Next, blot it on paper towels and brush on a mixture of caramel color and clear pastry piping gel that gives the burger a meatier appearance. (Yes, you need non-meat products to make it appear “meatier.”) Follow that up with grill marks burned on with a hot skewer or electric charcoal lighter. Repeat six or seven times and pick the best one (the “hero,” as food stylists call it) while your assistant sorts through bags of buns. Starting with the very best bun, construct the burger from the bottom up, laying down fixings according to the client’s specific “build order.” Build everything toward the front, so that all the elements can be visible in one shot. If there’s cheese, you might want to melt it by spreading Pine-sol on it, which breaks it down chemically without overly browning it. Apply a little bit of Fixodent to stick the lettuce to the bun or burger beneath it, and fix tomato and onion rounds in place with toothpicks. If you need to, you can hollow out the top bun so that it lies flatter on the produce. Put on the condiments last, using a plastic syringe without a needle. If you’ve done your job carefully and the photographer is talented, you’ll end up with a burger that is completely inedible—but a picture fit to sell burgers by the million.

Food stylist Brian Preston-Campbell at work (Photo courtesy Tom Schierlitz)
Food stylist Brian Preston-Campbell at work (Photo courtesy Tom Schierlitz)

Preston-Campbell has built his share of burgers, but these days he usually works on editorial shoots, where he can be more creative and the food is less manipulated—sometimes even edible. His evolving career mirrors the quiet revolution taking place in the profession of food styling itself. Traditionally, food photographs in magazines conveyed a sense of unattainable perfection. From the pictures in Ladies Home Journal in the 1950s—Chef Boyardee ravioli served in a beautiful copper urn; Jell-O entrees retouched in coral-reef hues—to the deluxe spreads of roast duck and tiered cakes in Gourmet or Bon Appétit thirty years later, stylists and photographers aimed to create images that had the stately quality of still-life paintings.

Although food stylists are almost always trained chefs, their job in those days was more like building a model airplane. Food Styling for Photographers, a how-to book that details classic methods, includes a list of recommended equipment that is several pages long. “My favorite tweezers,” the author writes, “are from Electron Microscopy Sciences, Style 24, Part No. 72880-DS, which has a straight end.” Deborah Mintcheff, who worked as a food stylist in the ’80s and ’90s, recalls that to prepare a bowl of cornflakes, she couldn’t use milk, because it rendered the cereal soggy and un-photographable. Instead, Mintcheff would build a base of vegetable shortening inside the cereal bowl, tweeze in flakes one at a time (each of which had been selected by an assistant), and then use a veterinary syringe to inject Wildroot Cream Oil, a white lotion designed as a men’s hair slicker, between each flake. Likewise, a plate of spaghetti would be built one strand at a time, and a cake would contain cardboard reinforcements and Vaseline. Mintcheff recalls dragging around a fifty-pound toolkit (“the biggest fishing tackle kit I could find”) to her jobs.

But things have changed in the last twenty years. Shellacked perfection is now reserved for fast-food ads, and magazine shoots now feature a more naturalistic look.

The food in the photo has gone from being a status symbol to an object of immediate desire—from something you want to show off to something you want to eat this moment (“food porn,” as legions of photo-happy food bloggers call it). Exactly when this happened isn’t clear, but most people in the field agree that it began in the early ’90s and that Martha Stewart was a driving force behind it.

The lighting setup behind a food stylists’ shoot (Photo by Luisa Conlon)
The lighting setup behind a food stylists’ shoot (Photo by Luisa Conlon)

Photo spreads in Martha Stewart Living magazine perfected a style that soon became food fashion vogue. The Australian food photographer Donna Hay (who now has a Stewart-esque empire of her own) is often credited with popularizing the technique of shooting with a shallow depth of field, so that only one dish—or one bite—is deliciously in focus and everything else is hazy. “My favorite art direction during [the mid-’90s],” writes prop stylist Francine Matalon-Degni in Gastronomica, “was, ‘You know, give me that Martha Stewart non-look look.’”

The introduction of digital photography also played a role in loosening up the way food could be shot, since the meticulous fine-tuning of a food’s look could be done on Photoshop rather than in person.

Since Stewart’s heyday, food photos have only gotten more naturalistic. The creative boom has continued as stylists and photographers feel free to experiment.

“People discovered texture—charred edges, crumbles,” Mintcheff told me.

Perfection is out, to the point where one high-concept food stylist, Victoria Granof, who shoots for clients such as Bon AppetitGQ, and Absolut, summed up her oeuvre to me this way: “I make beautiful messes.”

Crumbs, drizzles, pools of sauce, herb sprays, bites taken out of cake or sandwiches, even stained tablecloths and smeared frosting—all options are, so to speak, on the table. The food photograph, once more or less a body dressed up for an open-casket viewing, is now a fresh crime scene. Delores Custer, a food stylist for over thirty years who now teaches classes on the subject, likes to show her students an illustrated chart she calls the Turkey Timeline. At one end is a picture of a pristinely browned turkey garnished with carrot flowers and resting on an elegant platter; at the other is a juicy bird still in its roasting pan, looking as though it just emerged from the oven. That latter turkey exemplifies the holy grail of every current food shoot: “appetite appeal.”

Today’s food photography emphasizes the textures seen in “beautiful messes.” (Photos courtesy Endless Simmer)
Today’s food photography emphasizes the textures seen in “beautiful messes.” (Photos courtesy Endless Simmer)

When I went on a recent shoot with Preston-Campbell, he could not tell me off the top of his head the make and model of his tweezers. They weren’t the delicate, fine-tipped 72880s developed for scientists, but instead enormous, fearsome-looking things more than a foot long—the biggest tool in his kit. The kit, which fits in a valise, includes paintbrushes of various sizes (for putting a shine of water or glycerin on foods); an electric device for burning grill marks onto meat; a short, fat-bulbed baster for removing excess liquids; dental floss for tying things up discretely; X-Acto knives; and one white glove, for picking up glasses without leaving fingerprints.

Preston-Campbell brought the kit with him purely out of professional thoroughness. The shoot was so simple that he needed very few of these objects.The photographer was shooting cornbread for the New York Times Magazine in a South Williamsburg studio with large windows offering a view of the bridge and plenty of natural light. Preston-Campbell had brought two rounds of cornbread in order to give the photographer a choice of pans to shoot. One was already cooked and one in batter form, to be baked on-set in a portable electric oven. “I was trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris,” Preston-Campbell told me, carefully slicing corn off the cob, “but I was too anal to be a chef.” As a food stylist, he has the time to control every aspect of the finished product. Compared to his eight years as a chef, he now has better hours and he finds his co-workers a bit more civilized. Food stylists need to be able to pay attention to minute details (the browning pattern on the crust of a cornbread, say, or the placement of a single leaf of arugula) and they need to be able to take direction from clients and photographers. Some are better at the second part of the job than others.

The profession is largely centered in New York, which is also where the best “tabletop” food commercial directors are, but there’s a sizeable contingent of stylists in L.A., too. And the trade certainly has its divas. Custer, the stylist-turned-teacher, remembers a colleague known as the Ice Cream Lady.

“She did beautiful work with ice cream,” Custer says, “but she could make the actors cry if they weren’t behaving. Everything had to be exactly as she’d specified. She would walk in, take the temperature of the ice cream, and if it wasn’t the temperature she wanted, she’d walk out.”

But Preston-Campbell, a perfectionist with a plain-spoken manner, seems to meet both these requirements perfectly; at the shoot he good-naturedly played straight man to the photographer Marcus Nilsson, a wiry, energetic guy with a shaved head and a lumberjack beard. “I like to be able to touch the food,” said Nilsson, darting in to poke some corn kernels. “I don’t work with the stylists who freak out when you do that.”

Preston-Campbell didn’t freak out. Nilsson decided to use the just-baked round of cornbread, whose browned surface was rustically cracked. The prop stylists selected a tessellated yellow background that matched the bread’s vintage cast-iron pan. The finished image bore little resemblance to the opulent spreads of the past. Shot from directly above, it looked both graphical and artfully “natural,” with a slice taken out of the cornbread and corn kernels and crumbs sprinkled invitingly in the pan.

Editorial shoots like this one, though, are only half of the food stylist’s purview. Advertising shoots pay better, but are also a bigger pain. Since the outcome of a multi-million dollar marketing campaign could, in theory, hinge on the right image of the product, every corporate representative on set feels obliged to give direction. “They’re like, ‘Do you have a bigger onion slice?’” says Preston-Campbell. “And then, a minute later, ‘You know what? The smaller slice was better.’”

The attention focused on a single detail can be almost surreal. In one shoot for Japanese Gatorade, Preston-Campbell spent three days doing nothing but spritzing Gatorade bottles. “I’d spritz the bottle,” said Preston-Campbell, “he’d take the shot, and then the translator would say something like, ‘He doesn’t feel like you were really into it that time—would you do it again?’” Nevertheless, Preston-Campbell got the call again a few months later: according to the director, he was the only one with the right energy to make the sweat on the bottles come out just right.

Ad makers also have legal issues to consider. Things have been strict on sets since 1968, when Campbell’s Soup came under fire from the Federal Trade Commission for its practice of putting clear marbles at the bottom of the soup bowl to push the ingredients to the surface in the package photo. Nowadays, if a frozen dinner comes with six string beans, your picture can’t show seven.

Of course, creative photographers and stylists can find ways around this. David Bishop, a food photographer in New York for over thirty years, boasted to me about a frozen pancake shoot he nailed once. They were low-calorie pancakes, and when he took them out of the package it was clear why: they were tiny—the size of a Susan B. Anthony dollar. So Bishop and his prop stylist found the tiniest plate they could, the tiniest fork, tiniest knife, and tiniest glass to fill with orange juice and then added, as a final touch, a tiny newspaper that they made by scanning the Times, shrinking the type, and printing it out again on miniature newsprint. “It was like a dollhouse,” he said. “The guy from the company saw the ad, saw our setup, and said, ‘Great job.’”

Food stylist Marilinda Hodgdon has worked with Bishop for decades on ads, editorial spreads, and cookbooks. At a Whole Foods in Tribeca recently, Hodgdon shopped for that day’s subject—salad—carefully, looking for oranges whose flesh had a pinkish tint and pears with smooth skin, an even golden color, and a base that was as close to spherical as possible. The table on which Bishop shoots food looks more like an interrogation chamber than a dining area. It sits at the center of his home studio, surrounded on all sides by lights and screens and overhung with a menacing-looking camera mounted on a massive black stand.

Behind the scenes: food stylist Marilinda Hodgdon and photographer David Bishop showed Narratively how they take an everyday food pairing and turn it into a drool-worthy photo (Photos by Luisa Conlon)
Behind the scenes: food stylist Marilinda Hodgdon and photographer David Bishop showed Narratively how they take an everyday food pairing and turn it into a drool-worthy photo (Photos by Luisa Conlon)
The finished product (Photo by David Bishop)
The finished product (Photo by David Bishop)

While Bishop rearranged the lights and took test shots of props, Hodgdon made the salad: arugula, radicchio, avocado, and oranges. The point of salad, Bishop told me, is freshness. And the way to get freshness across is to get light through the salad leaves. It took a while to get the salad piled in such a way that light shined through the radicchio. After every change to the dish—a leaf of arugula moved, an avocado slice added—Bishop took another photo. The strobe went off and the camera whined robotically. The arugula wilted quickly under the hot lights, and Hodgdon had to rebuild the salad several times over the course of two hours. She used nothing that wasn’t edible, and only at the very end built the salad on small clear plastic cubes to give it volume. By this time, the salad that appeared on the computer screen after each explosion of the strobe looked increasingly delicious. Green, purple, and vermilion burst appealingly against the white background. A sprig of cilantro at the center of the avocados formed a bull’s eye around which artfully disheveled arugula fanned out. Oranges, avocado slices, and lime were arranged to suggest countervailing motion, so that the salad looked like a delicious vortex of sweet and savory.

A few days later, Bishop had the picture up on his website. It now looked more than delicious: it looked ideal. On Photoshop he had brightened the colors and subtly softened the focus. A heavenly white light illuminated the salad and made the olive oil sparkle. I showed the image to a few experts in the field. They approved.

“It’s a beautiful shot,” said Francine Matalon-Degni. “It’s all about the salad. It’s just letting it live in all its glory.”