Are Looks Everything?

So you've met the perfect person on a singles website. He is charming, your emails to one another, as well as the inevitable phone calls late at night, are delightful and stimulating. So at long last you arrange to meet, face-to-face. You're all giddy inside, wear your favorite outfit, favorite fragrance, and perhaps even have purchased a new shade of lipstick for the occasion. You arrive at the restaurant and take a seat at the bar and look around. You wait. A hand gently touches your shoulder and a familiar voice utters your name. You turn around and are facing a guy wearing a crumpled polyester suit who is balding and probably 70 pounds overweight, and has an enormous, hairy mole on his cheek. And he's missing a front tooth. His internet photo portrayed a blue-eyed very fit twentysomething with a thatch of ebony hair, a dimple on his chin, and a Colgate smile. You run from the restaurant teary-eyed, feeling nauseous and betrayed.

More Enticing Photographs

The next day, you go shopping and buy a few frozen microwave dinners. You look at the package and begin salivating. The Salisbury Steak is grilled to perfection. The mashed potato rosette has just the right amount of butter drizzling down it. The peas and carrots are vibrantly colored and each one perfect. The macaroni and cheese from Stouffer's stands upright and has a lovely golden-brown crust on top.

Dessert is a box of frozen Pepperidge Farm carrot cake. The piece of cake pictured on the box is on a plate that contains not a single crumb. The icing has been perfectly placed atop the cake, and the cake itself reveals lovely shreds of carrot and plump raisins. Somewhat blurred in the background is the rest of the cake, ostensibly from which the piece was removed. It's iced perfectly and hasn't a blemish.

A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

That night, you microwave your Healthy Choice dinner. Upon pulling back the plastic cover, you notice that the mashed potatoes made it half-way into their little compartment, the rest filled with melted butter. The other half are commingled with the peas and carrots. The peas have an ugly grey cast about them. One of the carrot bits must be discarded because half of it is black. The macaroni and cheese has a soupy consistency and can be poured out of its heat-proof bag by snipping the thing open with a scissors. The carrot cake has defrosted, and as you take it out of the box, half of the icing comes out atop the cake; the rest remains stuck to the top of the box. You eat it right out of the foil container.

So what happened? Why did you not glance once again at the perfectly-photographed food on the packages, stare at the actual product, and run from the kitchen, teary-eyed, feeling nauseous and betrayed?

Make-Up Artists for Food

Well, although we doubt internet singles photos all the time ("sure, I looked like that — in 1979!") why is it that so many folks think nothing of the fact that what's photographed in magazine advertising and packaging bears little or no resemblance to what actually comes out of the package? This writeup will not venture to answer that question. However, the reader will hopefully be intelligenced in the fine art of food stylization. A food stylist is a professional, usually with a culinary degree or degree in home economics, as well as either education or practical experience in both photography and the fine arts. Their job is to cooperate with a professional photographer and their client (typically an advertising agency) to ensure that the photos being taken for packaging, print or electronic media of the client's food are as mouth-wateringly perfect as possible.

Years ago there was a stir about food stylists placing marbles in the bottom of soup plates so that the soup will appear more as a chowder, chock-full of huge hunks of meat, vegetables and noodles, rather than a thin soup underneath which lurked plenty of chunks of meat, vegetables and noodles. This was actually challenged under the United States Federal Trade Commission ("FTC") truth in advertising regulations so from thereinafter a spoon was used to display the perfect chunks of white meat, pristine vegetables and lovely noodles contained in Campbell's Chunky Chicken Noodle Soup. The stylist is also allowed to scoop off some of the broth, by way of revealing to the consumer what to expect within the broth, which if included in the photograph would hide all the tasty, chunky goodies to be found after partaking of the broth.

What the FTC fails to regulate, however, is how many cans of Campbell's Chunky Chicken Noodle Soup the stylist can rut through prior to the capturing of the perfect photographic image. So long as a proportionate amount of chicken, carrots, celery, noodles, etc. to what is in the container is shown, there's nothing stopping the food stylist from purchasing ten to twenty (or more) cans of the soup, inspecting the contents in glass bowls, and picking out the most perfect, scrumptious looking pieces of chicken; the greenest slices of celery, the most perfectly-formed, unbroken noodles, etc. Typically, the tools of the trade for performing the creation of "the perfect bowl of soup" include tweezers, tiny spoons, surgical instruments (and, by the way, Super Glue - to glue the spoon to the side of the soup plate). The bits of meat, vegetables and noodles are piled into the spoon with care, and arranged aesthetically around the broth in the plate. In the old days, when the stylist was ready, she/he would blow cigar smoke over the prepared plate, making it appear to be piping hot. Nowadays, Photoshop allows real steam to be superimposed on the final photograph, thus doing away with perhaps a three dozen puffs of cigar smoke to get just the right swirl of steamy, soupy goodness.

The delicious bowl of Cheerios pictured on the box? Every single one was picked out of a bag either shipped in bubble wrap or actually carried from the factory, therefore doing away with nasty, ovoid or otherwise malformed cereal bits. The whole kit 'n caboodle is then dumped into a bowl of Elmer's glue, and re-arranged on top so that they appear to have been randomly poured (Heaven forbid there are four or more Cheerios pointing in the same direction; it just ain't right!). The Elmer's glue fails to saturate the cereal the way real milk would, therefore giving photographer and stylist more time to capture their best shot.

Air conditioning has all but eliminated the need to use colored mashed potatoes instead of ice cream. Also, the photo lights aren't as hot any more. But that was one of the tricks of the trade until digital photography came into its own. Other frozen confections, especially slushy drinks, are just colored Jell-O processed in the Cuisinart until coming out looking like slush. This stuff holds up its stiff peak and doesn't get soupy while the stylist garnishes the beverage.

Food Stylists Ain't Just For Still Photography

Since movie characters more often than not have to eat at some point in the film, food stylists are in great demand in the motion picture industry. Little Betsy has to blow out all twelve birthday candles at the same time? It's a food stylist who makes certain there are quite a few of the same cake ready to go. At take one the candles are lit with a butane torch, so they all burn equally, none dipping a little lower than the others. If the character playing Betsy doesn't have the air to get 'em all at one time; a food stylist comes out with another cake, fresh candles at the ready, for take two. Now, this is a little far-fetched but when your budget is in the high eight figures and you've a director who's a perfectionist and a cinematographer who's just as much so; Betsy's birthday ought to have that movie-like perfection lest Betsy's big blow-job end up on the IMDB's page of "bloopers" or "continuity errors" for the film.

Holiday time? Dozens of turkeys, dishes of mashed potatoes, pumpkin pies and the like must be prepared for the myriad takes that ensue when there are a dozen or more actors at the table. And woe betide the food stylist who's hired for a movie in which the actors are allowed (because of their star-power) the practical jokes and hijinks that the Hollywood elite are allowed. Fancy a table at which sit a number of male actors who've been pranking one another throughout the making of the film, several anorexic actresses who refuse to take a forkful so the take can continue to roll, and plenty of nice, great-looking food. Each take takes time and lots of money, enough that some producers are known for their copious consumption of Maalox after about take five of any given scene. Now think about what revenge could be wrought on such a producer if the actors, well, resent him. The scene involves Christmas dinner and there's tension in the household, for whatever reason. Leave it up to a real jokester like George Clooney, Brad Pitt or Eddie Murphy to wait until the director cries "Action!" The lines to be uttered are forgotten and one actor looks at the other and says "Why, Billy, you haven't touched your food!" Everyone's hands dive into the serving dishes at once. "Cut!" is screamed and both producer and director gulp Maalox or perhaps 100-proof Bourbon as the props people clean the table up, re-set it, and the food stylists load it up with yet another lovely repast.

Common, Garden-Variety Food Stylization

After having witnessed these sometimes highly-paid purveyors of perfection at work, I've garnered a few tricks of my own that come in handy when photographing food for the menus or website of our business. When a new list of specials comes along, we like to have photos of the more eye-catchingly prepared dishes included on the printed list. This means that the chef is instructed to carve his finest garnishes, find the perfect sprigs of parsley or cilantro, cut up unblemished vegetables and lovely slices of meat, and execute his dish, only placing meat in one bowl, veggies in another, and preparing a spotlessly clean empty dinner plate for assembly. The vegetables are arranged intentionally randomly; then a layer of meat is tucked in very nicely (no bits of fat nor the errant bit of gristle are showing). Finally a few of the most perfect pieces of vegetables are placed on top, in all their colorful glory. These have just been blanched, and not sullied with sauce nor seasonings. The whole mess is sprayed with olive oil from an atomizer, taking care not to soil the spotless rim of the plate. Then, the garnish is set aside the creation.

Now it's time to take the photo. If you look closely enough in the viewfinder of the camera, occasionally the camera itself will be revealed, reflected in either the shiny rim of the plate or one of the shiny vegetables. That's why large pieces of very bright white cardboard are held up high while the photo is taken. The reflection from plate and vegetables is just a white, shiny line; not the lights themselves, nor the camera, nor the faces of the onlookers.

If the set-up includes a place setting, I personally prefer outdoor light on a sunny day, so the whole affair is moved outdoors. The water glasses are filled with hot water before the shot; just before the ice water is put into them so an excess of condensation doesn't stain the tablecloth. Want a bubble or two on the edge of the wine's meniscus, so it appears to have been just-poured? A puff from an empty eye-dropper takes care of that.

I forgot to say that prior to the bringing on of the food, perhaps a dozen sets of chop sticks and myriad forks, knives and spoons have been gone through to find ones that are aesthetically pleasing. Cutlery scarred from a year of restaurant use doesn't photograph well. The pineapple and orange pieces and cherries atop the tropical drink have been selected for shape, size and lack of blemishes. The fizz at the top of the drink is a mixture of water and shaving cream, which is very stable; else we'd have to re-fizz the drink for each and every shot.

Sushi photography is a tough business. One can't use the atomizer filled with olive oil. Each grain of rice must be inspected for a bit of hull (an aesthetic no-no). The avocados used are under-ripe so they don't smear onto the fish or crabmeat when cut. And again, for that fresh-poured look, the empty eye-dropper bubbles up the edge of the soy sauce dish for eye interest. Errant bits of caviar or sesame seeds can be "airbrushed" out later using Photoshop.

An interesting reversal of the purpose of food stylization occurred when we shot photos of twice-cooked pork belly. The first product to come from the chef was an unrealistically lean pile of pork belly (basically, the cut of meat bacon is made from). So I sent him back to make another one, fatty this time - one that would be appealing to our Chinese demographic. The dish is to be eaten with lots of white rice; certainly not by itself. After assembling the pork on the plate, a needle-nosed pliers was used to hide some of the lean pork while exposing the golden-brown color of the pork rind on some of the slices. Black beans and leeks were added later. I was asked a number of times why I wanted the shot to look so fatty. The answer was simple; we'd had plenty of adventurous non-Chinese diners order twice-cooked pork, only to send it back and ask for it more lean. If they got a look at what the real thing was, indeed they'd have second thoughts about ordering it and less would be sent back to the kitchen headed for the waste-barrel.

A Regulatory Anecdote

The FTC indeed dictates what can and cannot be shown on a product's package. They're a little more lenient with advertising photos. This occurred to me while writing this piece:

Did you ever notice that on a box of cookies you'll see several on a plate, with a cup of coffee, sugar and creamer in the background. Somewhere at the bottom of the picture, in the requisite 8-point type, are the words "serving suggestion." That's because the FTC has issued rules protecting the naive consumer from assuming that, somewhere in the box of cookies, a tea-bag or two, some sugar and some cream lurks.

UPDATE 6/18/07: More than one noder queried as to what exactly the FTC dictates can and cannot be shown on a product's package. The amazing and delightfully helpful sekicho quickly provided at my request some material to back-up my statements. Problem is, Part 500 of the FTC regulations (found here:, contains not a word to do with photography. It is, however, a great example of the restrictions placed on product labeling text-wise, and the formulae for calculating how large portion size, contents amount, etc. The language of the regulations goes as far as providing one particularly amusing example of prohibited contents description: "Jumbo Gallon." So the next time you see a package containing a "Jumbo Gallon" of soda, laundry detergent, vegetable oil or chocolate-flavored sexual lubricant, contact the Federal Trade Commission, Washington, D.C.

Sincerely, though, thanks to sekicho for finding the closest thing that I've seen to the actual regulations. I'd hazard a guess that case law would be the best place to see actual descriptions of gross malfeasance on the part of marketers when it comes to the photographic presentation of their food.

The FDA was a good place to look. Here can be found a document which utilizes the term "vignette" for product drawing/photography. The meat and potatoes of this particular piece of Federal regulation is that labels are to contain certain information in certain forms and not be misleading. By putting two and two together, a reasonably intelligent person, on reading and re-reading, can ascertain from all of this boundless bureaucratic bull-dropping that the "vignette" is not to be misleading nor contain any thing that is not contained within the package, but for obvious decorative devices (a bouquet of flowers is utilized as an example).

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