My mother is a prolific scrapbooker. Should you ever have the pleasure of joining her for a cup of black tea in her home, you’ll see a veritable treasure trove of familial fodder housed in what she lovingly refers to as her “craft room.” Since she and my father were first married, she’s kept a living history of our family’s lives that would rival any anthropological study. Her commitment to preserving our story is an act of vigilance born from an intrinsic love for all of us, as well as the idea of leaving behind a legacy. Birthdays, anniversaries, marriages, vacations, retirements, reunions, Scouts, school, sports and daily life are all on display within the plastic-sleeved pages of her hardcover collection.
For most of the time she’s been creating this archive, there were no filters, no cropping tools and absolutely no way of knowing what any of her pictures really looked like until she pulled up to the Fotomat booth and got her envelope of truth. After that, it really didn’t matter: Those photographs went into scrapbooks and became immortal regardless of any imperfections, flaws or humiliating happenings. Her tomes are devoted to the whole, raw truth.
The scrapbooking gene didn’t get passed down the branches of our family tree to me, but the appreciation for commemorating and memorializing life did. Facebook and Instagram are my scrapbooks. I love that photographs capture a moment in time, and that great photographs not only articulate the context of that moment, but the sentiment and emotion of it, as well. As a creative person, I enjoy the process that surrounds the taking of a photograph, and revel in the simple tools that allow me to make every shot just so.
But there’s a downside to these filters: the illusion created by cropping out the bad in any situation and saturating the positive. These edits and lack of context foster a narrative that quickly becomes a facade, despite our knowing that there’s a lot more to the story found between the frames than there is within any single picture. This is especially true of food photos.
Taking shots of their dishes is a wonderful creative outlet for chefs, but the level of food staging has gone from an artistic endeavor to one of false advertising. Many food photos show beautiful dishes that are absolutely unservable. While this isn’t new (magazine and TV food advertising led the way), these set-up dishes are caricatures of the real thing, which would need seven fewer touches and three fewer reheats in order to actually have it be something on a menu that a guest can order and expect in a reasonable amount of time. Very few restaurants operate within the paradigm that gives a chef the opportunity to manicure a dish to the level of artistic perfection shown on all too many social-media sites. When I see a dish that is meant to be served hot but has eleven components, I know that it’s simply not reality.
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My food shots tend to be either great or awful, with the latter the most prevalent. I’m happy to own some solid food accomplishments over the course of my career, a very few of which I was fortunate enough to capture on film in true moments that appear the way they happened, both contextually and emotionally, despite my lack of photographic ability. A bowl of chile con carne with the curve of a side plate offering a toasted tortilla hinting of oil and golden brown blotches. Another favorite is more recent, and shows steam rising off an unseen something below the rim of a bowl spotlighted by the evening’s last burst of sunshine before it succumbs to the blustery night ahead. Those moments are few and far between, but they’re servable, graspable — real concepts that could be found on a plate in any of the restaurants that have been under my charge.
Of course, there are worse crimes than staging beautiful food photos; that artistry in itself is a great joy to many friends who play with food presentations. But the fallout from this food facade has me thinking: I’ve always considered cheffing a craft, because we’re serving a daily need through an industry that serves a larger need throughout the community. Like a mason’s work, our finished product can very much be considered art, but the foundation has a pointed purpose. We are chefs, and therefore we are craftspersons who execute our skill with artistry and personality. But are we now also artists, and is Instagram providing the means for the revolution?
Jamey Fader, founding chef of Lola Coastal Mexican and a veteran of many other kitchens, is now the culinary director of Marczyk Fine Foods and ready answer all your restaurant-related questions.
What do you think of Instagram food photos? Send your comments — and your favorite Instagram, while you're at it — to Jamey Fader via firstname.lastname@example.org.