Let me get this out of the way first. I love taking snapshots of food. It started out as something I did whilst training for a half marathon to keep a private record of what I ate, before steadily evolving into a closed Facebook group for like-minded people. These days, like the inevitable hashtags that follow, food photos are simply something that punctuate and populate my Instagram account. #food #meal #yummo
We instinctively recognize that so-called ‘food porn’ isn't in any way original. We don’t post photographs of our breakfasts, brunches, lunches, afternoon teas, dinners, suppers and midnight feasts because we think it’s going to improve our social media kudos; it’s not as if we expect people to fall over themselves to offer up praise.
“So wait… you made that ham and cheese sandwich on rye bread? And arranged the potato chips in a visually pleasing crescent… all by yourself? With no professional intervention? Outstanding work.”
“Hang on. You chose that pumpkin risotto in a restaurant… yourself? You deliberated for some time, selected it from the menu over the two or three other dishes you quite fancied, had the chef painstakingly prepare it, and then watched on as the waiter delivered it… to your table? My goodness.”
“You don’t mean to say… it was you who boiled that egg? Remarkable. Absolutely remarkable.”
If it isn't adoration we seek, then why do we do it? Why do we spend so much time adjusting the curtains to make sure no shadows are throwing themselves distastefully across our plates; why do we plod around the dinner table, agonizing to find the perfect angle; why do we line up our cutlery and condiments to adhere to the rule of thirds? I have a number of theories.
- Food is fleeting. It doesn't last forever; we either consume it or let it decompose. One of the reasons we take photographs of anything is to create a permanent record of something that’s transient, and in this world fewer things disappear faster than a meal placed in front of a greedy human face.
- It’s a chance to be (doubly) creative. Amateur food photography is the melding of two distinct art forms: bad home cooking and poor photography. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have creative expression in their professional lives, so they take whatever outlet is available. Luckily, frames and filters go a long way to improving the results.
- We’re show-offs. Maybe we don’t expect praise, but instant sharing means we can broadcast our mad culinary skills to a percentage of the population, or let our friends know we’re eating out at that new fancy restaurant. We boast for the hell of it, without the need for a response; we upload our photos smugly, clicking that share button with an obnoxious smirk.
- Hunger strikes. Again. And again… All being well, our appetite is constantly renewed; we’ll always be hungry. For survival purposes, it’s inherent and ingrained. Finished that meal? Don’t worry, there’ll be another one along in a few hours, more colorful and mouth-watering than the last. From an evolutionary standpoint, maybe our food photography is analogous to the storing of nuts for winter, a way of stocking up the virtual pantry. On a dumb subconscious level, perhaps we’re thinking “If I just keep snapping and saving, there will always be food.” (It might also explain why we boast: “My food supply is plentiful. Envy me.”)
- It‘s ridiculously easy. With the advent of smartphones, most people are carrying a near infinite supply of online recipes and an 8-megapixel camera in their pockets, all rolled up in the same device. One that’s permanently wired up to a disinterested audience, no less. It’s the perfect recipe.
It seems to me that food photography has continued to gain popularity because the technology first enabled us to nurture our new-found passion, then it allowed us to sustain it. Our smartphones are always within reach, so now we’re able to keep up with our feeds every time we feed — meal after meal, day after day, until it becomes an actual, authentic hobby.
But it goes beyond that. Now it’s automatic. I know by heart which filters make food look more delicious. My smartphone has become the third utensil at every meal. I'm a victim of Pavolvian conditioning, only every time a plate of steaming food is placed in front of me, I don’t salivate… I reach for my phone.
Food for thought. Anyway, I must dash. I've just taken a lasagna out of the oven and I need to Instagram it before it goes cold.
This blog post is also available on Medium.