When I began to get serious about being a food writer, around the time that I became the editor of the food section at AltDaily.com, I went to Best Buy and bought a better camera. The man who helped me asked me what I wanted. I had three requirements: good quality photos, for not too much money, and I had to be able to work it easily. He sold me a small Canon point and shoot camera, which is usually in my purse, ready to be used to photograph plates of food, frosty glasses of beer, or the artistically arranged contents of my grocery bags.
This compact Canon camera is a far cry better than my old digital camera. The old one, which died around the same time, as if it knew its days were numbered, was a bit bulkier, but it essentially worked. It took pictures that captured a moment, an image. It didn’t capture them well, or artistically, but it captured them.
When I started blogging in earnest, almost a year ago, I did my homework. I read food blogs, and I noticed something: the photos were GORGEOUS. These weren’t just a pictures of a plate of food or perhaps a nicely arranged pile of produce. These photos were live action: sizzling meat, pouring batter, flour and butter in the process of becoming dough. Photos on blogs like smitten kitchen and The Pioneer Woman were beautiful, close shots of food, making the food almost a bigger feature than the blog itself.
I had some insecurity for awhile because of those blogs. I worried I was a hack because I was working with much simpler equipment. I worried that my blog would never be read because it wasn’t as visually stunning as those other, more visually-appealing blogs. Slowly (very slowly), I got over it.
But it does still bother me sometimes. Bother me is probably too strong a phrase. Puzzle me? Perhaps. And I begin to wonder, which came first: the food blogger or the food photographer? At what point did the photos of the food begin to take center stage, and the text around the photos play merely a supporting role? I know when a blog has stunning photos, I focus on the photos rather than the writing. I can’t help it.
And the answer to the question is probably the same as when chefs began to be groomed like celebrities – when the food you ate was prepared in a more public fashion. When the preparation of food was just as entertaining as the eating of it. Because it’s beautiful. Watching food be prepared is like a form of porn. Chocolate pours out of a bowl in cascading, silky sheets of dark brown; pork belly sizzles happily on a hot grill, its juices bubbling up around the pink flesh and white fat.
In the writing classroom, we have a rule that we should show, rather than tell. I try to explain that rule to my students several times per semester. Write your descriptions in such a way as to show us what you see, rather than to tell us what you see. Don’t tell us the chocolate was delicious; describe it in full detail so that you can show us that deliciousness. It’s a hard lesson to learn. Good description takes time. Good writing takes time. And blogs are, generally, the product of haste. We don’t take three months and a dozen drafts to write a blog post. We take an hour, maybe two at the very most, to arrange our thoughts, write them down, do a spell check (so your mother doesn’t email you later to tell you all the words you misspelled), arrange a few photos on the page, and publish. It’s the work of a couple hours, not a couple months. There is precious little time to reflect, let alone to create the best, most beautiful, most unique description of pork that anyone has read in a long time.
So we turn to photos. We photograph our food. My girlfriend is so used to it by now that she doesn’t pick up her fork right away when food is brought to our table; she waits as I pull out my phone or my camera, and she obligingly takes a photo of her plate from several different angles so that I have choices when it comes time to blog later. Apps like Instagram are a food blogger’s best friend, giving us the ability to apply cool effects to our photos to make them look more sophisticated, more artistic.
I’m sure that the food photographer came first. Quite sure. I think back to the days when the rumor was that food photographers didn’t photograph ice cream; they photographed mashed potatoes made to look like ice cream. But nowadays, to be a food blogger, you must also be a bit of a food photographer as well. I am an amateur at both endeavors, but I give myself a bit more of a break about that now. We take our photos, we adjust them to Lo-fi or Toaster, and we fill our pages with words. And we hope that between the images and the words, somewhere along the way, our art, our voices, our way of seeing the world shines through.
And if one day I write a description of pork belly that takes three months to perfect, well, I will likely be a very happy food blogger.