When Food Photography Went Indulgent

Food photography has gone through several different waves over nearly two centuries.

From the early straightforward daguerrotypes to the more stylised portrayals that dominated advertising for most of the 20th century, to the clustered and personal social media food photographs we see today, the art has shifted as our relationship to food has shifted.

One of the most fascinating trends in this, however, was a particular subset of food photography that placed pure indulgence on the backdrop board.

This subgenre is provocative, fantastical and in some cases subversive, and has created an arms race of ever-more appetite-whetting meals, and is known as food porn.

Gastronomic Fantasies

The term “gastro-porn” was first used in 1977 to describe how increasingly elaborate colour photographs of meals created a sense of excitement and unattainability, in a way that was not entirely unlike raunchy and salacious content.

The concept was a little ahead of its time, as it coincided not only with a debate about pornographic content in society (which had seen a rise in popularity due to the availability of the VHS videotape), but also change in how people related to food.

The year 1977 was also the year of Slim-Fast, the earliest meal-replacement diet, which meant that millions of people were depriving themselves of two meals a day, as well as exercising more in an attempt to attain physiques that were later revealed to be the result of anabolic steroids.

The 1980s was the era of the fad diet, with Slim-Fast being met by the return of the Cabbage Soup Diet and the Grapefruit Diet from the 1950s, the Fit For Life And Beverly Hills Diet food combination plans, the cottage cheese diet, Ayds appetite suppressant sweets and the rise of liquid diets.

Many diets involved replacing meals with either nothing, liquid alternatives or relatively unpleasant alternatives, so it created a major dichotomy in the food world that there are healthy but disgusting foods and unhealthy but delicious foods.

These extremes led to a reactionary movement that celebrated the pleasure of eating unhealthily, possibly best parodied in a 1992 episode of the animated sitcom The Simpsons, with a burger described in a somewhat suggestive way.

This was the origins of food porn and to a world that was trying to avoid food entirely, there was a voyeuristic joy to seeing beautiful, delicious-looking and unhealthy food being made, and for some audiences, it provided the same rush as breaking other taboos.

Whilst the 1990s provided a wave of cooking shows and celebrity chef vehicles inspired by the success of the book White Heat, possibly the biggest influence on the food porn world was the BBC2 show Two Fat Ladies, which could be best described as Top Gear but with cooking.

Clarissa Dickson Wright and Jennifer Paterson travelled around the UK on a motorbike and sidecar preparing huge meals with odd ingredients and often took exceptional delight in using large amounts of lard, butter, clotted cream and fatty meats when other chefs were more health-conscious.

Their delight at making meals with lots of butter was described as a “pornographic joy” by the producers of Two Fat Ladies, and the idea caught on with both amateur and professional chefs, who capitalised on the backlash against diet foods.

With the advent of social media, the meaning evolved to describe food that was aesthetically appealing to look at, even if it was not especially unhealthy, although shows such as Epic Meal Time continued the trend of gigantic, unhealthy and voyeuristic food watching.

Leave a comment