Food Porn 2.0

I’ve always been thrilled by how Noah Kalina sees restaurants. As Eater’s first photographer, beginning in 2005, his shots of restaurant interiors — which he first chronicled on a personal blog, Interiors, then for “Eater Inside” — arguably established the template for how restaurants introduce themselves to the world today. Kalina’s empty, staged, and poised dining rooms are the Balthazar of restaurant photography: often copied, never bested.

Food and restaurant photography has come a long way since those early Kalina days. Certain photographers, like Daniel Krieger (who succeeded Kalina at Eater), have evolved the format and found compelling new angles. Krieger’s got a way of hooking you into the narrative, such as here, at Barbuto in New York’s West Village. And, in the course of ten years #foodporn has become a bonafide juggernaut. Approximately 16,290,000 posts on Instagram are currently tagged #pizza and 4,505,550 tagged #burger. 69,911,000 are tagged #foodporn. That’s more posts than #basketball (10,124,000) #newyork (51,990,000) and, get this, #usa (27,041,000). At Upland, arguably the quintessential restaurant of this moment in dining on the East Coast, the lunchtime only burger gets photographed before being consumed by nine out of ten diners, a waitress and a manager both estimated, separately, last week.

Think this phenomenon is just foodies being foodies? It might be, but take a look at the difference between a New York Magazine 2006 openings alert and one from 2015. Especially in the age of Instagram, dining room portraits are just the beginning. Now there’s an expectation of photographic excess.

Which brings me back to Kalina and “Undressed,” a series Resy commissioned from him that we’re debuting today on Instagram. Each installment of “Undressed” will be a series of vignettes in search of candid moments at restaurants we love. If food on the plate is the show, “Undressed” invites you into the dressing room.

As our first subject we picked Bruno Pizza, a restaurant so often photographed, and so massively hyped, that New York Times critic Pete Wells literally deducted points for too much buzz, as if it was a bad thing that Bruno’s pizzas are pretty. Noah had carte blanche to shoot it any way he wanted; the restaurant gave him all access.

Noah and I sat down last week, at Upland, to talk about food photography and the rest (and, yes, we photographed the burger). Here’s an excerpt of the conversation:

BL: What do you think about the state of food photography?
NK: It feels sterile and showy to me, which can make it off-putting. And I wonder what the motivation behind it is. I grapple with this with my own work. Like, What am I selling? What’s the point? What am I trying to show to people.
BL: So it’s all just people showing off, then? Given that Interiors was all about clean, empty rooms, it’s ironic that you find food photos sterile.
NK: It’s all showing off. I might be guilty of that in one way or another, too. It’s also just this idea of being in the scene. Like, look, I’m in the scene.
BL: Why do you suppose we use food as a placeholder for the scene?
NK: Scene is a hard thing to represent. We can watch the restaurant and there’s so much going on. A still photograph is just going to look horrible. There is something about the ambient sound [at Upland], for example. Still photography just can’t transport you to that place.
BL: I agree. There’s a real contrast between the photograph of the plate and the reality of the restaurant. They’re so different. We’re trying to sterilize the product and put it in a display case. Maybe because we don’t know how to capture it otherwise?
NK: These are busy places and you’re in the way. And, as a photographer, you don’t want to screw them up. These people are trying to run a business.
I also love the calm before the storm, which was a big thing in Interiors. I saw it at Bruno. They were cleaning it up. Doing the windows. And then — I guess it a popular restaurant right now — 5:55, boom. Like a total wave came through. The place was full in 20 minutes. That’s really interesting. But, how do you capture that? I was really looking for the calm before the storm.
Meanwhile, with a full restaurant, there’s so many things out of place. It’s just ugly the second people come in. They just fuck it up. It’s so hard to get a full restaurant looking the way you want it. No jackets on the back on things. People look bad in photos. They’re not staged. They’re not dressed to match the banquettes. If I was in the picture I’d ruin it.
BL: So that basically is the explanation for why food photography is the way it is. Because it’s the only thing we can capture —
NK: That we’re in control of.

It may be that food photography continues on this course. Soon the lighting in every restaurant and every home kitchen will be optimized for photos. Table manners will dictate that no one starts eating until everyone has received and photographed their respective dishes. But, maybe not. While food porn puts us in control, it takes us out of the moment and away from the escape that makes restaurants, restaurants. Indeed, the food conversation itself is shifting from what’s on the plate to how it got there.

Is food porn evolving? I’m not sure. But, with “Undressed,” at least we hope to present an angle on food photography just as potent as those wonderful burger shots — but, maybe one you haven’t already seen 69,911,000 times.

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