Taking a look at popular images featuring food on Instagram, you’ll see a pattern. Andrew Scrivani, a New York food photographer veteran puts it bluntly: “They are almost exclusively shooting from the top. Almost everything is a round dish of food and in a square, because Instagram is square, and a lot of it is on white or very light backgrounds, and white or very light plating, and consistently less and less propping.”
You can see it for yourself. In our lead image for this piece, we captured screenshots of nine straight chronological Instagram posts from six different food photography blogs and magazines and placed them side-by-side. Except, we accidentally used one outlet twice. We were unable to remember which image sets came from where, and couldn’t correct the error without completely starting over. We decided to leave it as is, a decision we felt exemplified Scrivani’s point.
Working out of his studio in New York and teaching across the country since 2002, food photographer Andrew Scrivani has seen the food photography scene grow from seed to blossom over the many years behind the camera. From that perspective, he has seen much change across the industry. More recently, Instagram has had a colossal influence on the food photography scene from top to bottom, from small blogs to the biggest magazines.
“As a subscriber to a well-known major food magazine for the last 10 years, there has been a definite shift in how those covers look now as opposed to how they did when I first subscribed,” Scrivani noted. Having shot for The New York Times since 2002, Scrivani also has had his work published in Eating Well Magazine as well as at least 14 different nationally published cookbooks, has his own book on food photography titled That Photo Makes Me Hungry (hits stores this November), teaches through Creative Live, can be seen speaking at B&H Photo, lectures on the subject of photography around the country and is a brand ambassador for Adobe.
With that kind of rolling list of accomplishments, it is obvious he has been one of the more published food photographers in the industry for quite a while and also puts a personal emphasis on educating young photographers over that span.
Scrivani looks at today’s food photography with a mix of modest satisfaction and doleful resignation. Happy with what he has been able to contribute, but cautious of the road the food photography industry is going down. He sees the top agencies, magazines, and editors as reactionary to fads rather than drivers of innovation, with an emphasis on factory-style homogeneity instead of visionary creative production.
“I definitely noticed it start to affect my work a couple years ago. My style was one that was unique at the very beginning of my career. It was much darker, and the lighting was one-directional. I used to use a lot of dark backgrounds, a lot of dramatic propping. The compositions were more intricate and involved in terms of storytelling.
“I got a lot of pushback at the very beginning of my career because we were still in the sort of Martha Stewart Living, Women’s Magazine era, where everything was this light and bright look, happy and cheery and very spring-like. And then suddenly the industry sort of came back to me, to my style that is dark, moody and dramatic. That started to be more prominent across all the major magazines.”
But it wasn’t to last.
“About two or three years ago we started to shift back into the other direction,” Scrivani said. “And the first thing I noticed was we started to move into this hard light look, which was the first iteration of ‘we are bored with the napkin and the fork and the spoon and the dark background and we want something different.’
“And that frustrated me at first because I felt like that wasn’t a style that was driven by food-forward photography. It was something that was driven more by art photography because I felt like art directors were getting really bored with the styles that were there. And I heard that voiced.
“I was on a panel with one of the photo editors at a popular, nationally published food magazine, Danny Bowien, and a couple other food people. We were all there on the panel and that subject came up, and the young woman from the food magazine mirrored those thoughts. She said, ‘yeah we are just kind of bored with the elegantly placed napkin, and the food porn.'”
Scrivani paused in his recollection, the confusion still as evident in his retelling as it was when he experienced it years ago.
“I was like, I don’t get it,” he said. “You’re a food magazine. The whole concept is to make food look delicious, not make fine art photography.
“That fine art driver was sort of influencing the whole industry.”
Liz Barclay, a food and lifestyle photographer operating out of Los Angeles and New York, found photography as a way for her to express her deep connection with health, food, and art. After struggling and eventually prevailing over thyroid cancer early on, she found herself photographing with a pure, raw purpose of highlighting the connection between who we are, what we eat, and how we see those two things intertwined.
“I really leaned into food, nutrition, and the connection with the body. Food, people, and life. That really came through in my photos,” she recalled.
Her work had a realness to it that landed her a job Village Voice, and not long after at The New York Times. She even cold-called Andrew Scrivani looking for the chance to work with him as an assistant – a position she received.
Working in that world, her natural desire to rebel against the tide and to focus on what she found important eventually won over.
“Eventually I got tired of the politics and stuffiness of the food industry and people who are opportunistic. Food and photography were overly precious to me, and I thought there was no grit and no soul, and almost in this punk rock attitude I said ‘I just want to f**king shake things up.'”
As a fan of heavy flash in fashion and editorial work because of the energy it gives photos, Barclay decided to try the style on food. “I just started doing it, and I liked it. No one was doing it, and I started shooting food that way. I was making my own rules.”
“People weren’t into it at first,” she laughed as she recalls it. But she didn’t care. “People would say ‘I don’t really like that,’ so I would have to shoot both aesthetics. But over time, it started to become my style. I started collaging, repeating things hundreds of times. Like I would do crazy stuff like cut out a pie and put it on a Galaxy and throw it on Instagram.”
For Barclay, Instagram became her way of expressing the things she enjoyed and did for fun. It didn’t matter to her that she was the only one who liked it at first. As someone who wanted to not lose sight of what was important personally, she leveraged Instagram as a place where she could always be herself.
That isolation did not last long. “Figures in the food industry started commenting that they liked it, that it was fun, and that it was kind of a ‘f**k you’ to the boundaries. I was just doing things as a joke or for my own satisfaction, and people were finding it sort of refreshing and unique to me.” Through these types of images, Barclay’s voice and personal angle started to develop.
“The more I explored it, the more it developed into a refined style,” she said. “And then things became more like art pieces. Like I would shoot a dish on a colored background and it would be a standalone art piece. Then the Times told me to just go full-on with that style. Like do a buttered roll story and do a collage, shot with bright flash. Cross-genre stuff, all helping me create my own stuff.”
Barclay brought up a time when her style influenced a director so greatly, it changed the path of the shoot.
“I did a shoot for an article, a roundup one time, which featured a bunch of photographers and different dishes,” she said. “I did the first photo for the roundup and then the art director saw what I made, and changed the art direction for everyone based on my photo, asking everyone to shoot with high flash. I guess I stepped into that lane and owning that, after people told me that they liked it. And now folks tell me that I sort of led the people into that aesthetic.”
There is a lot to consider when you examine any aspect of the cultural fulcrum point that is food. The kinds of food we find in restaurants have rapidly changed over the last few years, as has the idea of the chef, or even what a dining experience can or should be. It is no surprise that this volatility has spread to the food photography world as well, exacerbated by the unstoppable force that is social media, namely Instagram.
“The rise of the Instagram Influencer has had an impact for sure,” Scrivani notes. “The fact that if you have a food blogger who has a half-million followers and she’s shooting everything with clean white light on a white background and getting seven, eight, ten thousand likes for every picture, that becomes the metric.
“Then you have magazine and agencies saying, ‘Oh look, this is what people want. This is what people are responding to. So let’s just do that.’ And that becomes the model – this kind of factory aspect of things. It’s like, ‘Just stamp it out’ and the only thing that’s different is the food. Everything else pretty much stays the same.
“And now we’re seeing that model across the whole industry at this point.”
When asked to reflect on the reactionary tendencies of today’s media, Barclay was a bit more pragmatic.
“I think with brands and everything across the board really, we live in a rapid-paced society where everything is produced and consumed at a very fast pace. I think that brands and publications see what the people are interested in, what they’re feeling, and interact with each other instantly.”
Brands, in order to maximize their relevancy, have to find a way to plug into that. It’s the nature of the beast.
“It’s not like you have to go to the library and pick up a magazine, read books, listen to the radio, in order to find out what’s cool,” Barclay continued. “You don’t even have to travel somewhere to see what clothes are popular or what they’re eating. Everything is out there instantly. People can access it all. Brands and publications get to watch the world and what it’s feeling and needing.
“I think it’s ok that brands are listening instead of talking. The benefit is the communication and back and forth, but it’s not all good. A lot of times now they take something cool, like CBD or an influencer or Hip Hop, and things can become kind of commodified and oversaturated very quickly, and that sucks.”
Looking back on his history with photography, Scrivani recognizes that his outlook is painted by freedom he once had.
“I’m honestly very spoiled, to be frank,” he said. “I got to do my own thing for a really long time without anyone telling me to do it differently or in a specific way. So that was kind of a kick in the head. ‘Oh, now you’re going to give me art direction?’ Okay.
“I can handle that, but I did this without any art direction or very minimal art direction for a really long time. Working with editors who knew where to push me and where not to push me, in terms of making it look like the work they hired me to do. It’s like, why hire me if you want me to do something that anyone else can do?”
To answer his own question, Scrivani explains how his whole business isn’t about him in particular, but his operation.
“These days it’s less about my photography and more about that I’m an efficient entity. I’m not just a photographer you hire and who comes to the studio and shoots. I have everything. I have my own studio, my own props, my own stylists. I am an industry, not just a guy who shows up with a camera. That has kept me current, the fact I can be like one-stop shopping.”
Barclay is one of the rare examples of an artist who, without trying or having any intention, changed an industry. The aftershocks of her hard light food photos still echo in the industry today. Many of the popular food magazines still employ a hard single light source with heavily cranked contrast and sharpness in a high percentage of their published imagery.
But the style has been commodified. Looking at a photo of Barclay’s next to one from a popular magazine, you can see there is still a difference.
“When you make an impact on things or lead in your genre, it’s really a form of flattery to see that you’ve shifted the landscape,” Barclay said. “You just have to use that as a way to keep evolving and pushing forward yourself as an artist.”
Scrivani still believes the big names in the industry, art directors and agencies should be more involved with being the drivers of creativity. More, they should want to be leaders instead of being satisfied riding the current trends. “When you’re selling a product, you want to basically appeal to the biggest demographic you can appeal to. I’m trying to be critical of the industry in that regard. It’s just an acknowledgment of what’s happening.
“Some people saw me as an industry leader for a very long time. And I don’t know that it’s the case anymore. Maybe it’s time for me to move into a different industry, do other things. That is my mindset, but it’s not like I’m going to abandon food photography, yet I’m a pretty good filmmaker, too. So I have skills in other places, and if my time has come in food photography then I’m willing to accept that because I feel like I’ve made an impact.”
Scrivani’s latest project outside the food world, a feature film he produced titled Team Marco, just won the Audience Award for Favorite Family Film at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival. Clearly, he is still at the top of his game creatively. He says he would just love to channel that into more food projects, as that is still a passion, but it seems that trends and the cost concerns of clients are the real barriers.
“I’d just like to see more art buyers bucking the trends and just going with what they like rather than what is trendy or cheap to produce,” he said. “The greater point of Instagram stifling bigger entities from risk-taking is really the bigger issue for me.
“But I’m not going to shovel s**t against the tide. If this is the way it’s going, I’ll ride it till I outlive my usefulness. Right now, my function is someone who can make it happen and not really rock the boat. And that’s ok.”