The Elements of Food Styling

What’s up with Gourmet’s somber covers?

At its best, a food magazine’s cover photography should convey something about the way we eat, or the way we’re supposed to eat. I’ve been pondering what message Gourmet is trying to send for almost a year now, as issue after issue arrived in my mailbox featuring a muted-to-the-point-of-mousy cover. When this month’s lovely July issue arrived, the gray spell finally seemed broken; things began to make sense.

Gourmet has always been a little more soigné and literary than other food magazines, so I was willing to give the brooding September 2005 cover the benefit of the doubt. It featured a heavily shadowed overhead shot of a dark-as-mud chocolate cake topped with beige ice cream, sitting atop an ecru table. But the trend toward dreariness continued: More color was drained from covers like May’s cooking-with-fire issue—normally an opportunity for photos of vibrant, rosy steak or a pretty stack of grilled vegetables. Instead, it presented a pile of rib-bones, back lit and char-blackened, lonely and gloomy (in an issue that, story-wise, was rather rollicking). The downright depressive cover from February—a lonely-hearts Valentine’s cover if ever I’ve seen one—particularly got to me. February is chocolate time to be sure, but the chocolate mousse cake doused in a treacly glaze was more beleaguered than romantic (the charcoal background didn’t help, either). Even covers boasting a hair more color—August 2005’s peach and blueberry cake, November 2005’s chiaroscuroed turkey, April 2006’s lasagna Bolognese—seemed anemic: the featured food merging with a pale background, thanks largely to strong top lighting.

The photographs themselves, taken mostly by longtime Gourmet photographer Romulo Yanes, are moody and attractive, but as cover art they mystified me. A cover needs to entice or provoke, as well as stand out next to its competitors on the newsstand. Gourmet clearly aims to separate itself from flashier competitors like Everyday Food, or newcomer Every Day With Rachael Ray, with a clean look and a hushed color palate; but its barren, chilly covers were a step too far. (There have been a couple of exceptions to this graying of Gourmet: a snappy, retro, slightly tiki cover in June, with egg rolls and orchids, and March’s Montreal cover, a comically stilted set shot of two models seated outside a boulangerie.)

When I saw the July issue, however, it all came together. The high-angled shot, captured by John Kernick, features a casual but precise arrangement of angel-hair-and-tomato pasta, accompanied by a plate of breadsticks and a bowl of multihued tomatoes. It’s colorful enough to draw your eye but retains that muted elegance that’s a hallmark of Gourmet style. Normally an image this heavily propped might bother me, but the photo possesses a narrative quality: It’s an invitation to dinner, rather than a monument to a single edible item. It suggests that simple food is a lovely thing, but it also insists that details matter: the earthy-but-refined tableware and linens, the way the tomatoes are cut, the glimpse of an elegant cup and saucer that bleeds off the frame. It’s not quite a you-can-do-it populist message; instead it reminds us of the theater of eating, which is a large part of the fun, too. Why not put on a little show?

The attention to detailed texture sets the photo apart: You can see the crackled finish in the earthenware bowl that holds the capellini, whose strands you can count. You can identify the warp and weft of both linen cloths that lie beneath the bowl. You can even see a diffuse reflection of the sky and trees in the spoon that lies partially buried in the pasta. Despite all this, the photo doesn’t read as crisp, but as something a little weathered, or a little painterly—a quality that, in the end, is what all the light-washed cover art that preceded it must have been aiming for, too.

July’s cover also recalls Gourmet’s iconographic history: Its prop details hark back to the lush tablescapes of the ‘80s when, in the thrall of both nouvelle cuisine and an Aaron-Spelling-like consumer exhibitionism, presentation mattered. (Who could forget Nancy Reagan’s china?) It’s also slightly evocative of images from the 1950s, when Gourmet’s covers featured a significant piece of serving ware, a floral arrangement, and a textural background, put together with a studied eclecticism that suggested a well-traveled life. Check out this August 1957 cover that features cucumber soup in a frilly milk-glass bowl, a modern Georg Jensen spoon, a tentacled purple-and-green bouquet, and a then-exotic shoji screen.

This being 2006, the spaghetti on July’s cover is not styled in a neat spiral, as you might have found in 1984, but purposely tangled—a signifier of our contemporary faith in the handcrafted—and the flowers have been replaced by a bowl of heirloom tomatoes to indicate that fresh ingredients are the ultimate signifiers of good food judgment.

Food photography has generally been in a “what’s next?” mode the last few years. For much of the ‘90s, and into this decade, the prevailing technique has been to feature close-ups of sunlit (or artificially sunlit) food in highly selective focus, meaning one part of, say, a piece of pie, was in focus, while the background dropped out of clarity. Gourmet’s September 1999 cover, for example, which marked Ruth Reichl’s debut on the masthead, blurs out a whole person, leaving only the handful of berries in focus.

This style was a boon for food photographers and stylists, who could fudge off-looking bits of a photograph by dropping them out of focus. In itself, it was a counterpoint to the supercrisp and glossy shots of the ‘80s, and its relaxed manner helped sell the idea that everyone could make good food—just as the photo is a little blurry, no one is examining your creation too harshly. (Selective focus is particularly handy for creating visual interest in blobby food like casseroles, for example.) Eventually, it seemed that no food was photographed without selective focus; what was once fresh and unpretentious became hackneyed.

Without totally abandoning selective focus, Gourmet and other magazines have been searching for a new photographic vocabulary. (Saveur,most notably, went through a recent redesign and adopted crisper, nearly overhead shots on its covers, too.) As depressive as Gourmet’s recent covers have seemed, it has been mildly refreshing to see shadows and gravity return to still-food photography after years of sunny, horizonless shots. Better still is this month’s narrative approach to food. There’s nothing I like more than a good story to go with a good meal.