Overflowing tables and fake ice cream: How food styling has changed in the last 50 years

Food styl­ing re­flects the de­cades, just like any oth­er trend.

Those old photo­graphs of food from the Dark Ages — you know, 50 years ago — look so, well, out of date.

A table­top filled, cor­ner to cor­ner, with plat­ters of un­de­fin­able edi­bles (at least we think they’re edi­bles)? Curious props on the set?

Yes, just as fash­ion — and kit­chens, cars and hair­cuts — have trends, so does food styl­ing (what’s the mul­let and shoul­der pads of the food world?).

To get a per­spec­tive on the ev­o­lu­tion of food in front of the cam­er­a, we talked with Carmen Bo­nil­la of Stillwater, who served as Taste’s de facto cul­i­nary styl­ist for 32 years.

She was not the usu­al can­di­date to pick up a tweezer (to move peas and ce­re­al), cans of pro­pane (to brown crème brû­lée) or spritz bot­tles (to hy­drate pro­duce) when she turned to her se­cond ca­reer. Back in the ’80s, food styl­ists came from the ranks of home ec­ono­mists.

Not so for Bo­nil­la. Af­ter an art de­gree and two de­cades in the res­tau­rant in­dus­try as a chef, she switched ca­reers, get­ting her break when a seni­or food styl­ist at General Mills took Bo­nil­la un­der her wing. Lo­cal­ly, many food styl­ists learn­ed the basics and be­yond at the home of Bet­ty Crock­er.

Q: What a­bout those old food photos with ev­er­y­thing but the kitch­en sink in the pic­ture?

A: I call it “giv­ing the cli­ent their mon­ey’s worth.” It was a trend for a while, par­tic­u­lar­ly in cook­books, and es­pe­cial­ly if the in­tent was to show some­thing as be­ing fam­i­ly-friend­ly and there was a de­sire to make it look like it could feed a lot of peo­ple or show off a big spread for en­ter­tain­ing. That was the i­de­a any­way. Some­times it was sim­ply old-school de­sign where a lot of peo­ple didn’t like emp­ty space and felt com­pelled to fill that space. More was more, then, in food photos, and to­day less is more.

Q: What drove the chan­ges in the way food looks on the plate in photo­graphs?

A: The whole photo in­dus­try for food re­volved then around con­trol in the stu­dio. It was pains­tak­ing work. One photo shoot took hours and hours and hours of work, as op­posed to to­day with dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy. Back then we took Po­lar­oids and ad­just­ed the food ac­cord­ing­ly. Ev­er­y­thing had to be in its place. It was very styl­ized and stiff. As maga­zines and res­tau­rants changed their ap­proach, food styl­ing had to move along with what they were doing. Gen­er­al­ly, the whole style of food is more nat­u­ral to­day, more real, with messy plates and sprin­kled herbs. Ev­er­y­one is hap­pi­er with that. Photography for pack­ag­ing, how­ever, is still very con­trolled.

Q: You hear stor­ies of how fake the food can be in photo shoots. Was that ever true? Photos in Taste have al­ways used real food.

A: Back in those days, food styl­ists turned to a lot of crazy stuff that shouldn’t have gone into food. There were a lot of sub­sti­tutes used, tricks like using shav­ing cream in­stead of whipped cream. An­oth­er trick for photos, when milk would be poured onto ce­re­al, was to use El­mer’s glue for the “milk” be­cause it poured bet­ter. That changed af­ter a law­suit, prompt­ed by Camp­bell’s Soup [in 1968], which used mar­bles in the bot­tom of a bowl to raise the in­gre­di­ents for a photo­graph. General Mills, how­ever, wouldn’t al­low us to use any­thing that wasn’t real food. They had very strict guide­lines a­bout not using any­thing inedible. They had rules a­bout por­tions, too. You could use less than a rec­i­pe in a photo, but nev­er more.

Q: Why the sim­pler fo­cus to­day?

A: Dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy is the driv­ing force, and ev­er­y­bod­y is in a time crunch. In the past we could spend a whole day on one photo no mat­ter how many foods were in it, but that just doesn’t hap­pen any­more. You can do edit­ing and turn­a­round fast­er. When dig­i­tal came along, I wor­ried that a lot of pic­tures would be photoshopped, but that’s not the case for pho­togra­phers and edi­tors, who keep it to a min­i­mum. If it’s a prod­uct be­ing photo­graphed for ad­ver­tise­ments, le­gal­ly you have to stay with­in guide­lines.

Q: What’s dif­fi­cult to por­tray in a photo shoot?

A: Ice cream. A fake ver­sion is still used oc­ca­sion­al­ly in the in­dus­try, though it is made up of food — Karo syr­up, pow­dered sug­ar and Crisco short­en­ing. You knead it into a dough and use as is for va­nil­la ice cream or color it for straw­ber­ry or choc­o­late. It’s still used as a stand-in be­cause ice cream melts so fast. Then you would set up the light­ing, ditch the stand-ins and scoop out real ice cream for the photo shoot.

There are some pho­togra­phers who build ice huts in­side their stu­dios. These little huts have air con­di­tion­ing blown in. It’s like a deep freeze. The styl­ists are in ski gear as they scoop ice cream, put it on the set and photo­graph quick­ly and nat­u­ral­ly. It’s more fun to do it this way.

Q: What was the worst you had to style?

A: Cat food straight out of a can, on a teeny plate a few inch­es from my nose. It was for a pet store com­pany.

Q: Any oth­er sur­pris­es in the photo stu­dio?

A: I did a ba­kery spread that took days to make all the food we were shoot­ing. We broke for lunch and the ba­kery own­er had a dog there and said the dog was well trained and wouldn’t go af­ter the food. But the dog got into the pas­tries and ruined the whole shoot.

Q: Ah, yes, the “dog ate my props” ex­cuse!

A: Then there was an art di­rec­tor who grabbed a sand­wich to eat that we had just photo­graphed. He didn’t see that it had pins in it so it wouldn’t fall over dur­ing the photo. It was a close call, but some­one grabbed the sand­wich from him.