It’s long been acknowledged that food stylists use tricky techniques—such as spraying food with corn syrup or other liquids to keep it looking fresh—to make food appear as attractive as possible in photos. But what about the photography itself? Do certain angles, backgrounds and effects make food look more attractive, tasty or approachable? A new line of cookbooks that features only aerial photography suggests a new trend in food styling.
Cooking From Above was launched in France in 2007 by Marabout, and now Hamlyn (an imprint of Octopus Books) is releasing the line in the U.S. The series’ first tiles, Classics by Keda Black (which covers French food) and Italian by Laura Zavan, are out this month. In the fall, Hamlyn will publish Asian by Jody Vassalo and Baking by Marianne Magnier Moreno. Each $24.99 paperback offers as many as 10 aerial photographs for each recipe, with a group shot of all the ingredients laid out in their mise en place, some step-by-step photos and then one of the finished dish. It’s an approach that Hamlyn’s press materials say will appeal to “not-so-confident cooks, especially beginners who have dealt more with packaged foods than fresh ingredients.” The photos have a Zen-like calm to them, with nary a drop of oil on a counter, and everything presented in clear glass or white porcelain bowls and plates. The instructional images mimic the view seen through the mirror that is often positioned above a teacher’s workspace in cooking classes.
Jonathan Stolper, v-p and associate publisher of Octopus Books USA, said the series is a response to the crowded cookbook marketplace. “The cooking category across all channels can be a challenge for books without a platform—a TV chef or personality.” Following Octopus’s success publishing Chocolat, a cookbook that looked like a giant chocolate bar, last year, Stolper continued to look “to package good concepts and content in new and different ways,” and Cooking From Above is the result. Stolper said the photos in the books resemble the shots Food Network viewers see when watching cooking shows, as well as the images in cookbooks for professional chefs. “It’s not brand new,” but “we thought it would be a nice addition to what we see on store shelves.”
Anne Disrude, a prominent food stylist who does work for magazines and cookbooks, agreed that overhead shooting isn’t a novel concept, but that it is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. “It is an artful conceit more than anything else,” Disrude said. However, she acknowledged, “I suppose an overhead view does give you less detail, perhaps, and less potential confusion. I could see how that could make things seem simpler by making them more graphic.” Of course, some foods lend themselves to overhead shots more than others. A stack of pancakes or a sandwich is better viewed from the side, and many foods in cookbooks and food magazine are best shot at a three-quarters view, said Disrude, because it’s the same angle that a person’s eye sees food.
Hamlyn’s approach seems to be working, so far: it sold out of its initial 12,500-copy first printing of both Classics and Italian, and has gone back to press. Stolper said a wide-ranging sales approach is key with a series that has such a visual aspect to it, and that specialty retailers and mass retailers have embraced the books, in addition to regular bookstore channels.