What's In A Name?

Sara Leikin Sara Leikin

1000 Words

A photograph is worth (at least) a thousand words. Here are my thousand words to describe photographs, techniques, and the moments that make the image.

What's In A Name?
What's In A Name?

I recently had my portfolio reviewed by Scott Kelby. As we were discussing my images, he took an interest in my “Food and Drink” photos. He had several kind words and collegial suggestions, but what stood out for me was his proclamation that they were NOT “Food and Drink” images.

“These are really interesting! They aren’t what most people think of, though, when they think of food photography. The phrase “Food and Drink” makes me think that I’m going to be looking at overhead shots of sandwiches. These are something different. They remind me of environmental portraits, but instead of people, it’s food.”

I admit that I laughed to myself because I have a lot of overhead images of sandwiches. And cocktails. And memorable meals. Most of them aren’t portfolio worthy- they are excellent snapshots of a moment, but not exactly high art or even just good images. It made me start thinking about what I consider to be an interesting image of food.

I love to cook. I collect cookbooks from different cultures and when I travel, along with my shot lists I have well curated lists of markets, restaurants, must-try food items, and interesting bars. One of my first places to visit when I am in a new place is the local market. How people eat and what they prioritize for their meals says so much about a place and its people. I find this endlessly fascinating so it’s no surprise that when I’m traveling (or even in my everyday surroundings) I gravitate towards photographing culinary moments: spicy chilis in a basket at a market in Mandalay; burlesque cup handles at a bar in New Orleans; a young monk preparing coffee for guests in Burma. Just about everything I ate in India. I could do a poster series of images of my hand holding pretty cocktails. Or this image, of pumpkins on display at a local farm in central Ohio last fall. I loved the way they were displayed, as if they were objets d’art in a gallery. Food has that effect on me. I often consider dining to be a form of entertainment, of theater. Some people choose to spend their money on an evening out at the movies. I prefer to spend it at a good restaurant, experiencing the production of the service, the preparation, the tasting. Or even in my own kitchen, enjoying the catharsis of chopping, mixing, boiling, finessing, serving. It encompasses so much of life: it’s art, it’s life or death, it’s entertainment, it’s political, It’s an act of love.

So, if “Food and Drink”, doesn’t describe what I shoot, then what is a better heading? I came up with an initial list of phrases:

  • Culinary Landscapes
  • Moveable Feast
  • Edible Environments
  • Gastronomic Landscapes
  • Epicurean Environments
  • Culinary Tales
  • Edible Narratives

I quickly decided against “epicurean”. Too fancy and it evoked something that didn’t seem to fit most of my images. I crowdsourced some reactions on a photography community site, and I ultimately narrowed it down to:

  • Culinary Landscapes
  • Gastronomic Landscapes
  • Edible Narratives

While they  all describe food photography that includes location and story, I feel that they each emphasize different aspects of the experience:

Culinary Landscapes

  • Focus: The interplay between food and its surrounding environment.
  • Imagery: Combines the artistry of food with the beauty of natural or cultural settings, much like a landscape painting.
  • Emphasis: Visual and aesthetic aspects, showcasing how food is part of a larger ecological or cultural picture.
  • Connotation: Suggests a holistic and immersive experience, integrating food seamlessly with its environment.

Gastronomic Landscapes

  • Focus: The broader experience of food as it relates to its environment, often with a heightened emphasis on the sensory and experiential aspects.
  • Imagery: Evokes the senses, suggesting not just sight, but taste, smell, and touch as part of the landscape.
  • Emphasis: The sensory journey of food in its natural or cultural context, often highlighting culinary artistry and innovation.
  • Connotation: Conveys a sense of sophistication and exploration in the world of gastronomy, emphasizing the art and science of food.

Edible Narratives

  • Focus: The stories behind the food, including its origins, preparation, and cultural significance.
  • Imagery: Invites viewers to delve into the narrative aspects of food, connecting dishes to their historical, cultural, and personal stories.
  • Emphasis: Storytelling and narrative, showcasing the journey of food from farm to table and the people involved in this journey.
  • Connotation: Suggests a deeper, more personal connection to food, emphasizing its role in human experiences and traditions.

Summary of Differences

  • Culinary Landscapes: Visual and aesthetic integration of food and its environment.
  • Gastronomic Landscapes: Sensory and experiential emphasis on the broader world of food and its surroundings.
  • Edible Narratives: Focus on the stories and cultural significance behind the food.

As I began holding my images up to these headings, it became clear that most of my images fall under the categories of “Culinary Landscape” or “Edible Narratives”. Much like environmental portraits of people, most of my images are taken in a larger context that highlights their origins or cultural significance. There’s often a human element, evoking the relationship that people and cultures have with food. I also like that both headings infer motion and not still lifes as most of my images portray the acts associated with food: dining, drinking, cooking, serving, producing, etc.

For now, I’ve chosen “Edible Narratives”. The focus on stories and culture rings truer in most of my images than the aesthetic aspect of culinary landscape. I suspect that I’ll keep trying them on as I continue to photograph my meals, markets, stalls, cocktails, vineyards, farms, etc. While I’m not always a fan of labels, I’m excited about this opportunity to use more intentional language when describing my images. 

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