When Brian Preston-Campbell reflects on his job, he sometimes thinks about the hamburger scene in the Michael Douglas film Falling Down. The movie's antihero, a beleaguered everyman on an armed rampage, has just shot up a fast-food restaurant after receiving poor service. When he finally gets his Double Whammyburger, he stares down at it sorrowfully.
"Look at that," he orders the manager, pointing to the beautiful picture of the burger on the display behind the register. "It's plump, it's juicy, it's three inches thick. Now look at this sorry, miserable, squashed thing. Can anybody tell me what's wrong with this picture?"
This scene, says Preston-Campbell, 41, describes "what a lot of people think about what I do for a living." As a professional food stylist, it's Preston-Campbell's job to make food that looks — and often is — too good to be true. But if the trigger-happy hero of Falling Down had considered the time and skill that went into that hamburger photo, he might have felt some grudging respect for the craftsmen behind it. Making a burger fit to be photographed is a lot harder than making one to eat.
Preston-Campbell described the tricks behind making glamour-worthy patties. First, he said, fry the burger just enough to brown the outside, leaving the meat rare and the patty un-shrunk. Next, blot it on paper towels and brush on a mixture of caramel color and clear pastry piping gel that gives the burger a meatier appearance. (Yes, you need non-meat products to make it appear "meatier.") Follow that up with grill marks burned on with a hot skewer or electric charcoal lighter. Repeat six or seven times and pick the best one (the "hero," as food stylists call it) while your assistant sorts through bags of buns. Starting with the very best bun, construct the burger from the bottom up, laying down fixings according to the client's specific "build order." Build everything toward the front, so that all the elements can be visible in one shot. If there's cheese, you might want to melt it by spreading Pine-sol on it, which breaks it down chemically without overly browning it. Apply a little bit of Fixodent to stick the lettuce to the bun or burger beneath it, and fix tomato and onion rounds in place with toothpicks. If you need to, you can hollow out the top bun so that it lies flatter on the produce. Put on the condiments last, using a plastic syringe without a needle. If you've done your job carefully and the photographer is talented, you'll end up with a burger that is completely inedible — but a picture fit to sell burgers by the million.
Preston-Campbell has built his share of burgers, but these days he usually works on editorial shoots, where he can be more creative and the food is less manipulated — sometimes even edible. His evolving career mirrors the quiet revolution taking place in the profession of food styling itself. Traditionally, food photographs in magazines conveyed a sense of unattainable perfection. From the pictures in Ladies Home Journal in the 1950s — Chef Boyardee ravioli served in a beautiful copper urn; Jell-O entrees retouched in coral-reef hues — to the deluxe spreads of roast duck and tiered cakes in Gourmet or Bon Appétit 30 years later, stylists and photographers aimed to create images that had the stately quality of still-life paintings.
Although food stylists are almost always trained chefs, their job in those days was more like building a model airplane. Food Styling for Photographers, a how-to book that details classic methods, includes a list of recommended equipment that is several pages long. "My favorite tweezers," the author writes, "are from Electron Microscopy Sciences, Style 24, Part No. 72880-DS, which has a straight end." Deborah Mintcheff, who worked as a food stylist in the '80s and '90s, recalls that to prepare a bowl of cornflakes, she couldn't use milk, because it rendered the cereal soggy and un-photographable. Instead, Mintcheff would build a base of vegetable shortening inside the cereal bowl, tweeze in flakes one at a time (each of which had been selected by an assistant), and then use a veterinary syringe to inject Wildroot Cream Oil, a white lotion designed as a men's hair slicker, between each flake. Likewise, a plate of spaghetti would be built one strand at a time, and a cake would contain cardboard reinforcements and Vaseline. Mintcheff recalls dragging around a 50-pound toolkit ("the biggest fishing tackle kit I could find") to her jobs.
But things have changed in the last 20 years. Shellacked perfection is now reserved for fast-food ads, and magazine shoots now feature a more naturalistic look.
The food in the photo has gone from being a status symbol to an object of immediate desire — from something you want to show off to something you want to eat this moment ("food porn," as legions of photo-happy food bloggers call it). Exactly when this happened isn't clear, but most people in the field agree that it began in the early '90s and that Martha Stewart was a driving force behind it.
Photo spreads in Martha Stewart Living magazine perfected a style that soon became food fashion vogue. The Australian food photographer Donna Hay (who now has a Stewart-esque empire of her own) is often credited with popularizing the technique of shooting with a shallow depth of field, so that only one dish — or one bite — is deliciously in focus and everything else is hazy. "My favorite art direction during [the mid-'90s]," writes prop stylist Francine Matalon-Degni in Gastronomica, "was, 'You know, give me that Martha Stewart non-look look.'"
The introduction of digital photography also played a role in loosening up the way food could be shot, since the meticulous fine-tuning of a food's look could be done on Photoshop rather than in person.
Since Stewart's heyday, food photos have only gotten more naturalistic. The creative boom has continued as stylists and photographers feel free to experiment.
"People discovered texture — charred edges, crumbles," Mintcheff told me.
Perfection is out, to the point where one high-concept food stylist, Victoria Granof, who shoots for clients such as Bon Appetit, GQ, and Absolut, summed up her oeuvre to me this way: "I make beautiful messes."
Crumbs, drizzles, pools of sauce, herb sprays, bites taken out of cake or sandwiches, even stained tablecloths and smeared frosting — all options are, so to speak, on the table. The food photograph, once more or less a body dressed up for an open-casket viewing, is now a fresh crime scene. Delores Custer, a food stylist for over 30 years who now teaches classes on the subject, likes to show her students an illustrated chart she calls the Turkey Timeline. At one end is a picture of a pristinely browned turkey garnished with carrot flowers and resting on an elegant platter; at the other is a juicy bird still in its roasting pan, looking as though it just emerged from the oven. That latter turkey exemplifies the holy grail of every current food shoot: "appetite appeal."
When I went on a recent shoot with Preston-Campbell, he could not tell me off the top of his head the make and model of his tweezers. They weren't the delicate, fine-tipped 72880s developed for scientists, but instead enormous, fearsome-looking things more than a foot long — the biggest tool in his kit. The kit, which fits in a valise, includes paintbrushes of various sizes (for putting a shine of water or glycerin on foods); an electric device for burning grill marks onto meat; a short, fat-bulbed baster for removing excess liquids; dental floss for tying things up discretely; X-Acto knives; and one white glove, for picking up glasses without leaving fingerprints.
Narratively is an online magazine devoted to original, in-depth and untold stories. Each week, Narratively explores a different theme and publishes just one story a day. It was one of TIME's 50 Best Websites of 2013.