Unicorn lollies and six million avocados: our insatiable appetite for Instafood

We’ll never know what the photographer Irving Penn would have made of #foodporn. The master of still-life photography died in 2009, and Instagram wasn’t born until the following year.

Instagram, of course, is the favoured social media outlet for photographs of food, and #foodporn is one of its most-used hashtags, with 130m posts and rising. Penn was doing it seven decades ago – memorable among his early images are Ingredients for a Beef Stew (1947-48); The Empty Plate (1949) and thereafter shots of steaks, lobsters, frogs’ legs and all manner of other good things. He even photographed a pizza (which is now the world’s most Instagrammed dish, followed by sushi, steak, burgers and bacon).

Penn said “photographing a cake can be art”, but that is definitely because he didn’t live to see the culinary horrors of most food photography on social media.

‘Photographing a cake can be art.’ Photograph: @clerkenwellboyec1/Instagram

A show titled Food for Being Looked At has opened at the Photographers’ Gallery in London. It is a rolling cavalcade of our most common culinary tropes, curated by Anna Dannemann and Sam Mercer. More than three years in the planning, it follows a 2012 exhibition that celebrated the only thing more popular than food on social media … cats.

Anyone who spends more than 30 seconds scrolling through pictures of food will know what whets a snapper’s appetite: avocado toast, oozy eggs, neon bagels and slabs of vaguely sinister raw meat. The exhibition’s 12-minute video presentation moves through these and other themes, tracking trends of the last seven years since Flickr ceded to Instagram, and takes in Snapchat’s evolution from nudies to foodies.

Mercer says of the gargantuan task of choosing the right pictures, “scrolling through Snapchat, even though the food images were largely pedestrian, it’s clear that the rise of such sickly trends as unicorn/rainbow food taps into people thinking, ‘I don’t want my life to look boring, I want everything to look incredible.’”

A hunger-making carousel of deliciousness by Clerkenwell Boy

A hunger-making carousel of deliciousness. Photograph: @clerkenwellboyec1/Instagram

Quite why the person who posted cheese on toast with a submerged pineapple slice thought his dish incredible is incomprehensible. For every masterfully composed smoothie bowl with its forensically placed chia seeds, there’s a boakworthy video of melted chocolate being slopped over (I think) grapes. This is less #foodporn – a loathsome term in itself – and more reminiscent of that glorious Twitter thread #foodorpoo.

The show is not a celebration of beautiful food photography; it documents the good, the bad and the really, really ugly in equal measure.

Someone who’s ridden the wave of food on phones, and been made famous by it, is the award-winning Instagrammer Clerkenwell Boy (163k followers). He photographs everything he eats, but only posts the good-looking stuff. His stream is a hunger-making carousel of deliciousness, and as a result the man – notably anonymous – gets invited to every hot opening and culinary event. He is, to use the wretched term, an influencer.

But although Clerkenwell Boy may, in the five years that he has been cataloguing London’s food scene, be partly responsible for the rise in restaurant diners standing on their chairs to shoot their rapidly cooling supper, he’s developed a conscience about all this food.

The good, the bad and the really, really ugly … an image from Food for Being Looked At.

The good, the bad and the really, really ugly … an image from Food for Being Looked At. Photograph: Nathan LaFrenais Vidler

“I hate stuff like a giant stack of seven burgers, photographed and hashtagged just for likes. I think, are they going to just throw that away now?” He’s now using his influence for good, raising awareness of food waste and with the #cookforsyria initiative drawing chefs, restaurateurs and amateur cooks together to raise money for charity.

Food for being looked at bears close examination, because food should be for being eaten, really. Although now dormant, the Instagram feed @youdidnoteatthat gathered more than 100,000 followers for throwing shade at skinny young women improbably almost-eating vast bagels and doughnuts.

Clerkenwell Boy’s #CookForSyria Recipe Book.

Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose for the Observer

Dannemann, who has stopped photographing food since she started collating these pictures and videos, acknowledges that the last section of the exhibition makes it clear that “so much food is now about aesthetics, it’s not really any more for being consumed”. I don’t have a problem with poking down a macaron decorated with a baby panda’s face, or flicking the tweezered micro-herb garnish off a steak and chewing through it, but I can see what she means.

Even one of the UK’s most exciting young chefs agrees. Merlin Labron-Johnson is executive chef of Portland and Clipstone, famous for spare, elegant plates, all captured by the chef’s smartphone and shared online. “Now a lot of chefs will create dishes for visual appeal above flavour because of Instagram, and that’s bad.”

While training in some of Europe’s most garlanded restaurants, Labron-Johnson wasn’t aware of chefs using social media – it just wasn’t a feature in France and Switzerland. “Those places were famous for their food, and it went by word of mouth … but when I came to London [in 2015], I quickly learned.”

Chef Merlin Labron-Johnson’s squid ink tarts with smoked cod’s roe, fresh peas and chive flowers.

Chef Merlin Labron-Johnson’s squid ink tarts with smoked cod’s roe, fresh peas and chive flowers

He sees posting dishes on social media as a marketing tool, to show potential new and returning diners what’s so great about their menu. It is free advertising, indeed, if the food lives up to the shot. One superstar dish can make you and your restaurant famous – Portland’s game pithivier, Quality Chop House’s confit potatoes or St John’s bone marrow on toast – but it’s a mixed blessing. “I see it as a kind of help – people know in advance what to order,” says Clerkenwell Boy.

But what about the chef desperate to change their menu who daren’t because of the snap-happy pundits?

He foresees a future in which menus are electronic and feature images of the food, and restaurants where you can pre-order those famous dishes on your phone. Exciting or reductive? We must take comfort from the now famous pici pasta dish at hot restaurant Padella. It looks like bleached worms, but everyone’s ordering it (and, yes, photographing it).

Back in the amateur’s kitchen, there is scarcely an avocado that goes un-Instagrammed, if the Photographers’ Gallery show is to be believed. On toast (though not top five, it’s a ridiculously, unjustifiably must-take food picture), in ice-cream (shudder) and in myriad salads, green is gold.

Green is gold … no avocado goes unInstagrammed.

Green is gold … no avocado goes unInstagrammed. Photograph: The Photographers’ Gallery

Nobody knows who started the trend. As Dannemann says: “The name of the photographer is less important than the image here. Food pictures are all about a million versions of the same thing.” Six million, when it comes to #avocado.

Tips for how to take food photographs for Instagram are legion; and as of last week, a restaurant in Israel is trialling curved plates with a smartphone holder on them, the better to show a clean backdrop and pinsharp images of the dishes. Where will it end?

“Sharing”, in a few rare places, still refers only to the plates, not the hashtag. Labron-Johnson names me a restaurant in rural France that is said to be spectacularly good – and doesn’t allow photography. I immediately want to book.

“Yeah,” he concedes. “When I’m having a really great meal, I forget to take pictures.”

There to be eaten … oysters on ice.

There to be eaten … oysters on ice. Photograph: @clerkenwellboyec1/Instagram

@clerkenwellboy on how to photograph food for Instagram

1Use natural light. Avoid a flash or harsh, direct sunlight. If photographing in a restaurant, the ideal scenario is a table by the window on a cloudy day.

2Choose a style and composition that suits you. It can be clean and simple – a top-down shot with a central focal point. Or a closeup of cheese oozing out of a burger, or an entire table with hands reaching in. The key thing is to find a niche and be consistent, so that you’re the dumpling guy, or the breakfast reviewer or the home baker.

3What are you trying to do? Spotlight new restaurants? Share recipes? Record a scene or create a community? It doesn’t matter, as long as you have an opinion and your images tell some kind of story.

4Geotag pictures so that others can find that cafe or market or chef themselves.

5Be discreet and respectful. Don’t snap diners without their permission. And above all, have fun. Remember that the food is there to be eaten. So don’t spend so much time arranging and photographing it that by the time you sit down, it’s gone cold.

Food for Being Looked At is at the Photographers’ Gallery, London, until 8 October.

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