When the Canvas Is an Empty Plate

NOW that it's summer, Diane Simone Vezza is stocking up on turkeys, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and ingredients for pumpkin pie. Even though the calendar says July, Ms. Vezza is immersed in Thanksgiving and Christmastime cooking.

Why the holiday feast? Vezza is a freelance food stylist. This is the time of year when many magazines are photographing their holiday food specials, so she is busy creating food for the camera - to make it look appealing and appetizing.

Anytime you see a picture of food - in a magazine or newspaper, an ad, a cookbook, on a package, or on television - chances are it required the careful hand and discerning eye of a skilled food stylist and photographer. They calculate the look of food down to the last drip running down the ice-cream cone.

"It's a unique business," Vezza says. "When you tell people that you're a food stylist, they wait a few seconds, then they ask you `What's that?' (unless you're in marketing or work for an [advertising] agency.) I say that I arrange food for photography, I make it look good, I style it. I try and make it [appear] as palatable as I can."

What does it take to be a top-notch food stylist? Many say in addition to a solid knowledge of food and cooking, you have to have an artistic eye, steady hands, a keen sense of color, follow-through, and the capacity to work well with others who may or may not agree with your creative vision. Hours are long, shoots are often demanding, so patience is key.

Depending on the client base, a freelance food stylist earns between $20,000 and $125,000 a year.

Competition can be tough, especially for freelancers in big cities, but stylists generally establish some sort of niche, such as specializing in television or print work.

People often take delight in knowing "tricks of the trade," or how food items are made camera-ready: the bowl of cereal that has glue instead of milk; the artificial ice cubes and the plastic "splash" coming from a glass of soda pop. And did you know that margarine is more photogenic than butter?

But if you mention the word "trick" to stylists and photographers, they'll frown.

"There's a big misconception that we use tons of tricks," says Delores Custer, food stylist and food-styling teacher at both the Culinary Institute of America and New York University.

Stylists must know how to cook, bake, and present food within the legal parameters of advertising, she points out. If you're selling ice cream, for example, you must use the real product. "We use fake ice cream when we're not selling ice cream, that way the photographer can light and play and shoot for as long as he wants."

Truth in advertising is something that food photographers and food stylists always keep in mind. According to Brad Stone of the Federal Department of Agriculture, "vignettes" - the technical term for how products are depicted - fall under rules for product labeling.

Accusations of deceptive vignettes are dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Take, for example, a fruit drink that contains multiple fruits - such as kiwi, apple, and strawberry. If the package or an advertisement pictured just a bunch of kiwis, that would be deemed deceptive. Similarly, if a photo showed a much larger portion size than the actual product delivers, that would also be deceptive.

Truthfulness is often monitored by the industry itself, Mr. Stone says. Competitors are always on the watch.

Other practices, such as using oil or water to make something look more juicy, cold, or delectable, are not meant to fake anyone out, Custer notes. Stylists and photographers seek to enhance food, to bring it alive, not deceive.

John Carafoli, a New York- and Boston-based freelance food stylist who wrote the book "Food Photography and Styling," prefers the word "techniques" to "tricks."

"It's taken me time to learn these things," says Carafoli, who has styled for such publications as Bon Appetit, Better Homes and Gardens, and the Boston Globe as well as corporations such as McDonalds, Howard Johnson's, Pepsi, and the Ground Round.

Certainly stylists and photographers have come to rely on certain items - such as glue, putty, and artificial ice cubes just to name a few. "My cleaning lady just threw out $25 worth of [artificial] bubbles," Carafoli laments. (She didn't know what they were.)

GENERALLY, the trends in styling and photography reflect the trends in food. Gail O'Donnell, a Chicago-based food consultant who has done styling for about 20 years - first at Kraft and Quaker Oats and now as a freelancer, says there's a lot more business with fast-food chains, as well as other food associated with "convenience."

"We style a lot of frozen food," she says. There's also been a big shift in demand from print to television, she notes. "I see a trend toward special affects [in television food ads]. You see a lot of laughing food and talking food."

But even within the food-styling and food-photography industry there are trends in the way food is treated and presented. The current practice can be summed up in one word: "natural."

Gone are the days of painted plates, where small portions looked more like pretty fly-fishing bait than your favorite diner's blue-plate special. Today, food is more comfortable; it's photographed softer; and it looks home-crafted.

"People are trying to be more natural with food, period," stylist Carafoli says.

"The time of gimmicks is gone. Trick photography is gone. We're back to very honest and legitimate photography," says Martin Jacobs, a New-York based photographer.

"Perfection intimidated a lot of people," Ms. O'Donnell says. "Today we can leave food a little more casual. We don't have to groom it as much, but that doesn't mean we don't watch it very carefully."

Vezza concurs: "Before, the food looked too placed, too fussed over; it really looked like someone worked on it. Today, it should look like someone didn't work on it, even though someone did."

TERI SANDISON, a Napa Valley, Calif.-based food and wine photographer who has worked with her husband, chef Hugh Carpenter, on cookbooks "Chopstix," "Pacific Flavors," and the forthcoming "Fusion Food," traces the history of food-as-visual-art to the Asian influence in America, which also influenced Nouvelle Cuisine.

About 10 years ago, "we came to realize how important it is to eat with your eyes," she says.

Ms. Sandison sees today's movement toward naturalness as an influence from the recent popularity of Mediterranean cooking - "the very simple presentation, emphasizing the freshest ingredients.

"Maybe Mediterranean is more `in' right now, but still, we all have this background now having gone through that Asian period," Sandison observes. "Proportion and harmony are more refined.... We could never go back to the way food styling was 15 years ago with the huge slab of roast beef."

Indeed, with these higher standards, a lot of Americans expect their food to be pleasing to the eye. As Sandison says, "We've become more sophisticated visually."

Part of that sophistication may also stem from the fact that food stylists now come from a variety of backgrounds.

Whereas years ago food stylists were almost always home economists, today they come from areas of art and design, food and nutrition, and cooking and catering. Many food photographers have come from backgrounds as well, such as Mr. Jacobs and Sandison.

"You definitely need to have some art in you. Some things you can learn, but you also have to have that in you," says Ms. Custer. Just as painters start with an empty canvas, and writers start with blank paper, we start with bare plates, Custer says. "We work with color, texture, contrast, and line to understand the way the camera is seeing the food."

"I think in terms of positive and negative spaces just like a painter," says Carafoli, who got his design degree from the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston. "Each job I take is a new challenge," he says, recalling a recent shoot: "Jello is a real dog - because of lighting."

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