Food for Thought: Looking differently at food photography
Updated: May 21
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the famed French epicure and gastronome, once said “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are”.
Here at Quilt.ai, we are a team of ‘woke’ and not-so-woke staunch meat-lovers, flexitarians, vegetarians and vegans coexisting in (mostly) harmony.
We do have some very interesting conversations about food, and sometimes they take a turn for the philosophical.
After an interesting team lunch last week, our team attempted to resist mindlessly processing food pics we see with the casual “oh, that looks good” comment or the mere “#foodporn” label when scrolling our Instagram feeds.
The Challenge: Read food pictures far deeper than their literal meaning.
In the case of food imagery, an image of mac and cheese literally denotes macaroni and cheap cheese. Connotatively though, it represents far more than that — the inferred meaning from the mac and cheese picture could be its cultural meaning as ‘comfort food’, as something nearly every child has grown up with and thus a symbol that triggers visceral feelings of familiarity, affection, safeness.
As such, we studied 3700 images from 5 cities in the United States — New York, Atlanta, Boston, Denver and San Francisco, in a 24-hour time period, examining the Instagram images posted.
Considering food as a language that expresses social structures, cultural systems and meanings — what can we say about pictures from these cities?
Playing with food: moving towards using Food as Art
In the late 20th century to the early 21st century, we saw the rise of food television shows, like The Rachel Ray Show, America’s Test Kitchen and the Barefoot Contessa show.
Food entered the entertainment space — but it was very much a one-to-many entertainment dynamic, with the mass general public watching a select few celebrity personalities on television.
To the everyday person, they were consumers of food as entertainment, not creators.
But with the rise of new media in recent years, the representation of food has changed. Platforms like Instagram have allowed the everyday person to fill the Entertainer-Creator role as well.
Running the food pictures through our Anthropological AI model, we found that the top cluster of aesthetics was very similar to what we get when we run art pictures through the model — the dominant value of creativity.
What this showed was that artistic flair was detected in a lot of the food photography. People were experimenting with angles, positioning and colours in the framing of food as subject in their posts.
So, if ‘Creativity’ was the individual communicating food through an artistic genre, how do the different moments of creativity look like during the day?
Examining the Consumption Cycle
It seems that mornings are for moderation.
In line with how mornings are associated with freshness and beginnings, urges for establishing a code of order and ‘correctness’ to start the day with manifest in food choices for some people.
Running the images through our object detection model, we found some of the usual suspects of bacon and eggs, but also a sizeable number of various images connoting moderation and discipline: fruits, yogurt, salads, smoothie bowls, healthy sandwiches and juice. Superfood and fruits were detected as objects that peaked in the 6am-9am time window.
Bright lighting, clear subject positioning and harmonious colour choices communicate to viewers expressions of control and ‘right-ness’.
The photographing of these breakfast foods suggest the desire to index oneself as controlled and disciplined — a performance of restraint and sensibility through food choice.
Moving on into the afternoon, this performance of discipline relaxes.
The tension between restriction and reward in the food space reaches a culinary impasse at midday.
While mornings were the space for restriction, food in the afternoon starts inching towards the space of indulgence and reward. Food preferences in these 5 cities tend towards heavier, richer dishes.
The subject positioning in food photography varies playfully, with the food item not being the only object in the foreground, and sometimes being pushed into the background. This increased laissez-faire arrangement thus expresses more relaxation.
Objects detected from noon to 3pm were heavier items like risotto, meat dishes, and even cupcakes and wine. In the late afternoon (3pm-6pm), food objects such as doughnuts, cream-based pastas, ramen, mac and cheese, and fries were detected. Some instances of salads and healthy avocado toasts feature, albeit to a lesser degree.
This also shows us that ‘cheating’ starts much earlier than socially assumed: this isn’t an end-of-day sweet treat or sneaking into the kitchen at 12am for some chocolate.
By the time the sun sets, indulgence becomes the norm. People are gentler on themselves, there is a general air of unwinding and loosening up. When it comes to food imagery, the photographed food objects become signifiers for relaxation and reward.
Objects detected as ‘Comfort food’ peak between the 6–10pm time window, and so do pictures of curry. Alcohol consumption starts increasing within the 6pm-10pm time band before peaking in the 2am-6am window.
As the night goes on, the meaning of food becomes more social as well: there are more images with multiple drink glasses, as well as images of multiple people within the frame. Within alcohol, we found that images of beer are most frequent in the 10pm to 2am time window.
Here, we observed that some carelessness with lighting and positioning are employed: dim shots of drinks on a table, low resolution, grainy pictures takeout, garish lighting in presenting greasy food feature. The food subject is not fully featured- think roughly cropped pictures of plates and slanted shots of liquor bottles with the top cut out of the image frame.
Food here is expressed more haphazardly, more unpolished — more street art than classical art.
Our concluding note…
As in art criticism, a (food) critic ought never to be a spokesperson for the (food) artist.
Does a messy food photo make a messy person? Most definitely not. The person who posts a blurry 2am picture of pizza takeaway boxes could be posting pristine pictures of fruits at brunch the very next day.
Just as artists can cross between art genres, changing form and style, people express themselves differently from post to post, and we believe that the magic is in studying the chaotic bricolage of individuals’ online identity fragments.
If you enjoyed reading this post, you might also like: Burger Banter: The linguistics of different burgers Much Ado About Chocolate: Moments of consumption in everyday life