The Trickery Of Food Photography, Revealed

Three friends set out to revive the food styling tricks of decades past–toothpicks, talcum powder, glue, and all.

If your homemade dishes never look quite as good as that photo spread in Bon Appétit, consider the amount of primping and prodding it takes for that level of perfection. Frosty glasses get the spray-on deodorant treatment, milk is probably actually suntan lotion, and food coloring is applied to everything. Decades ago it was worse: Back when the bright, hot lights of analog photo shoots melted and discolored food, food stylists were forced to create some innovative (often toxic) solutions.


In their series Faking It, art director Sandy Suffield, photographer Dan Matthews, and food stylist Jack Sargeson looked back on photographers from that time to adopt their tricks for making food appear deceptively delicious. But instead of hiding the hair spray, toothpicks, and PVA glue just out of frame, they incorporated them into the shot. Styled by Suffield for a ’70s dinner party aesthetic, each still-life shows the stuffy perfection while also telling the narrative of how it got that way.

“You see everything in the set but also outside the set,” says Suffield, who worked as an art director and designer for Pentagram, Apple, and Wolff Olins before leaving to freelance full-time. “That’s really what being a photographer on these sets is like–it’s funny to look over and see what’s outside the lens.”

In a photo of a fancy rib rack dinner set up with two glasses of champagne, blue plastic tabs can be seen supporting the meat from underneath, the rest of the pack stacked on the table next to it. A pack of Alka-Seltzer nearby was used for the bubbles in the champagne, while a few drops of soy sauce give it the golden color (real champagne goes flat too quickly). For one set’s lavish cheese plate, grapes are held up with invisible string and dusted with talcum powder to simulate grapes’ natural dusty “bloom.” In a photo of coffee and cookies, glue subs in for milk, since the hot lights used during shoots would melt and discolor actual milk, giving it a yellow tinge.

In fact, Suffield points to the lighting as the main reason food stylists used to have to go to such great lengths to recreate the food on set. Ice cream, for example, was made from instant mashed potatoes, icing sugar, and lard. “It was fascinating to actually shoot it,” says Suffield. “Every time I touched this ice cream i expected it to be cold and it wasn’t. Jack trained as a physicist so he’s incredibly meticulous, even down to the drips of liquid we painted in.”

See Faking It in its entirety in the slideshow above, or head over to Sandy Suffield’s website for more of her work.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.