When I first flipped through the book I was blown away by the photography of Dominic Davies (and still am by the way). Where are the plates? Photoshop must have been used intensively I figured. The photos (the website houses a small selection) remained a mystery to me until I started a photography course a while back and read tons of information on taking pictures. By accident I came across an article of the magazine DigitalSLR Photography and it solved the biggest photo mystery of the book: the radish ravioli.
The article shows how to create a striking still life with a few props: a sheet of paper, a piece of tinted glass and LED lights. That’s all. The result of the article had a close resemblance to the photos of the cookbook. A while later I got an e-mail from Alan Spedding (see his Flickr account for Fat Duck style food photos) and he mentioned his meet with Dominic and revealed how the book was shot. Guess what? A dusty garage, 4 spotlights, a piece of mirror tile and some white board. The spotlights are awesome dedo lights on a stand, but never the less, how cool is that. I can already picture someone plating (uhm, there were no plates in sight, but you know what I mean) the food in a garage and Dominic rearranging boxes full of old crap from the owner of the garage.
Photography is in some ways just like magic, you don’t want to know how the trick or here the photos are taken. I once saw a short, amateur style filmed behind the scenes video of a photo of a girl driving a car with motion blur. I was expecting some elaborate setup and a couple of people running around stressing on the shot. Well, I was dead wrong. You know how the photo was made? A camera, a cheap suction pad and a slightly overweight photographer pushing a car back (not forward!) while a girl gave a look of driving the car with attitude. I love that type of shooting. No word class camera, expensive lighting or dozens of people running around. Just a photographer and his imagination.
I’m getting sidetracked, back to the Big Fat Duck Cookbook. So, with the article in the magazine and the e-mail from Alan I was finally able to dissect the photos. A few things really stand out. The first is the minimalistic style of the photography. There are no plates, hands, spoons or any other type of clutter crowding the pictures. If you think about it is in the style of the food. The Fat Duck dishes are incredibly complex, but are presented in a minimalistic and simplistic way with a lot of lines, cubes and detached components.* Usually the dishes start as memory from the past or the love for an ingredient and are then, with scientific backing, elevated to the highest level possible. Look at the roast foie gras dish. All clearly presented components. You could even say a simple looking dish, but behind the scenes it is a very different matter. No wonder it has one of the longest intros of the book.
*Note that there is often a big difference between the dishes in the book and the restaurant.
In line with the lines (sorry) are the shadows. Food photography in general is allergic to shadows and preventing them is often rule number 1. Not for Dominic Davies. The roast foie gras dish for example has strong shadows crisscrossing the photo. Another example of shadows, but not lines of shadows, is the bacon and egg ice cream. The front is muted while the back, can’t be seen, is strongly lidded. It adds an instant mystery to a pretty straightforward frontal food shot.
A final characteristic, there are more, is the absence of bokeh or out-of-focus area’s. Tons of food photography is dominated by bokeh, guiding our attention to one area. It is a beautiful effect, but often I find it overused. Pull out your food porn cookbooks and flip through them. Look at the photos and see if you can spot shots with out of focus fore- and backgrounds. I’ll promise you will. The Fat Duck cookbook proves it can be done without overusing this style. You can see every aspect of the dishes in all their glory.
In all, it’s fun how you can be completely oblivious to something, learn some stuff and see something familiar in a completely different light. For me it’s a bit like movie reviews. I like to read one once in a while before seeing a movie, but like them way better after seeing a movie. Reading a review before or after seeing a movie is a completely different experience. The same goes for rereading magazines one, two years or whatever you want after the publishing date. It is like playing god in the past. Did something turn out as predicted? What was laying around the corner at that particular time? Looking back on something with newly acquired knowledge.
Well, I hope to have a recipe up soon, but had some other cooking obligations taking up my Fat Duck time.