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Feature Fri Apr 02 2010

Shooting Food: The Amateur, The Saleswoman and The Artist

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Tam

I compulsively photograph what I eat. Family and friends once deemed me crazy for this practice, but after years of asking dining companions if I can take pictures of food before anyone begins eating, they now pass me dishes to photograph as if it were the most natural thing to do.

I know I'm not alone. Searching "food" on the popular photo-sharing web site Flickr yields 6,311,871 images. The largest food-related Flickr groups include Food Porn, I Ate This and "A Food Photography Experience!"

Who are these photographers, and what could I learn from them? I spoke with three accomplished Chicagoans for whom photographing food is hobby and, in two instances, full-time career.

The Amateur
Jonathan Tam of River North wasn't much interested in photography until he received a digital SLR as a present when he graduated from medical school back in 2007. Then he began photographing everything. He set up a Flickr account, and, indeed, the first photos he uploaded included such mundane subjects as keys, flowers and the Clark Street bridge.

But Tam quickly turned his lens to food after he became a pediatric resident. "Eating out was the only time I had to decompress during residency. I'm obsessive to begin with, but [taking pictures of food] became the focus, after work, our next meal, taking pictures of the meal," Tam explained.

Now his Flickr account, from which he contributes images to the Gapers Block Drive-Thru Flickr pool, reads like a comprehensive "it" list of Chicago restaurants and markets, both new and classic. To start, take glistening pot roast and root vegetables from Gilt Bar (230 W. Kinzie St.), a glazed trio from Dat Donut (8249 S. Cottage Grove Ave.) and a bubble gum wand from Alinea (1723 N. Halsted St.). Tam's images are straightforward and vivid and, unsurprisingly, highly dependent on restaurant lighting.

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Tam

"It's always funny the reactions you get," Tam said of strangers who see him photographing food. "I've been surprised at some of the higher-end restaurants...worried that the table next to me would be staring." Most surprising was the response he got when shooting photos at Schwa, the one-room, 24-seat West Town eatery, known as much for the modern cooking of its chef, Michael Carlson, as it is for the difficulty of securing a reservation.

Tam described dishes at Schwa as exactly the type of food, particularly in such close quarters, one would expect to elicit a kind of hushed reverence that would preclude picture-taking. But what he discovered was exactly the opposite. His photography piqued the interest of diners at other tables, who reacted positively and were even encouraging as he methodically documented his meal.

Given his fixation on food and the city's restaurant landscape--the only web sites he reads everyday are related to food--I asked Tam if he ever cooks and documents meals he prepares at home. "Yes, but I don't always take photos of it," he answered. This is a credible answer, perhaps. His Flickr handle, KidItamae, is a play on itamae, one of the Japanese words for "chef."

The Saleswoman

cucumber elote
Photo courtesy of Erika Dufour

I met commercial photographer Erika Dufour almost a year ago. My yoga teachers were holding a workshop in the Kinzie Industrial Corridor photography studio of one of their other students. At the end of the workshop, my teachers directed us to the back of the space, where Dufour was waiting with a mirage of chocolate truffles and fresh fruit to share--the subjects of her most recent photo shoot.

If you have lived in Chicago in the last five years, chances are you have seen Dufour's photos. Her work has graced covers of Chicago Magazine and TimeOut, among other publications. Most of her photography centers on beauty and fashion, but she styled food for other photographers before starting her own business, experience that informs her work now for posh confectionary Vosges Haut-Chocolat.

Dufour's monthly catalog shoots for Vosges are hands-on affairs. When she started working with Vosges four years ago, she shot truffles as one would find them at the store--delicate, filled with ganache and precisely garnished. She found, however, that the chocolate was easily damaged in transit from the factory to her studio. That is when she and Vosges turned to using "dummy" truffles, made at the same factory as the bona fide product but consisting of solid, undressed chocolate.

Now as part of her shoots, she works with Vosges Creative Director Brenda Rotheiser Bergen to dust the specially-fabricated chocolates with the exotic ingredients the chocolatier is known for--pearl dust, curry, paprika, dried cherries--at the studio.

And it is also Dufour who has the messy but perhaps (very) enviable task of biting into the chocolates to make them look particularly sumptuous for the catalogs. "Those are my teeth," she chimes proudly. Though it can be tough to take the perfect bite. "Sometimes the first bite doesn't look good. Sometimes you have to poke it. Sometimes you have to light it with a match to make the chocolate more gooey-looking."

peanut butter bon bon
Photo courtesy of Erika Dufour

I asked Dufour how she sees food photography in related to her other work. "I like it because a reprieve from shooting people," she explained. For fashion jobs, for example, she works with larger teams of stylists and support staff. She said, "There's more peace involved with shooting food."

The Artist
One can find the work of artist Laura Letinsky in collections around the world, but since 1994, she's called Chicago home. The works for which this University of Chicago professor is best known are poetic color photographs of sparsely furnished, otherwise vacant domestic interiors, punctuated by arrangements of food scraps, stains, packaging and dishware.

For Letinsky, what we eat is charged with meaning. She is interested in food, she says, "as sustenance, for basic survival but also the ways we use it, prepare it has a lot of other implications." "Food is entwined with notions of love, romance, domesticity, family...yet the myth, the stories that get perpetuated around food are fictions, really problematic fictions [that are] not sustainable," Letinsky explains.

Her modern still lifes beg for narratives but not easy ones. At the center of Untitled #40 from her 2002 series Hardly More Than Ever is what appears to be the detritus from a meal strewn on two sections of a kitchen counter under cold light: a half-filled water glass, plastic bottle cap, splattered saucer, orange peel, crumpled napkin and the edge of a dinner plate. It is somewhere in the dichotomy of the haphazard and the highly contrived that the story of this image resides.

untitled #40
Laura Letinsky; Untitled #40 from the series Hardly More Than Ever, 2002; Edition of 15 + 3 Artist Proofs; Archival pigment print, 18 x 24 inches; Courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago

Also evident in the detail of Letinsky's pictures is her concern with the physical substance of food. She has said that she is interested in thinking about foodstuffs as material and "how it relates to other kinds of materials." No food appears in Untitled #10 from Letinsky's 2006 series To Say It Isn't So, but it is nevertheless strongly suggested by a square of violet plastic wrap; an open, stained pastry box containing nothing but used paper muffin or cupcake liners; a paper plate; a few crushed plastic cups; and a propped photo, perhaps taken from a magazine, of a young woman's head, tilted back, her eyes closed in relaxation--all set on a long white table.

untitled #10
Laura Letinsky; Untitled #10 from the series To Say It Isn't So, 2006; Edition of 9 + 3 Artist Proofs; Archival pigment print, 23 x 34 ¾ inches; Courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago

I asked Letinsky how she assembles her images. "I'm an avid cook. I've tried to use things around me, what I cared opposed to making things exotic." And it is with what is familiar--the feeling of hunger, the lure of nourishment, the gloss of decadence and the remnants and nostalgia of meals past--that Tam, Dufour and Letinsky entice us.

This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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gemma / April 5, 2010 9:37 AM

Great article. I believe Laura Letinsky has a piece on display in the Harris Theater. It caught my eye last time I was there, but I forgot to write down her name. Glad to see her included here.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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