What's With Everyone Taking Pictures of their Food These Days?

It seems I can rarely enjoy a meal out with friends without someone whipping out a camera to photograph their meal.

Recently I was grabbing drinks at a trendy gastro-pub type place with some new friends when conversation turned to parents and families. We all started comparing notes -- seeing who had what sort of upbringing, who had siblings, etc., and of course conversation naturally turned at one point to whether or not we got along with our parents in our adulthood.

I remembered Jessica’s piece about her parents’ embarassing hobbies, and while comparing notes with my new compatriots about whose parents were “the coolest,” it struck me that my parents had never been especially embarrassing. Sure, my mom really loved to dance and lip-synch all the words to disco hits during our church youth group dances -- but it could have been worse.

While staring around the oh-so-trendy spot where we were chatting, I caught the ubiquitous hipster foodie photographer (you know, the kid who’s always taking instagram shots of their meal, drink, napkin, garnish, waiter) and I remembered: My dad did have one habit that used to make me want to crawl under the table. He took photos of food on family vacations. My dad was the original hipster foodie photographer.

My dad believed that all of his four children should be “well rounded.” This meant that all of us played sports, participated in theater, took up a musical instrument of some sort, went to church, did community service and, every few months sat down with my parents at a nice restaurant to enjoy a good meal, to “expand our palates,” and learn to appreciate fine cuisine. My dad has always been a stickler for manners as well, so it was a great opportunity for my brothers to show that they remembered to take off their hats, tuck in their napkins and use the fork on the outside first.

Don’t get me wrong -- these experiences were awesome. I mean seriously -- who doesn’t want to have the chance, at 14, to try escargot and impress the waiters at a local “bistro” with their broken French?

But then, every once in awhile, the camera would come out. My dad tells me that “he appreciates the beauty of a great chef’s presentation” and while he’s content, today, to take a mental photograph of his food, back then he’d pull out a Kodak insta-camera or one of those old click and wind deals. (For the record, the pictures always came out blurry).

Despite my teenage embarrassment, I can excuse dear old dad for his penchant for amateur foodie photography. Today, however, it seems I can rarely enjoy a meal out with friends without someone whipping out a camera to photograph their meal. While I’ve been known, on occasion, to take a photo or two of my home-cooked adventures, I’ve not graduated to the full on obsession of some of my friends, and truth be told I kind of don’t get it -- well, in restaurants anyway.

With sites like Yelp, FoodSpotting, TasteSpotting, Tasted Menu, Foodbuzz and the like popping up all over, it’s becoming easier and easier for aspiring chefs, gourmands and bloggers to share and document their favorite meals, whether homecooked or restaurant-obtained. But I have to ask myself, when dining out, what purpose does photographing your meals serve? If you’re not doing it for the memories, like dear old dad, why photograph your meal?

I asked a variety of friends why it is that they snap their food in restaurants and I was unsurprised to learn that my amateur foodie photographer friends are all also the ones who are the most social media savvy. Overwhelmingly these are the people I know who make their livings as social media consultants for startups and big businesses alike, and who pull in nice volumes of freelance work from the presence they maintain on sites like the ones listed above.* For them, foodie photography is just another aspect of their ability to maintain an ubiquitous online presence and continue to cultivate an online persona.

The New York Times dining section featured this piece -- First Camera, Then Fork -- back in April 2010. In it, Murphy examines, via in-depth interviews with food photographers, bloggers and psychologists, the impetus behind the recent food photography trend. Toward the end of the piece, Murphy writes: “Unlike a picture of a flower or friend, a picture of a meal recalls something smelled, touched, tasted and ultimately ingested.” I can see that, but at the end of the day, I guess I fall into the camp of pancakes are pancakes, and I want them in my tummy ASAP.

I’m all for sharing recipes and grabbing photos of home cooked meals, but in a restaurant itself I wonder about the etiquette of food photography. I mean, if dear old dad could photograph his meals while we were practicing our manners then it must be OK... right?


* I am not ashamed to admit that back in my freelancing days I unabashedly included my Yelp profile on my resume -- it lead to a nice amount of gigs (mostly for now defunct copy cat sites).