This article traces the evolution of food photography through the lens of its political context. The ways in which prop stylists and food stylists defined food photography trends was guided by more than their unique interpretation of assigned art direction. The political zeitgeist was also a guiding force. From the socially conservative leadership during the Reagan/Bush years to the promises of hope and change defining the Obama presidency——the tenor of each administration left its mark on food photography.
During the Reagan/Bush years, legislation favored the moneyed classes; food photography reflected the tastes of a culture rife with opulent excess. Food was presented in fantastical sets propped with precious accoutrements, some having hardly anything at all to do with the eating or serving of food. The Clinton administration's pro-family domestic agenda set the cultural tone for Martha Stewart's ascendency and for her magazine's visual message to endure. Both Clinton and Stewart brought us back to the real world. Food sets became whiter and brighter as prop stylists jettisoned intricately detailed props for those with cleaner, simpler lines. The muddled disinformation fed to us during the George W. Bush years played out in the confusing, tumultuous compositions proliferating Gourmet's food photography during his presidency. Yellow, the color of hope and promise, cast its hue on the food pages of magazines at the onset of Obama's presidency; but just as he chose to address policymaking by embracing a myriad of viewpoints, so too did magazines embrace a mix of visual viewpoints to please their readers. What we were left with, on both fronts, was an all-over-the-place quality lacking clear definition.
Photographs from Gourmet, Food & Wine, Bon Apetit, Weight Watcher's Magazine, Woman's Day and Fine Cooking serve as visual reference points.