99er problems (but a pic ain’t one)

Soft focus shots and hairspray. No, we’re not talking your average 80s video, but the tried and tested ice cream food photography of yore.

You must remember the photo, it’s one of you and your sibling on the beach in Skegness, holding 99ers, (back when they actually cost 99p). Melty ice cream is dripping down your arm, creating a small pool of liquified mess around your bright pink jelly shoes. It’s the fond yet failed holiday photo that we all have, so why is it that ice cream photos in magazines from the ’80s looked immaculate every time?

How to perfect food photography in the 80s

Ah, food photography. We’ve come a long way in the last century. Food styling is a fascinating subject, particularly when looking back at previous decades. The food stylist’s technical handiwork was and is crucial to food photography as an art form, and ice cream has left even the most skilled home economist stumped. It would melt too quickly under the hot studio lights and wouldn’t last long enough for test shots to be done on Polaroid before the actual shot. Production costs were much higher, so ‘fake’ food was often used to combat this. The set was ‘dolled up’, much like the hairstyles of the 1980’s; food photography’s equivalent to clips, hairbands and backcombing were mirrored by a vast array of decorative props.

Bradley Olman, Dietary Ice-cream, ca 1988

Bradley Olman, Dietary Ice-cream, ca 1988

Dietary ice cream in It’s Me

There’s an image in food photography book, Food in Focus by Charlotte Plimmer, 1988, that illustrates this perfectly. It was a shoot for It’s Me, an American advertorial magazine available in Lane Bryant department stores for plus-size women. The photographer, Bradley Olman, shot a table laden with ice cream to accompany a story on a number of recipes for dietary ice cream. The aesthetics of the food images at this time are interesting to consider, and a standout feature is the dishes of ‘ice cream’ are “artfully coloured flour-and-water fake”.

The art of substitution and styling

Ice cream could be substituted with mashed potatoes, or a concoction made from powdered sugar, margarine, and corn syrup. For chocolate ice cream, chocolate syrup was simply used instead of corn syrup. These substitutions were a result of hot studio lamps but as cameras and film speed and sensitivity improved, more genuine food products were introduced. Olman said: “To make it all look thick and rich enough took forever. We had to get the right texture and put the ridges in.” He worked on the set with two assistants, a food stylist and the magazine editor to achieve this aesthetically ‘perfect’ image. Striving for aesthetic perfection, not necessarily reality, some might find these images misleading.

Consistency in arrangement

When looking at images of food, it has to be taken into account the amount of time and effort that is put in to make the food last long enough for the photographer to capture it in the best possible light and setting. Delores Custer’s reasoning for food styling, who started out as a food stylist in the 1970’s, has said: “Food dies… it wilts, it cracks, it melts, it changes colour. So food stylists have to work to each element’s particular life-span, keeping everything alive until shoot time, even resuscitating it to make it look beautiful for the camera.” She adds: “Visually, the thing that appeals is consistency in arrangement”. Her food styling ‘survival techniques’ included using fake ice cream, half-basted turkeys and morticians’ wax to glue down food to the plate to stop it from sliding about.

Today there’s a lot less trickery involved. For a start it’s real ice cream. With the advancements in cameras and equipment, lights are no longer giant hot food-melting instruments, and photographer’s can shoot quicker.

So the ice cream in the picture is real. Much like that photo of you and your sibling in Skegness. Just better-looking and much less melted.


Further reading:
Carafoli, J. (1992) Food photography & Styling, New York: Amphoto.
Plimmer, C. (1988) Food in Focus, London: Headline Book Publishing PLC.
Goldwasser, A. (1998) “Fashion Plate” I.D. Magazine of International Design, Vol. 45 Issue 6 pp 58-59.

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