Yvonne Cornell: Aesthetics in Food Photography

Gnochetti en brodo

All images by Yvonne Cornell. Used with permission.

“I’m an explorer in search of old things, slow living and good food,” says photographer Yvonne Cornell. Yvonne is behind the Following Breadcrumbs food blog, and her images are bound to get you hungry. For her, the story makes the recipe–and that’s what she loves to capture. To that end, Yvonne also says that she find inspiration in literature.

And for most of you, you’ll love to know that her favorite piece of gear is soft, natural light.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

Turkish Cup & Hedgerow Martini

Yvonne: Photography was an early passion for me, but it has eluded me in more ways than one throughout my life. In middle school, I discovered photography with a Pentax 35mm manual camera, developing black and white film and prints in the darkroom for the yearbook. The magic of the darkroom processing still informs my Photoshop techniques today.

Fast forward to my twenties. The strong hand of practicality led me away from photography, swapping my art hat for corporate helmets at Patagonia and Apple. It paid the bills and made my parents proud, but the photography itch was ever-present.

Ricotta Cheesecakes

In my early thirties, feeling the gap that photography had left in my heart, I took a leap of faith back to my art as a staff photography intern for a weekly newspaper. Between that and a photojournalism program at the local state college, I was able to launch my photography business, thus finding my way back to photography and filling the hole in my heart.

Or so I thought. Despite a beloved clientele, not enough of the visual storytelling was coming from my own imagination. I was documenting authentically in reportage style, but I wanted a more personal stamp on my work. I craved deeper personal discoveries in my work.

And then, along came Instagram. I had been resisting digital, but here was a community of photographers and creatives, all making powerful visual stories and cross-pollinating ideas and styles. Here was a platform that was all about photography as storytelling—the very storytelling I had been missing my whole life. It wasn’t long before I was hooked.

My work was featured in the first ever crowd-sourced book of Instagram photos, This Is Happening: Life Through the Lens of Instagram. And you thought it was just cool filters! Instagram continues to inspire me and influences my aesthetic.

Phoblographer: What attracted you to food photography?

Tandoori Spices

Yvonne: For me, the story makes the recipe. Paging through recipe books with great images and food stories reveals a kinetic photographic storytelling style that you don’t often see anywhere else. The images of food photographers like Marte Marie Forsberg, Katie Quinn Davies, Beth Kirby, and Eva Kosmas Flores are full throttle food adventures. Their work inspires me to believe I can do the same, with practice, patience and passion.

Phoblographer: When you photograph food, where does your inspiration typically come from and what do you feel you’re trying to communicate?

Octopus Steaming

Yvonne: My inspiration comes from the food and props first, recipe second. An intriguing ingredient, a foraged botanical, a vintage prop, and elements from nature create a compelling visual story. One of my recent favorites was cooking an octopus — salting and massaging all those Jules Verne limbs was a compelling photo story. Plus I love the color of turmeric and paprika, so I found a recipe for Tandoori Octopus. Until this year, I’d never prepped and cooked an octopus. I’m in love with the adventure of “what can I make with this cool thing”—and only then I search for the perfect recipe.

Food isn’t just sustenance. It nourishes our souls and defines who we are. That’s why literature is also a source of inspiration for me. Food has such power to transport our senses or even to tell incredible stories—some of my favorites are Like Water For Chocolate and Half of a Yellow Sun. My aim with my images is to inspire discovery, stir up curiosity and the desire to experiment—in both the kitchen and in life.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about the gear and lighting that you use.

Nasturtium Lassi

Yvonne: I’ve never been a big gearhead. For me, it hinders the ease of movement that comes with working quickly and spontaneously. My favorite “gear” is soft natural daylight which is the best for food. I will tape up a diffuser to soften the light of my east-facing kitchen window. Another favorite tool is a simple white reflector and when that light pops off the food, it’s like frosting on a cake. A tripod is a must for the lowest lighting situations or when I want to show my hand in the image, letting me stay nimble and quick. I’m often climbing on tables, chairs and counters.

Phoblographer: Food photography started out with a very cookie cutter set-up with it on a white background. Then we got into lifestyle work, but where do you feel good food photography is going?

Morels

Yvonne: Food photography is moving in the direction of fine art and the Dutch still life paintings of the 17th century — rich in color, story and mood. Not all the elements have to be well-lit. Organic shapes and shadows create an otherworldly time and place, providing a visual escape, even for those who never plan to prepare the recipe.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about what makes a photo your signature, especially because you talked about aesthetics in your email to us. What are some thoughts that always go through your head when you’re creating these images?

Melange in Spring

Yvonne: Dribbles and spills are my signature. I love bringing in a more painterly quality, not just with the light, but with the sauces and juices. The more smears and dribbles, the better. I am so messy when I cook and set-up the photo theater — things are flying everywhere as I respond to the firing of new ideas in my head. It’s a very personal process where I go inside myself, and when the impulses ignite, the time passes quickly in a surreal way. It’s my favorite time. I usually don’t clean up my mess until the next day!

I ask myself these questions when creating an image:

  1. Am I loose enough and letting the ideas come into my head naturally?
  2. Have I offered up a visual escape or story?
  3. Is there one last element I can add? or remove? (This often leads to the best image in the bunch.)
  4. Is that mistake a dynamic element in the image? (If so, don’t fight it.)

This quote by Julia Childs hangs on my kitchen wall: Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.

Little Fishermen

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Life's A Peach

Halvah

Elderberry Syrup

Elderberry Syrup II

Buttering Banana Bread

Blueberries & Ricotta Cheese II

Blueberris & Ricotta

Butter Mold