One might argue that perpetually documenting our meals with our handy camera phones has changed our relationship with eating. Now insufferable food personality Alton Brown is working on a new cookbook that will have only iPhone photography, in a crass attempt to capitalize on that trend. Yum?
On Eater’s podcast this week, Brown talks about his forthcoming cookbook, Alton Brown: Every Day Cook, which actually isn’t due out for a few years. The book is a departure from his signature anal-retentive scientist style, and instead, the concept reflects the way Brown actually cooks at home. That is definitely interesting! In the podcast he goes on to say that recipes will be organized by time of day, which is also a novel approach. But just as he’s roped us in with what appears to be a totally approachable idea, he heads off on this strange tangent when he talks about how part of the visual strategy is to take all the photos with an iPhone:
I wanted to come up with a visual language that was more immediate. I’m making a book for the Instagram crowd, you know, and so why not use that tool? Why use fancy cameras and fancy lenses if I can use a tool, and find a new way to take advantage of that tool, and do what it’s really good at, and stay away from the things that it isn’t very good at. Then a whole kind of new visual thing comes out of that, and I like defining work sometimes by the tools. Instead of deciding on a style and finding the tools for it. I’ll pick up a tool and say, “Okay, well, I’m intrigued by the tool. Let’s style for it.” So the iPhone seems to be the perfect thing to do. On top of the fact that nobody’s ever done it. Another good reason, at least to try it.
Okay, let’s unpack all of this a little. The camera in the iPhone is great, of course, although there are some camera phones that are even better. And an iPhone certainly would be able to take photos that would be fine quality for print. But, he’s hardly the first cookbook writer to make the connection between beautiful food phone photos and recipes. In fact, there are quite a few cookbooks by Instagram stars, which naturally contain many Instagram photos. And using the iPhone means you’re giving up the opportunity to have more control of image quality in favor of what largely seems to be... a gimmick?
It sounds like Brown is trying to achieve a particular look for this cookbook. He says “every photo in my new book is taken from directly overhead” which certainly describes the stereotypical super-staged lifestyley foodporn he’s trying to get. But how exactly are you “styling” for the iPhone besides just mimicking the heavily curated overhead table shots that are ubiquitous on Instagram? Will they be mostly square?
The Tumblr Kinspiracy tracks similarities in the “overhead shot of table laden with food” phone photography trend. Instagram @Carmina and @Foodiestiles
But the insistence on using the iPhone is the strangest part. Does he want the cookbook to sound more populist than it actually is? Or give it a familiar social media sheen so people who like Instagram food photos will buy the book? And if so, that doesn’t mean he needs to actually shoot the photos on an iPhone. Does he?
Maybe he’s trying to make it feel like you’re getting a peek inside his personal kitchen. Which might actually be cool—a day in the life of Alton Brown when he’s cooking for himself, sign me up!—except, um, he’s not actually taking the photos himself. His director of digital operations is doing it. And one would assume that she’s doing all the styling as well. (This is probably for the best: Brown’s Instagram isn’t even particularly good.)
So what’s the point then? He could have just made the whole cookbook and photographed it with the iPhone if he wanted to, and no one would have known or cared how he took the photos and people would have bought it and loved it. But by announcing this plan, Brown looks desperately like an out-of-touch food celeb who’s trying to get down with the youth. On fleek!