I have the magazine open at the centre page. I am trying hard not to salivate. Spread out before me is a study in photogenic beauty, a half-naked visual feast, perfectly formed. It is moist in the places that should be moist, pert in the places that should be pert, sculpted and sleek. The pose is spread-eagled, leaving nothing to the imagination. I put my face up to the picture, I want to inhale the fragrance, taste the juices.
Some of you may be familiar with the term ‘gastro porn’. It is basically the art of portraying food in such a way that it provokes our basic human desires, just like,well… porn, except that instead of going for the groin, it goes for the stomach in the hope that you will then buy the food item, dine at the restaurant or buy another edition of someone’s flash new cookbook.
While by no means a new concept, gastro-porn has become far more popular in recent years. Cooking shows are everywhere with Sky Television even devoting an entire channel to them. Just as there is adult entertainment to satisfy almost any kink, (Granny Gang Bang anyone?) there are genres of cooking shows to suit any lifestyle, usually based around the chef’s personality. If you like your food French and seasoned with profanity then you can tune in to uber-nazi Gordon Ramsey’s show. If you want something hip and ‘pukka’, order up a helping of Jamie Oliver. If you want a side order of sensuality, check out Nigella Lawson, who handles scone dough in a way that I am sure some porn stars would be envious of. If you want a cheap and nasty quickie there is always Food in a Minute with Alison Gofton. The Michelin star is the new Gold record. Magazines like Cuisine are as popular as ever, showing food that unless you are lucky enough to live with, or be, a chef, will most probably never be seen in your own kitchen. As most porn plays up to the straight man’s fantasy of easy and casual sex, is gastro porn just giving us an idealised view of food, in effect just selling us another fantasy? How similar are the two genres really? In the interests of research, and to explain to my girlfriend why my cache is always so full of porn sites, I decided to contact two professional photographers – one from the adult industry and one from the food industry – to contrast the techniques they use in documenting the subjects of their particular genre.
First up, I spoke to Auckland-based photographer, Terry Mayo. He entered the adult industry in 1999 after many years of doing mainstream glamour photography. He got his start in adult photography by being a commissioned photographer for the annual Erotica Expo. Since then his pictures have appeared in Picture Premium magazine and Brass. He now shoots almost exclusively for NZX, a magazine published by adult entertainment renaissance man Steve Crow. During his tenure there, he has snapped many of the most popular figures of the adult industry such as Shayla, Tera Patrick, Siren and Evan Stone. You may have seen him on 20/20 a few years back snapping popular student celebrity, Liz Shaw. The majority of his shoots have been of individual women, but he has shot a small amount of girl-girl and guy-girl pictorials as well. He has never had anything to do with photographing food, unless whipped cream counts.
Mayo says there seems to be no shortage of women keen to get their kit off in front of the camera. “A few girls get concerned about who might see them, but for the size of our population we have no trouble getting girls to pose for us.” Unsurprisingly, many of the models come from a background in prostitution or stripping, although there have been girls from all walks of life amongst the pages of NZX, including students. The minimum amount of exposure expected of the models is hardcore, meaning explicit close ups of genitalia. If the girls want to they have the option of using sex toys or their fingers to…well you know. Mayo says models get paid about $480 after tax for a content shoot and $800 if they do a cover shoot. Some may think that isn’t much considering the nature of the work, but again Mayo says New Zealand’s small size dictates this. “Some people think it should pay a lot more, like three or four thousand dollars, but there really isn’t enough distribution for that to happen.”
Representing the foodies, I got hold of another Auckland based photographer, by the name of Ian Batchelor. He started his photography career way back in 1975 as a freelance photojournalist, initially as a way of traveling. Along the way he slowly started to gravitate towards food photography, culminating with a job at Cuisine magazine, where he was a featured photographer from issues four through to 99. Although he no longer works for food magazines, he has spent almost 20 years working within food photography. He too has little problem finding models, but he doesn’t have to pay them a damn thing. His latest book, featuring the recipes of Penny Oliver, is called ‘Beach Bach Boat Barbecue 2’. Replace any of those words with the word ‘Butt’ and you’d have the title of a porn film, but that is really as much as Batchelor’s link to pornography goes. He knows as much about porn as Mayo does about food photography.
Batchelor does admit that food photography tries to provoke a strong reaction in the viewer, just as porn does. “All food photography is trying to appeal to the senses. We are in the business of appetite appeal. You have to try and get into the mind of the audience.” In both genres this is case of focusing on the parts of the subject that will most likely conjure up this visceral reaction. The subject of the photograph will most likely take up the bulk of the shot, the background not being as important as in landscape photography or even portrait photography. In pornography the body is everything.
“When we shoot we crop relatively tight. Long shots are from the head to the knees. Close ups of the body are from just below the head/bust line,” Mayo says. A shoot for him is typically made up of close ups of various body detail, medium shots of the body and long shots to capture facial expressions along with the model’s body. Mayo says that to capture the right pose requires a good deal of experience. “It takes a fair amount of timing to predict and capture a shot. There is a half second gap between when you push the button and when the exposure goes off.”
“If I was taking a picture of a lemon meringue pie for instance, I would look for the parts that are the most sumptuous, the most appealing, where the cream interacts the most with the pie. If I’m shooting a rack of lamb I’m thinking how pink the meat should be.”
For Batchelor this means zeroing in on what calls the “hero elements” of his subject. “If I was taking a picture of a lemon meringue pie for instance, I would look for the parts that are the most sumptuous, the most appealing, where the cream interacts the most with the pie. If I’m shooting a rack of lamb I’m thinking how pink the meat should be.” The “hero elements” that Mayo looks for are usually quite easy to find, also pink but not always that easy to shoot. How does one capture the elusive vagina on film? “A lot of it is to do with good light and posing,” Mayo says. “Getting the model to lie down is usually best. The lighting has to come down flat upon the subject so you don’t lose detail.” For the peace of mind of everyone involved Mayo says he uses a long lens when shooting genitalia “That way you don’t have to get up too close and personal with the model.” This winter moist vaginas are definitely in, so I asked Mayo how to best get that ‘wet’ look. “A light coating of oil is quite good to use.” He didn’t mention which brand.
The switch to digital photography has made Mayo’s job a lot easier. “I don’t miss it at all (non digital photography)” he says. “There used to be quite a process to go through with using heavy make-up and extensive lighting, basically taking away someone’s natural face and then painting it back on.” Batchelor has also found it a lot easier. “I used to shoot with a Polaroid camera, so I would have to wait two minutes to see whether the shot had turned out.
In the mean time the dynamic of the dish, as far as what I wanted to capture may have changed. Now with digital I can see the results straight away.” It also allows the photographer to take many more photos of their subjects. “I shoot at hi-res, usually getting about 20 gig of photos for each shoot. I can then go through and delete the ones I don’t need,” Batchelor says.
Another thing that digital photography has allowed, is the ability to doctor the image to a far greater degree after it has been shot. If you think that beautiful woman on the cover of Penthouse is too good to be true, chances are she is. Mayo is quite unequivocal about the amount of digital manipulation that goes on after a model has been shot, citing what may in fact be the largest producer of pornography in the world: the digital manipulation programme Photoshop: “It’s all photoshopped. Mostly it is used to remove skin blemishes. Sometimes we use it to fix poses or to fix the light and to soften shadow. Often we will get requests from models to remove tattoos, or other distinguishing features.”
Conversely, Batchelor says that when it comes to food, photographers try and use as little digital manipulation as possible. “Magazines often can’t afford it. What you see is what was shot.” Batchelor says there has been such a trend towards portraying the product as naturally as possible that he often gets to chow down on the food after the shoot is finished.
One of the reasons that food photographers are far more inclined towards showing their subjects as they actually are (as opposed to manipulating them after the fact) is that the photographs they take are often used to promote a real product that can be compared and contrasted with the real thing. In pornography the image and the fantasy it is projecting is the product, so it does not matter so much. You can’t ring up Penthouse and put an order in for two Miss Julys. “Clients are concerned with over-promise,” says Batchelor. “It is in fact in the client’s best interest that it looks as much like the real thing as possible. Customers are not idiots, they will notice the difference.”
Instead, Batchelor says that food photographers take the more difficult route. “When it is photographed, it is real. You work a long time to get the optimal look. It is not a matter of lying about the product, it is more trying to present the product in the best possible way.” Because food doesn’t always keep it’s visual appeal for a long time once it is on the plate, preparing for the shoot is a very important part of the process. “I usually try and pre-imagine the image because once the actual shoot is underway you don’t have time to make major decisions. We usually try and have a mock up made and make sure that it looks good, then put the actual food in.”
I put it to Batchelor that the Big Mac in McDonalds posters always looks far better than the greasy lump of quasi-food you get in reality. “With those images it is not so much lying, as the fact there is a huge difference in the preparation, as far as what happens on a shoot than at a restaurant. At fast food places, people are trained to do things in a specific amount of time, as fast as possible. When we shoot we have an entire crew and all day to prepare the product.”
Despite whatever similarities there are between the two genres, there are challenges both photographers face that are unique to their chosen field. Mayo spends much of his working day getting up close and gynecological with scantily clad porn stars, surely quite a distracting subject at times. “You get fairly desensitized to it,” says Mayo. “For me it is the same as photographing anything. I am too busy thinking about the shot composition and the light exposure to really think about anything else.” Like any professional, Mayo takes his job very seriously, which includes no silly business on the set. Ironically, the porn industry probably has the least amount of sexual harassment compared with than any other profession. “It is very important how the photographer interacts with the model. You have to make sure she is happy and comfortable with what is going on. The psychology aspect of my job is a very big part of it.”
Another problem Mayo faces from time to time is the unpredictability of the male erection. “The majority of the shoots I do are of individual women but I have shot a certain amount of (heterosexual) couples. It is harder than it sounds for the average guy to get it up for a photo shoot. There is a big difference between the professionals and the amateurs as far as quality of performance.” He says that premature ejaculation is very rarely a problem, and that in fact it is quite the opposite that causes problems on set. “The real pros have a lot of control. The amateurs are more inclined to take too long to finish the job. They often get distracted.”
Mayo presumably doesn’t have to worry about his models fading to grey if they spend too long on set, unlike Batchelor. “Making sure the product stays fresh is a challenge. Meat especially changes colour very quickly. It goes grey.”