Restaurant Food Photography in the Information Age

Posted on: December 3rd, 2009 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Today we discuss the fashion of photography being applied to fine dining restaurants and examine the implications for the future as well as the benefits and drawbacks to restaurants in the present.

Long before the first photographs were made, Chinese philosopher Mo Ti described the concept of a pinhole camera in the 5th century B.C.E

According to Wikipedia, the word photograph was coined in 1839 by Sir John Herschel and is based on the Greek φῶς (phos) meaning light and γραφή (graphê) meaning drawing, together meaning “drawing with light.”

While significant progress was being made in Britain during the 1820s and 1830s, notably by William Fox Talbot, it could be argued that French inventors were slightly ahead in the race to complete the task of producing the first public photograph.

It would appear that while Herschel coined the popular name, the first actual public photograph was taken in the same year (1839) – by a Frenchman of a Frenchman – captured having a shoe shine in a Parisian street.

At the same time a significant part of the western world was living through a new industrial age – a corollary of which was an exploration of the power of markets, where ‘commodities’ could be ‘owned’ and ‘traded’ by private individuals.

At any time of significant change there is a reaction – a high swinging pendulum of activity before a sensible middle ground is found. For example, there developed a movement of Romanticism in art, literature and music, that placed emotion above rationality.

The changes happening in the world were perceived to be toward a cold, calculating, ‘scientific’, industrial, money making society and Romanticism harked back to interpretations of strong emotions and the aesthetics of beauty.

Another anti-industrial age movement began in philosophy – that of Subjectivism. Putting it (probably too) simply this states that the world exists purely in the mind of the perceiver and it is the sum of on-going social experiences and interactions, in ever changing environments, that dictate perception at any given time.

My understanding is that those who apply this philosophy to art suggest that there is no such thing as ‘creative genius’ as the list of contributing sources from the sum of past experiences to any ‘work of art’ would be so long as to render any definition of ‘ownership’ worthless – there is nothing new under the sun.

Currently the rules and regulations of the industrial age hold sway in the modern age – there are markets, commodities, traders and money. A work of art can be attributed to an ‘entity’ (a person) and traded between ‘entities’ (people) for a price.

Intellectual Property (IP) law is the mechanism through which the ownership value of a creative work is protected. For example, a composer with his music, an author with his books, an artist with his paintings or a programmer with his computer software – all make use of IP law to protect their assets from ‘theft’.

A high resolution photograph of a work of art would have the rights associated remain with the artist; like the photocopy of a book with the author; like the file copy of a song with the composer; like the function, look and feel of a software application with the developer.

Re-use may be completely prohibited by the ‘creator,’ through to a license being required with associated fees for re-use. In certain instances terms of ‘fair use’ are explicitly agreed, such as photographs of fine art being granted free licenses to non commercial academic institutions.

At the dawning of the internet digital age, Microsoft and Apple fought out a multi-year, multi-million dollar court battle over the ‘look and feel’ of their desktop operating systems. One could argue that over the years Microsoft have proven the undisputed champions of navigating their way through IP laws in software applications to their significant benefit.

However, should one take a photograph in a restaurant, of people and/or of the food they are eating, the rights associated with the photograph remain with the photographer.

Neither people nor indeed the chefs’ creation can qualify for IP protection. This blurring is partly covered by a separate set of laws around privacy and appropriate or otherwise invasions of privacy.

As far as the budding fine dining restaurant blogger is concerned (or fine-dining-guide for that matter) photographs taken of the chefs’ creations are of interest to like minded enthusiasts and get published on sites all over the world.

The blogger or webmaster retains the right to enforce copyright (IP) as they see fit – usually by allowing Google image indexing access for free.

The case for allowing this practice is made stronger by the fact that the vast majority of top end restaurant food photographs are taken by non-profit making non- commercial sites that are maintained by enthusiasts.

Further, we live in the middle of Bill Gates prophesized ‘Information superhighway’ and all information is expected to be freely and instantly available for immediate consumption and disposal – Witness even information injunctions in the UK High Court that are ‘shouted down’ by the twitterati within minutes.

The pendulum swings strongly from side to side but the momentum is with freedom of information – no matter how damaging that may be to people in general or to their livelihoods.

No doubt, as with all things, the pendulum will swing to a happy balance of common sense. Since Plato, in The Republic, the need for censorship and information protection in society has been understood.

In 2004, fine dining guide were one of the first sites to carry a diary of restaurant picture gallery images on the internet.

The last six years has seen an explosion of content on the net of recorded visits to top end restaurants – couple this with the digital world’s demand and appetite for information, then surely this is both an unstoppable trend and further, a good one!

From the chef/patron’s perspective a wider audience than ever before has access to seeing what visiting a top end restaurant is likely to entail. The awareness, PR and marketing potential are enormous and can only help boost trade for the industry. Or does it?

There is a double edged sword to such things. The chef/patron of the restaurant has no control.

It is assumed thus far that the photographer of restaurant food is a budding enthusiast with their heart in the right place. Even where this is the case there is no guarantee of adequate lighting, nor indeed capable photography – proportions, editing, focus, perspective and so on – equally the chef may just have a bad day at the office.

In other words there’s no guarantee that the photographs taken are a positive and fair reflection of the food on offer.

It was once said that the camera may never lie, it just doesn’t tell the truth. With fine dining guide we often have chefs delighted to participate, however on one occasion the pictures were said to “not represent me, my restaurant, or my cooking.”

Even though it would appear that the chef had no enforceable rights to have them taken down, the site was quick to politely oblige.

There are of course always those who are mischievous, have an axe to grind or are just plain malicious, and set out to misrepresent a restaurant’s food. In the information age these people, too, have a significant platform and audience.

So what may chefs do to protect themselves? We see The Fat Duck restaurant website making IP statements about the re-use of images on their site. This is yet to extend to photographs taken of food in the restaurant.

Surely it could be argued that each dish is a created and re-created work of art that retains IP rights. Even though each dish is consumed from plate to stomach, it is a three dimensional object created by arguably an artist.

This would also serve to protect the chef from theft – are not his recipe and architectural creation two separate things equally worthy of intellectual ownership rights?

This is where the pendulum might start to swing back to a sensible middle ground – perhaps in the short term we may see top end restaurants start to enforce privacy rules (erecting a sign to the effect) that photographs cannot be taken on private property.

At the same time, perhaps making available a catalogue of ‘note perfect’ food photographs on their websites for free re-use to enthusiasts.

This naturally assumes that chef’s feel the need for control – the restaurant picture gallery remains the most visited collection of pages across the 250 page fine dining guide site. This no doubt will be true of a multitude of other restaurants sites and blogs that yield a free marketing, awareness and PR machine.

Perhaps the strength of the information age and the pendulum reactions against it mirror those of the last era of significant change – the industrial era – where art, literature, music and philosophy recoiled against change but found a happy middle ground that sustained the goodness, while the acceptable face of change was monitored and managed to the benefit of societies.

The information age, too, brings extraordinary sweeping benefits to a generation; it too may need to settle into a happy middle ground to the benefit of the common global society.