Carl Warner has made a living out of playing with food—and a good one at that. Originally a successful still life photographer in the advertising game of the late 1990s, the past ten years have been spent developing a body of work unlike any other: making lush and realistic food landscapes out of everyday foods.
It all started in the fall of 1999. Warner was on the prowl for something new and fresh that would set him apart from the pack. Transforming portobello mushrooms into the curving trunks and parasol canopies of trees from the African Savannah—that sounded like something that'd set him apart.
After buying the mushrooms at the market, he took them back to his studio (along with bulgur, wheat, rice, and beans to be used as stony ground cover) to create his first food landscape. Now over a decade later, they are all over the internet.
Warner's book Food Landscapes, a collection of his scenes, many of which were commissioned by international advertising agencies, was just published. Warner takes inspiration from Tessa Traeger's book Visual Feast and Ansel Adams' sprawling landscapes. The British photographer has been busy gearing up for his appearance at the Chocolate Show in November where his chocolate train will be making an appearance, but he took the time to chat with us.
Did you know much about food before doing your landscapes, and what have you learned about food since? Over the past ten years, I've learned to be as creative in the kitchen as I am in my studio. There are aspects of presentation and visual compatibility that really inspire me to try the corresponding taste combinations, but it doesn't always work out. Sometimes what looks good together, tastes good together—and that makes for an unusual and interesting approach to cooking.
What are the easiest or most dependable foods to work with? Anything that will last several hours on set is good. My biggest problem is wilting, especially with fresh herbs. Things like coriander and flat leaf parsley only last for a few minutes, so they get placed in the shot at the last minute to catch them at their best. I tend to use a lot of curly kale; it looks good for hours and creates a lot of ground cover.
What is the average food budget for each shot? A few hundred pounds, but it can vary drastically depending on the size of the scene and how expensive or exotic the ingredients are. Obviously a scene using lobsters is going to cost more than one with cabbage. There's more polystyrene in the scenes than food; I've learned to build with it more in order to use less food.
Tell me about your creative process: do you start with a concept first or does inspiration randomly strike while at the market? It varies. I have a sketchbook full of ideas and drawings of details or wider scenes. Inspiration can come from visiting a place or seeing it in a film, on the web, or in a magazine. It can come from wandering around the supermarket, the farmers' market, or from eating in a restaurant. I don't mind where they come from, so long as they come. Once an idea is conceived in my head, I pin it down on paper. The drawing then becomes the blueprint for the shot and I show it to my team.
How much of each image would you say is lighting and other affects and how much is just getting creative with the food? It's fifty-fifty. The lighting creates the mood and atmosphere, and shows the food in its best light. But it's the composition, arrangement, and presentation that creates a sense of place.
What is your favorite image in your new book? Fishscape. It was the most difficult scene to build and by far the smelliest. We had to get the shot done in one day because of the smell and the freshness of the fish. The cold lighting and the composition make it look very convincing. I still never tire of looking at it
Do you have any rules for each photo? For example, does a certain percentage have to be vegetables or fruit, etc? I don't really have any rules, though I do like to create scenes of particular places or parts of the world using ingredients from that area.
Do you ever see yourself moving away from this type of food photography? I've already started creating images using non-food things, such as clothes or cities made of nuts and bolts or office equipment. If I ever get tired of doing this or if I run out of ideas and start repeating myself, it will be time to move on. Thankfully, I still have plenty of images in my sketchbooks that are waiting to be brought to life.
Video: Behind the Scenes at Carl Warner's Studio
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