On the Menu: Should you really photograph that food?

Unauthorized photographs of the Hollywood set often lead to fistfights, lengthy press releases and even lawsuits. Who knew that a picture of a stack of peppers or fish fillets on ice could generate the same kind of passion?

Well, maybe not quite the same. After all, no one's running anyone off the road over a picture of well-marbled beef.

But if you want to stir up the blogosphere, just Twitter about Whole Foods Market's ban on photos and watch the insults and irate tweets fly. (Twitter is a social networking site that allows users to interact by sending and receiving very short text-based messages; a tweet is a post.)

"Photo ban harms only innocents, not competitors" declared ceejayoz in a tweet on Feb. 9.

"Ur photo policy may be more bad PR than it's worth," seconded danielriveong only a few minutes later.

This policy has been in place for years and is common among other grocery stores, furniture stores and other retail shops where competitors might use photographs as a way of stealing information about prices, store layout, and product displays. It's also clear that Whole Foods doesn't take the ban very seriously -- run a Google images search for Whole Foods and it turns up close to 5 million hits, many of which were certainly taken without permission. Every time the ban gets rediscovered, it proves equally baffling to those who have wholeheartedly embraced the Web's many opportunities for self-expression and comment. Why would any company want to stop people from taking pictures? they collectively ask.

And Whole Foods isn't totally ignorant of their point: "We recognize that social and viral media has changed the photography landscape and our executive team will be reviewing this policy … in the near future. No definite date is set for this review at this time," said Cathy Cochran-Lewis, national media relations coordinator for Whole Foods Market, in response to an e-mail about the photo ban.

Since food magazine, television shows and blogs have filled up with so-called "food porn," and since technological advances have made high-quality cameras relatively cheap and accessible, they've become the de rigueur accessory whether you're visiting a market in a foreign country or eating at a hot new restaurant.

And at restaurants, the idea that people should be allowed to take photos of their food has basically been a given. So much so, in fact, that I know of only one that has banned photographs: David Chang's Momofuku Ko in New York. The restaurant opened in early 2008 and Mr. Chang stopped allowing photos a few months later, presumably because of the small size of the restaurant (Ko seats about a dozen).

And even the most self-entitled diner or blogger is likely to agree that manners matter and there's a right way and a wrong way to take pictures in a restaurant.

But on a Grub Street post (New York Magazine's food and restaurant blog) about the Ko photo ban, comments almost immediately got vicious. "If I pay for something it's mine to photograph as much as I want. A chef's control over a dish ends the moment it's placed on the customer's table," declared theslopeisdope on June 20, 2008. Of course, someone might want to point out to theslopeisdope that Momofuku Ko doesn't have tables, just a communal counter.

But for the most part, chefs and restaurateurs tend to agree with, or at least concede to, the view that diners can take pictures of their food so long as they're not disturbing other customers. Some chefs, in fact, go so far as to encourage photography.

At L2O in Chicago, executive chef Laurent Gras created a flickr group for the restaurant to encourage diners to share their photos. He links to the Web page from the restaurant blog (l2o.typepad.com), where he frequently posts pictures of staff at work, dishes under development and finished dishes.

"We know people will take pictures. And we don't mind, as long as it is appropriate and no big productions with tripods and light kits. We hope you will share your pictures with us, so we can see how you see the restaurant," wrote Mr. Gras in a post on May 14, 2008, the restaurant's opening night.

Ironically, it was at Mr. Gras' own restaurant where I first began to wonder: Perhaps the problem with all of these photos of restaurant food isn't that it's rude to other diners, to the chef or even your companions. When you stop to take pictures during a meal, no matter how quickly you take them, or how discreetly, you primarily disrupt your own experience of the meal.

I, too, love looking at pictures of foods I've eaten, cooked or even just drooled over at a farmer's stall. I sometimes wistfully recall places and restaurants past where I wish I'd snapped a picture. But there's a good reason I don't actually have that many pictures of restaurant meals. When that first dish arrives at the table, even though my camera is at hand, I often find that I would rather just enjoy the meal and the company without worrying about the light, whether I've repressed my flash, or whether everyone else's camera is better than mine. No matter what you tell me, I just don't think that looking through a camera lens at a dish is as pleasurable or memorable as looking at the dish itself.

So snap your photos, because food photographs are lovely to have. But try to remember that part of food's pleasure, its beauty, is its ephemeral quality. Sight is only one of our senses, and it's certainly not the most important one when it comes to experiencing food. So until they invent a machine that can capture a dish's aromas and tastes along with its physical appearance, I'll consider a camera far less essential than a good appetite and a pleasant companion.

Restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at cmillman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1198.


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