the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Word and Image

I am in McDonald’s staring at a poster for the new McRib sandwich.  The photo shows this huge, juicy, succulent rib — the size of half a cow.  The photo is just begging you to buy a McRib.  Although I have never eaten a McRib, I do have experience with McDonald’s hamburgers.  I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about.  The photo shows a thick patty with a watery tomato, pickle, and lettuce packed on high on a bakery-fresh bun, and then when you get the burger, it is… a typical McDonald’s hamburger, a grayish, flacid disc that barely fits in the soft, limp bun.  So, I am asking myself — and you — why is this not considered false advertising?  There are stringent controls on the words that go into advertising.  A company can get sued for lying to their consumers with their words.  I can’t run an ad saying that if you come into my car dealership, I will sell you an Acura, and then give you a Corolla.  So, why hasn’t anyone ever sued McDonald’s for the fakery of their food photos?

My photographer friend, Kim, recently went to a class in Los Angeles to learn the techniques of commercial food photography.  From what she told me, it sounded like a fascinating class, with food photography an art form in itself.  She told me how sandwiches are stuffed with cotton to make them thicker, and food coloring is used to make chocolate look more chocolate-y.  And photographers get big bucks for this deception, on-the-set fakery done before the use of Photoshop.

Do you ever notice that readers like the “real” and “authentic,” in writing?  We like to read about struggle and drama.  On the other side, have you noticed that we tend to love the photographs that should be in a glossy magazine?  Beautiful settings.  And beautiful people.  Our families look near perfect.  Our yards are always clean.  The laundry on the couch is always hidden. Everyone has nice hair.  Special filters are used to create a mood.  Photoshop is employed to rid us of blemishes.

Of course, writing is also fake.  We have our own literary brush tools.  We can completely change the mood of a sentence, but switching a word, or adding punctuation.  Some of us are more poetic in our words.  If I say that my friend was “as angry as a bulldog,” I am giving you a visual picture.  But it is still manipulation, like a yellow filter, or the Hipstamatic app in the iphone.  My friend is not really a bulldog.  I’m not even sure bulldogs are “angry.”

I am not a photographer.  So I am curious.  Are you searching for any truth in your photos? If you take a perfect photo of a perfect family in front of a perfect home, are you trying to express the Platonic ideal of your family?  Are words more suited for communication and expressing truth (if you so choose), and photos more for beauty and glorified image?

I know media images of beauty are always a popular topic with my female friends online.  But I’m not sure we should trust corporate America to determine what is “real” for us, women or otherwise.  When I see those Dove “real women” campaigns, I mostly see photoshopped size 8 models instead of photoshopped size 2 models.

We tend to look down our noses at the use of  “advertising” techniques in writing, seeing them as manipulative, but applaud the same techniques in photography.  Why does beauty always have to be so “prettified?”  Why do we always talk about our search for truth and authenticity in art if we don’t really want to see it or express it in our images?

Does any of this make any sense?  Maybe not.  I’ll tell you one thing — that McRib sandwich looks good!


  1. Amy

    When I was a kid and I worked at McDonald’s I accidentally undercooked an entire batch of McRibs – I cooked them on the setting for regular hamburgers instead of the setting for McRibs – and then dumped them in the barbecue sauce unaware of my error. Fortunately the manager was the first person to eat one out of that batch, and she realized my mistake and threw the rest away. Otherwise I would’ve probably given 24 unsuspecting citizens food poisoning.

    I haven’t eaten a McRib since.

    You don’t want to know why I don’t eat McDonald’s biscuits and gravy.

    • LeSombre

      Amy, I have a strict policy to never order pizza from a restaurant where the kitchen is big enough to play hockey with any ingredient. 🙂

  2. Suebob

    As you know, I spend a lot of time with my elderly mom and some other senior citizens. When I was looking for stock photos of elderly people, they were all lightly-wrinkled, smiling people with no stray hairs or jowls or missing teeth. Few even wore glasses. I said “These are not the elderly people I know!”

    I love those “real body” things. You can have a real body, as long as your real body does not have a saggy belly, cellulite or scars. THOSE kinds of real bodies aren’t fit to be seen, apparently.

    • Neil

      Yeah, exactly. I mean these women are all super attractive, probably even more so than the regular models!

  3. LeSombre

    Have you ever watched Falling Down? The whole freak-out scene in the fast food place always stuck with me.

    There’s also an old post here about the differences between what’s pictured and served at fast food places.

    Bottom line: I now pay more but eat at much better places. 😉

    • Neil

      That link of advertising/real is hilarious. And seriously, why are these companies allowed to show photos that are clearly doctored? Isn’t that false advertising?

      • LeSombre

        I think it’s false advertising. But at the same time, they have – as you mentioned – classes to teach photograph how to make food look better. So it’s not like this is a big secret.

        I’m not sure what the law says about the “doctored pictures”, if anything. There might be a loophole that allows food pictures to be “enhanced” (you know, by placing the salad just so, or by using mashed potatoes instead of ice cream because the heat from the lamps would melt the product) as long as you don’t see a tomato in the picture that you don’t get on the actual item.

        So I protest by spending my money elsewhere.

    • GrandeMocha

      Everytime I see some food advertised, I think of Falling Down. I know I won’t get one that looks like the picture.

    • ChiaLynn

      I think the fast food ad photos should have little notes under them that say “Artist’s Conception.”

  4. Ludicrous Mama

    I think the only rules are that they have to use their own actual food for the pictures. But that may just be for outside advertising, such as in magazines or on packages in stores. So a picture for cereal has to use their actual cereal, but can use nice white glue instead of bluish milk, for example. So they are allowed to use the nicest looking bun, with the sesame seeds in an eye-pleasing pattern, with cooked-but-cooled meat, so that the other ingredients don’t melt/wilt during the photo shoot. Lighting and settings can be perfected, the ambient temp can be adjusted so the food stays nice looking, etc. I don’t know the rules on food coloring or photoshopping after.

  5. PocketCT

    I got a subscription to yoga journal for a year by going to Kripalu last Christmas. It drives me lulu that the photos are so airbrushed. I want real. I like real.

  6. wendy

    interesting topic. I always photoshop my Christmas card…..and set a mood. Why? It’s part of the fantasy I guess….We play the part… I have often included “out takes”… to keep things balanced. I have beautiful daughters who pick themselves apart like some auto bloodsport. If they insist on comparing themselves to the images in mags, then at least they should be on equal footing… and I just have the cheapo photoshop…not the “I can PERFECT you” one. I have never taken weight off, elongated a neck or waist or nipped a hip. But zap a zit? HELL YEAH!

    PS…. I was just thinking about those Dove ads. I love curves… I would have more of them if not for cellulite. I think if they “cured ” that little annoying esteem vampire, you would see a much FULLER female fatale. Smooth round curves are very sexy…and almost non existent in the real world.

  7. Finn

    While I get what you are saying, I wonder how real we actually want. I recently read a Editor’s Letter from More Magazine where she said that they’ve tried putting real women on the cover rather than celebrities and those issues don’t sell (airbrushed and all).

    Have you ever been to an Italian restaurant where they have pictures of the food on the menu and it just looks “blah”? That’s because it hasn’t been “dressed” and properly lit. Try taking pictures of food sometime – there’s a reason they use food coloring, etc. It gets all washed out and looks unappetizing.

    • Neil

      Finn — that is a good point. There is this Mexican place near us in LA where they clearly just used a digital camera to take home photos of their burritos to put on their menu, and the images are so dark and unappetizing, that it was no wonder they closed soon afterwards.

    • headbang8

      As someone in the biz, I can attest to this. I know some insiders from a number of campaigns that use “real” people, especially women. Very real “reality” meets resistance.

      But it’s the duty of my profession to push the boundaries. We have to make it so that a normal looking person (and there are many kinds of “normal”) doesn’t seem odd or out of place. Just like people of different cultural and racial backgrounds shouldn’t look out of place. As a gay man, I don’t want it to make the trade papers every time a gay couple features in an IKEA ad.

      Dove could have just started using normal models, rather than making a big deal out of it. I wonder what would have happened?

  8. Di

    Reality is so important to me. Capturing it, I mean. If you have to use photoshop to ‘make’ someone beautiful then what message are you giving them??? My drive as a photographer is always to show people what is already beautiful and real about them. I always find something, oftentimes that I’ve never noticed before (if they’re friends) … maybe it’s their eyes or a stranger’s way of angling their head when they talk.
    I think the biggest gift a photographer can give a person is showing them that their reality is beautiful and it doesn’t need airbrushed or photo-shopped. Really, it doesn’t.

    I hope I can photograph you one day soon, actually, Mr Kramer.

  9. V-Grrrl

    Neil, the oldest maxim in advertising is that you sell the sizzle, not the steak.

    There’s art, advertising, and journalism. Sometimes they overlap. This all goes back to our discussions about audience. Advertising is produced with a goal and an audience in mind and that dictates the words and images.

  10. Danny

    Interesting post. I’d rather become a cannibal and eat my family members than ever put a McRib to my lips. As far as I’m concerned, it’s also false advertising to shape the sludge they use to make the McRib and Chicken McNuggets into the shapes of something real. Yuck. As for the Dove ladies, at least they don’t look like heroin addicts. I wonder if companies will ever have the courage to show much larger people in their ads. Probably not, look at all the controversy with that sitcom.

  11. Pearl

    So far as the downside of photo manipulation, this before and after dieting photos that are taken the same day is interesting, even if not suprising:

  12. 180|360

    Just to clarify, food photographers are generally not the ones doing the preparing and dolling up of the food. That would be the handiwork of food stylists. I actually prefer to shoot food that is real, but it is much harder than it looks. And to be fair, there are a lot of food photographers and stylists that are presenting food naturally. But like Ludicrous Mama mentioned, most grocery store or restaurant food is styled in unorthodox ways, just like everything else in advertising.

    As for the deception/Photoshop argument, I’m really torn. I love capturing real life and reality, but I also like creating art. Some of the techniques I employ in Photoshop were the exact same things I did in the darkroom. It doesn’t make it any less valid or real — it’s just different. Couldn’t simply using a flash be considered dishonest? I know there’s a fine line, but I guess it’s easy for me to see that line, so it doesn’t bother me as much.

    I’m just trying to make art and sometimes it’s real, sometimes it is fantasy, or documentary, or even a manipulation to show you how and what I see. At the end of the day, beauty still resides in the eye of the beholder.

  13. foolery

    NOTHING a food stylist could do could make a McRib look good to me (and I’m a meat lover).

    You could take your argument farther to include the issue of diversity in advertising photos. How often in real life do you see seven people together who fit this scheme: 3 men and 4 women, two black, one Asian, one hispanic, one of indeterminate but somewhat dark coloring, two white, two quite young, one senior, and the rest of varying ages, 25-55. And yet, that’s exactly what you get in advertising. All messages are carefully controlled yet designed to look casual.

    Good topic, Neil.

  14. Pearl

    180}360 and Foollery, agreed. Completely.

    Funnily I do food photography too but No photoshopping at all, only good choice of presentation and lighting. I use different rules for different subjects. Self-portraits I go towards painting arts, like

  15. Shannon

    Shannon Chapel likes this.

  16. Bill

    KISS once said about one of their live albums, which turned out to not be so live after all (they redid a lot of it in the studio), that they weren’t looking to document the live sound. They were looking to document the live EXPERIENCE. People didn’t remember the crappy playing…they remembered the awesome show. And getting the music right on the record, live or not, was part of that.

    I kind of see airbrushing like that, and to a point I don’t have a problem with it. I don’t need to see a big zit on the cover of a magazine just because a star had one that day. But when they airbrush someone to the point of completely changing his/her body, that’s ridiculous.

    And when it comes to advertising, yes…they should at least use real food. Go ahead and make it the best way you can, even if it will never get made that well in the store, but lose the cotton stuffing and plastic lettuce.

    I had a point when I started this, but seem to have gotten lost. Maybe I just wanted to tell that story about KISS.

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