Amanda HirschFreelance writer Amanda Hirsch, former editorial director of PBS Interactive, blogs about documentaries and the Web in her column, Outside the Frame, published every other Wednesday.
There are few things I love as much as food. It follows naturally, then, that one of my favorite online activities is looking at pictures of food. When the intellectual nonsense of the day becomes too much, I steer my browser over to the popular photo-sharing site and indulge in a little food porn.

Yes, that’s right: food porn. The term is not my own — it’s the name of an actual group, or sub-community, on Flickr, created by a woman in Seattle named Kate Hopkins (her Flickr name is “Accidental Hedonist“). Kate describes the group thusly:

Food Porn
For those who can’t help but take pictures of food.
All pictures should represent a moment of deliciousness in your life. A moment when you couldn’t wait to take a bite of the food, but waited an extra second in order to take a picture of your impending bliss. Hopefully you can communicate that desire for that dish with your picture, but I’m not going to penalize anyone if their pic is lacking in anyway.
All I ask is that you try your best.

“Try your best”: this is porn, Mr. Rogers-style, with amateur Julia Childs everywhere asking their dinner to say cheese. And like that other kind of porn, food porn pretty much has something for everyone, from fancy to funky, carnivorous to veggie-tastic. And, of course, there’s chocolate. After all, says Flickr user Samer Farha: “Chocolate sells. Maybe more than sex does.”

So is that why so many people are sharing their photos online? To sell something? In Samer’s case, it seems that exposure for his food photos means exposure for his blog. But the urge to take — and share — food photos seems to generally spring from a deeper source. As Flickr user LingMuse puts it,
“A shared meal is a shared gift. I can’t eat with everyone in the world. I can’t dine with everyone on Flickr. But maybe if I share a photo of a meal, or of food I enjoy, I can engage in a kind of secular communion. ‘This meal was great! Wish you were here!'”

When asked why she takes photos of food, another Flickr user, Glitzypursegirl, jokes, “The food moves less than my two-year-old son”; on a more serious note, she says that photographing food lets her “capture a moment of life before it is devoured or decayed.”
For others, photography has simply become part of the experience of eating. Flickr user and avid food blogger kthread writes:

At this point, I often videoblog a recipe, take “food porn” images, then eat (it’s sort of like pausing to remember to taste the seasoning at the end — taste, season, snap, eat).

While much food photography celebrates the very essence of a particular foodstuff, other images use food to express something that’s more than gastronomical. LingMuse, for example, loves capturing food in a way that evokes patterns found in geology or the universe at large; in this photo, where others may see simply a delicious cut of beef (it even looks delicious to me, and I’m a vegetarian — ah, the seductive power of porn), she sees cliff walls in the meat’s fibrous tissue:
A close-up of meat from
Cross section of a melon, from flickrSamer Farha also cops to the pleasure of using food for artistic experimentation and offers his depiction of a cross-section of melon as an example.

While images like this are interesting — and even beautiful — I love food too much to see it treated like an underfed supermodel, contorting for the camera. My favorite food photos are the ones that treat food like food — that evoke that moment of deliciousness and let me experience it vicariously, the way a lush photo of a Carribbean island lets me escape the dreary greyness of a Washington, D.C. winter.

What about you? Do you like food photos? (It’s ok — we won’t tell your mom.) How does photography enhance, or detract, from a sensual experience like eating food? Share your thoughts using the comments feature below.

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Amanda Hirsch is former editorial director of PBS Interactive.