As regular readers of this column know, our standard review procedure starts with me making multiple visits to a restaurant. Then, if I have any unanswered questions regarding the restaurant, its history or the dishes I ate, I ring up its owner. Finally, I write the review (for brevity's sake, I'm leaving out the inevitable lost reservations, computer malfunctions and inspiration shortages that complicate the process), and our photographer arranges an on-site shoot.
When Joshua Huston reached out to May Kitchen + Bar, the owner asked if he could instead submit his own images. Since it was the second consecutive week that a restaurant balked at Huston's request, I decided it was probably worth explaining our rationale here. But in thinking about our photographer's role in producing a review, I realized I had questions about criticism and photography too.
I've written before about how much control we cede to restaurants when we send a photographer. Since chefs and owners have the chance to prep for Huston's visit, food is bound to look its best in his photos. No self-respecting chef would put an overdressed salad of wilted greens in front of a newspaper man's camera. But it's still Huston who's looking through the lens. We don't run photographs from publicity firms for the same reason that we don't allow publicity firms to pen their own reviews. Restaurants have countless platforms for presenting their own stories: The Seattle Weekly isn't one of them. It's our job to serve readers by honestly and fairly assessing art and culture of all kinds, which requires us to maintain a strict editorial independence.
C'mon, a disaffected reader might say. Isn't that an awfully high-minded way of talking about a picture of pad thai? Perhaps, but I take pride in knowing our noodle porn wasn't shot by someone motivated by potential profits for the restaurant which produced it. Instead, our photographs reflect a critical perspective.
But just how critical? When Huston take pictures, he uses my opinions as guideposts. If I've written that the portions are uniformly too big, he might try for a shot of pork chops overhanging their plate. If I say the restaurant's mood is somber, he might shoot the dining room when it's dark and quiet. But his photographs - and the photographs accompanying most every review I've ever read - are as objective as our current understanding of the term allows. I can't remember ever seeing a review photograph that conveyed the message "don't go."
I'm not a photographer, so I don't know how much point-of-view it's possible to embed in a picture of chicken curry. But if photographs can succinctly convey the horrors of poverty and the arc of the moral universe, surely it's possible to snap a picture that shouts bad service. Communicating taste is surely harder, although I'm certain a talented photographer could find the visual shorthand for "salty" without crowding his or her frame with salt shakers.
To be clear, it's not Huston's job to start sizing up restaurants. It's completely appropriate for newspaper and magazine food photographers to hew to the review they're illustrating. But with so many camera-equipped food bloggers out there, I'm surprised that I haven't seen any image-heavy restaurant criticism. I checked in with my friend Penny De Los Santos, who - to bring this column full-circle - shot the forthcoming cookbook from Shauna James Ahern, a Vashon Islander who's quoted in the review of May Kitchen + Bar (like me, she loves the place.) De Los Santos wasn't aware of any restaurant critics creating visual reviews, but I'm still looking. If you know of any food writers using images to do more than bolster their critical text, drop me a line. Or send me a photograph.