Q&A: Foodscape Artist Carl Warner

I have always been a fast eater, and even as a kid I was not picky

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I have always been a fast eater, and even as a kid I was not picky. So I never really built log cabins with my carrots or sculpted my mashed potatoes into gravy-spewing volcanoes.

With the exception of scrawling smiley faces with his catsup, says Carl Warner, he didn't play much with his food, either. Yet in 1999, the British still life photographer gathered some portobello mushrooms at a market and assembled and photographed them in a way that made them appear like massive trees on the African savannah. The experience changed the way he looked at food. He began to envision coconuts as haystacks, ribeye beef joints as mountains and fortune cookies as folded rugs.

Warner has since made a career of capturing whimsical "foodscapes": a smoked salmon sea rimmed with new potato and soda bread boulders, the Tuscan countryside with Romano pepper Cypress trees and a London skyline complete with a Big Ben of green beans and a rhubarb-spoked London Eye, among others. His work, reminiscent of Guiseppe Arcimboldo's edible portraits, appears in his new book Carl Warner's Food Landscapes.

Last week, I spoke with the photographer about his unique relationship with food.

I think everyone looks at broccoli and naturally sees little trees. But you take that much further.

It was just a progression from that to see what other things reminded people of. I didn’t really think at first that there were many other opportunities. I thought broccoli was the major player. But I was just exploring what else could be achieved using food. Now, I’m making houses out of loaves of bread, submarines out of aubergines and all sorts of things. It’s like being aware of a palette of colors and saying, well, everyone knows red, but what else is there? You suddenly realize that there is a whole spectrum of colors you can use.

What ingredient have you found to be the most versatile?

Definitely the kale. Curly kale. It’s a very robust green cabbage. You can pin it to distant mountains and make it look like rainforest or you could have it as bushes in the foreground. It’s very tough stuff, as opposed to something like coriander, which will just kind of wilt the moment you cut it from the pot and stick it under the light. Coriander is a beautiful herb. The leaf shape is wonderful. But I know, if I'm using it, then I am just going to put it on at the last minute, when everything is ready to shoot.

What else is difficult to work with?

I think anything that dries out quickly. We treat stuff like avocado, for example. You have to soak it in lemon juice to preserve it for longer. If you cut slices of potato, it will quickly discolor. There are certain chemicals that we will put potato in that will keep it white all day long. We will cheat like that in order to save having to keep replacing it.

In your book, you mention a time when you used the skin of an apple to create a red roof. Are there other instances where you think you’ve worked an ingredient into the landscape so well that it is unrecognizable as itself?

Yes, I think a lot of that goes on. For example, in the fishscape, the roofs of the houses there are made out of seaweed. But I prefer people to be able to find them and discover them themselves, like a Where’s Waldo type thing. It kind of defeats the objective if they are not recognizing it as food. Sometimes I think I’ve gone too far and I have to sort of rein it back a bit and keep a simplicity there so that people have the knowledge of the ingredients and therefore appreciate that.

Where do you find your inspiration?

The inspiration comes from the natural world, but also ideas come from films and books. I think often the works are a mixture of many different influences. The broccoli forest, for example, is a slight homage to my love of Ansel Adams's work. It’s got that sort of Yosemite Valley feel. But at the same time, it has a yellow turmeric path, which is the yellow brick road. We stuck peas into the broccoli trees, which kind of reminds me of those trees in The Wizard of Oz that throw apples at Dorothy when she discovers the Tin Man.

Has it changed the way you sit down to dinner?

No, not really. I love cooking, and I am real foodie. But I have a very different hat on when I’m cooking at home. When we spend all day pinning and gluing and sticking wires down green beans, the last thing I feel about my work is hungry. I see the food as having made the scenes, but I don’t get a mouth-watering appetite appeal from the food at all. I just see them as props.

After a shoot, you divvy up the food with your team. So, what is the strangest thing you've cooked from the leftovers?

I turned up with a bag of stuff after the end of a shoot and my wife just kind of said, right, okay, so we’ve got like 15 packets of green beans and four cauliflowers. I think what I bring home quite often tends to be a bit like one of those veg boxes, where you have to be inventive and creative. You need to get the cookbook out and say, what can I do with okra? And what can I do with that or this root vegetable? Beetroot is a wonderful thing if you find some great recipes to do. Roast them in the oven with balsamic vinegar and serve them with steak, and all of a sudden it’s like, let’s go for it. I’ve got four kids, so we’re always trying to encourage them to try different things, eat healthily, appreciate what’s grown locally and eat what’s in season.

What's next?

There are many, many food things that I want to do: Thai floating markets, the Taj Mahal. I'd like to make Venice out of pasta. There is no end to it really. I am working on a children's book where we are making different landscapes out of one color. We built this wonderful orange landscape made out of pumpkins, cheese, clementines, kumquats, carrots and dried apricots. I am also trying to get a children's animated TV series off the ground. My idea is that it would be to food education what Sesame Street is to literacy. I think it is really needed at this time to combat a lot of the problems we face here in the U.K. and I know that you face in the U.S. I don't want my work to just be pretty pictures made out of food. I want it to be used as a vehicle to do some good and to bring about a change in our food culture. My work brings a smile to people's faces. It's nice for people to think, if this man can do this with the contents of his fridge, then what else can we do?

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