Carl Warner never told his kids not to play with their food.
"They'd make smiley faces from onion rings," says the London-based photographer. "It's a wonderful thing to do. I do it all the time."
In fact, he's made a living from it. Warner, whose new book is Food Landscapes, constructs lush forests from broccoli, evocative seascapes from salmon, and pastoral Tuscan farm scenes from pasta and Parmesan. Clouds of soft bread or mozzarella float in the sky, rice pebbles scatter walkways, potatoes become boulders. By combining the techniques of classical painting and the sensibility of Salvador Dalí with some basic Photoshop, Warner delivers still life art that is haunting, playful and audaciously real.
It started a decade ago with a stroll through the market and a realization that portobello mushrooms look a lot like trees on an African savannah. Since that first photo, Warner has created a body of work that hovers somewhere between art and commercial food photography.
"The jury is still out on whether this is art or not, for me as well as others," he says. He regards his work as a celebration not only of food, but of the human imagination. "If I can take the contents of my fridge and make a little world out of it," he says, "what can people do with a whole world full of stuff?"
Warner approaches his tabletop models as mini theater sets and uses similar tricks of perspective. Parsley fronds and spinach plants frame the foreground, while diminishing pathways lead the eye to the back of the scene. He shoots in close, using a lens that foreshortens the scene, creating remarkably 3-D shots that look exactly like what they depict — and what they're made of.
"If I've got something in there that people don't recognize, then it defeats the object," he says. "They've got to be able to realize that everything's made of food."
Indigenous ingredients also contribute to the effect. A scene of a Chinese boat and dock uses soy beans, mushrooms, fortune cookies and other Asian items. Warner conjures the American dustbowl with meat, cereal and a loaf of bread, the region's iconic ingredients.
"There's something about the authenticity of it," he says. "If I had some strange kumquat in the middle of an American landscape, it doesn't fit."
Scene construction and photography can take anywhere from a couple of hours to several days. For Fishscape, a photo made entirely of mackerel, bass, whelks and other seafood, shooting had to take place in one day, for obvious reasons. (Fish at Day 2 under the lights? Not a good idea.) The London skyline — think Big Ben's tower out of green beans — took days to construct.
Warner keeps the items fresh throughout his shoots by keeping the studio cool and photographing the scenes in layers: dress the foreground, shoot. Dress the middle ground, shoot, then Photoshop all of the layers of the scene together.
Warner has taken hits over the years for "wasting" food. He notes that what is still edible after shooting gets parceled out to the crew and, if there's a lot of it, to shelters. But he also bristles at the notion that his work wastes food.
"There is a certain amount thrown way, but you can't compare it to what restaurants and supermarkets throw away," he says. "And I don't consider my work a waste of food. It's providing joy and it's inspiring kids to try foods they haven't tried before."