Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Carl Warner builds and photographs cityscapes made of produce.
A self-professed foodie, Carl Warner spends a lot of time wandering around farmers’ markets and specialty stores. He was scoping out some produce when it struck him: Portobello mushrooms look really odd. “I held them up to the light and thought, ‘These look like trees from an alien landscape,’” he says.
That’s where it started. For more than a decade, the artist and advertising photographer has been building miniature, edible worlds on a table in his London studio. The “Foodscapes” series is based on the appeal of the double-take. “We’re trying to create an illusion—to deceive people in a nice way,” says Warner.
The photographs trick our brains into drawing associations between food and environmental elements. It’s no surprise that, at first glance, celery or broccoli stalks and florets look like leafy trees. But cauliflower conjures images of clouds, and radicchio conveys the sense of foamy, choppy waves in a rolling sea.
Warner often depicts iconic landmarks. There’s the Taj Mahal, topped with onions, coated with coconut flakes, and flanked by minarets made from sweet corn. The reflecting pool—with its lemon-slice lilypads—is guarded by sculptures crafted with plum tomatoes. In the foreground: foliage built from bunches of cilantro.
He’s also made the Chrysler Building, fashioned from cucumber and asparagus.
A panoramic view of the London skyline nods to recent additions to the city’s architecture, such the Swiss Re tower (made from a pineapple), in addition to Tower Bridge and the Houses of Parliament.
Warner and a team of food stylists have to move quickly and deploy plenty of insider tricks, such as spraying avocados with lemon juice to delay oxidization. Since produce wilts so quickly under the hot studio lights, each scene is built and photographed in pieces over the course of several days, then patched together in post-production to form the final image.
Warner is never tempted to take a bite out of one of his landscapes. “My mouth doesn’t water,” he says. Most of the food is heavily handled and glued or pinned down in pursuit of the perfect angle. Sometimes, by the end of the day, the food is rotting and inedible. Still, he doesn’t feel that the food is going to waste. He says that homeless shelters collect the food that hasn’t been used in the photos, and that the photos immortalize food for a good cause. (The finished products sometimes end up in children’s clinics or hospitals.)
Warner is intrigued by the tension between cities that seem immortal and ones that appear ever-evolving. He recalls being struck by how Rome seemed so similar on two visits, 22 years apart. He remembers winding through the alleyways leading to the Trevi fountain, tossing a coin over his shoulder, and thinking that the buildings looked the same as they did when he first saw them on a high-school field trip.
“You have an amazing sense of the passing of time in your own life,” he says. “A city can change beyond recognition, but also make you more observant of your own mortality.”
You can never walk down the same block twice: Restaurants open, shops shutter, owners die, new buildings are erected where old ones have been demolished. Warner’s photographs capture a fantastical snapshot of how a place looks at a given moment in time: a whimsical portrait of a landscape frozen before new construction, and before the produce starts to wilt and fade.
All images courtesy of Carl Warner.