There is a moment when someone first comes across a picture by Carl Warner when they aren't quite sure what they are looking at. From a distance the image looks like an illustration but when you get close you realise that it's actually a photograph. And then you look closer still and the penny drops, and you realise that what you've encountered is a painstakingly conceived and executed still life that is wholly based around the colours, shapes and textures of natural elements, often ones that relate to the subject being depicted.
It's a brilliant concept, and once you're in on the visual joke you can then spend several minutes travelling around the picture, marvelling at the inventiveness of it all and the skill that's allowed the whole scene to be brought to life.
It might come as no huge surprise to learn that, after graduating from the London College of Printing (now the London College of Communication) in 1985, Carl had ambitions to become a professional landscape photographer, with an eye to working for commercial clients. However, things didn't go entirely to plan.
"£I went to see an agent with my work and he told me that at that time that part of the market was pretty much sewn up by Denis Waugh and John Claridge," he says. "He did think that my still-life work had potential, however, and that was where I positioned myself, thinking that when I had made enough money, I could maybe look at landscapes again at that point. Five years down the line I remembered my earlier plans and I booked myself a ten-day shooting trip to Iceland just to remind myself of what had always been my first love."
Landscape might have continued to remain on the back burner had Carl not found himself in a fruit and veg market one day where he happened to notice that, with a little imagination applied, the Portobello mushrooms he was eyeing up could almost be taken for miniature trees. An idea had started to form and the mushrooms were duly purchased and taken back to the studio where they were turned into a very believable fungi forest.
"This was towards the end of the nineties," says Carl, "at a time when Photoshop was in its infancy and there were retouching suites, such as Alchemy, the one I used, that would carry out digital post-production work on your pictures. A lot of these places wanted to show off their skills and were happy to provide free time for the more interesting images. They worked on my mushroom forest and also the next shot I came up with - some very craggy-looking cliffs made out of Parmesan cheese."
"The pictures were very surreal and otherworldly and an art director who saw them told me that he knew a client that this kind of approach would be prefect for. He was right and they loved them, and my first commission from them was for a seascape where we made the 'water' out of smoked salmon. I based it on a sunset scene in Portugal and it looked very realistic, and over the next four years I received eight more commissions from this source."
Technology was changing things at a remarkable pace and the post-production required to bring Carl's images together was becoming more accessible and feasible to carry out in-house. At the same time the Internet was starting to find its feet and was turning into the vast international disseminator of information that we're so familiar with these days. It was just a matter of time before Carl's clever and inventive work got picked up by the mainstream, and a feature in The Sunday Times in January 2008, which was inspired by the pictures being spotted online, suddenly introduced the photographer to a huge and receptive audience and a worldwide line up of potential clients.
"The floodgates opened after that feature appeared," says Carl, "and there was a lot of interest from magazines and newspapers all over the world, plus TV reports, documentaries and interviews, which even included an appearance on the Richard and Judy show!"
The viral nature of the Internet then took over and the images went global, leading to the publication of a book, Food Landscapes, which contained a selection of his best images up to that point, merchandising and licensing opportunities and commissions from some of the biggest brand names in the food world. Some of the spin-offs have been less predictable: Carl has now dipped his toe into the world of moving images, directing TV and Internet commercials, while his second book, newly published, is a collection of pictures and poems aimed at children, with an animated children's TV series designed to promote healthy eating also in the offing.
Producing the pictures
One of the main reasons that Carl's work has become so popular is because it has this edge of realism that can make you, even if only for an instant, believe that this could be a real landscape.
The photographer himself puts this down to the fact that he takes his inspiration from landscape masters such as Ansel Adams and utilises all of the classic landscape techniques such as working with light from the side to add depth to the picture, using rivers and streams to act as lines to draw the eye into the frame and the employment of the 'Rule of Thirds' to add balance to the composition. The lighting is also deliberately warm and a little low, mimicking the conditions you get towards the 'golden hour' at the end of the day as sunset approaches.
"The light in the middle of the day is flat and is rarely used by landscape photographers," says Carl. "I try to replicate the most pleasing light that there is, and I largely use tungsten so that I can see in real time the effect that the light is having, while keeping the studio air-conditioned to try to minimise the heat, and to keep the produce looking fresh in front of the camera for as long as possible.
"I also make sure that my images are in focus from the front to the back of the scene, because there is nothing that gives away the scale quicker than having a lack of depth-of -field. It's one of the reasons why I'll often create my pictures in sections and will then piece them together in post-production. I can focus for each section of the shot so that I don't need as much depth-of-field and I don't have to have all of the produce set out at the same time, so there is less chance of it starting to wilt."
"Having said that, that last point could be addressed if we had a team of 20 people working flat out to set everything up for the picture in as short a time as possible. If we want to keep the numbers of people working on the project down to a more manageable level then we have to work on sections one at a time."
Having now produced these remarkable images for a number of years Carl has also built up a palette of component parts so that, at times, a client with a smaller budget can still get the result they want by adding a sky or a clump of broccoli 'trees' off the shelf. "The scale and the lighting has to fit in with the rest of the picture for this to happen," says Carl, "but I have now built up a big collection of pictures which means that we don't always have to shoot everything afresh."
There are other advantages to being part of the Carl Warner shooting team, beyond the chance to be involved in the creation of another food masterpiece.
"Although there is a fair amount of waste, there is a lot of food left over, which is always shared out," he says. "However, the food that ends up in front of the camera has inevitably either been super glued or pinned so, good as it looks, none of this makes for good eating!"
Born in Liverpool in 1963, Carl Warner moved to Kent at the age of seven and took inspiration from artists such as Salvador Dali and the work of Hipgnosis. After studying at Maidstone Art College and the LCP, and after assisting for a year, Carl became a full-time pro in 1986.
Taken from the June 2012 issue of Photo Professional magazine