The art and craft of photographing food is now so much a part of our visual landscape — in magazines, on billboards and subway posters, on websites and elsewhere — it’s easy to imagine that inventive food photography has been around since the dawn of the medium. In fact, for a very long time, the vast majority of pictures of food were just kind of . . . blah. Appetizers, entrees, desserts and drinks — a cake, a pot roast, a salad, a martini, whatever — were arranged in a straightforward way on a table or a kitchen counter, exactly the way one would encounter the delectables in real life.
Fifty years ago, however, in its Jan. 31, 1964, issue, LIFE magazine launched its famous (among foodies, anyway) “Great Dinners” series, and helped re-imagine what food photography could be. “The dinners are festive,” LIFE’s editors wrote of the meals they would present in the series, “and yet simple to cook. Because no feast is created entirely in the kitchen, the stories will offer — along with recipes — advice on how to prepare ahead, shop efficiently, serve with style. A complete menu will be given for each meal.”
Throughout the long and popular run of the monthly series, some of LIFE’s most celebrated photographers contributed to Great Dinners, with one name in particular, John Dominis, appearing again and again, in issue after issue. Throughout his career, Dominis’ uniformly excellent work across wildly disparate subjects pegged him as one of LIFE’s most versatile talents — and his photos of food certainly contributed to that reputation. As LIFE.com wrote in a Photographer Spotlight on Dominis:
[John Dominis] traveled the globe, working in Southeast Asia and the American Southwest, Africa and Europe, Mexico and New York City. He covered six Olympics, including the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City, where he made his famous picture of American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium, their gloved fists raised in a Black Power salute. He was one of the first LIFE photographers to report from Vietnam. He covered Woodstock. He created what many consider the definitive photo essays on cultural icons like Frank Sinatra and Steve McQueen. He photographed big cats (lions, leopards, cheetahs) in Africa and he photographed the three Kennedy brothers — John, Robert and Edward — separately, early in their careers.
His 1965 photograph of Mickey Mantle tossing his helmet in disgust after a terrible at-bat is one of the most eloquent pictures ever made of a great athlete in decline and he also made some of the most memorable pictures of food ever to grace the pages of LIFE.
Here, LIFE.com presents a sampling of Dominis’ food photography — pictures that came naturally to the man, in a sense, as he loved to cook. (His father was a chef and restaurant owner in Los Angeles.)
“We decided to shoot large close-ups that made the food look good to eat,” Dominis once wrote about the Great Dinners pictures, “instead of the popular style [at the time], decorated with flowers and candles.”
Dominis also found creative ways to make dishes look especially enticing. For example, his picture of a Rolled Roast, photographed in a roasting container that’s been cut in half (slide #5 above), appears to have been pulled moments before from an oven. But that’s cigarette smoke, not a savory steam, pouring from the pot — smoke blown in there, Dominis later noted, “to make it look yummy.”