In accompaniment to our exhibition Food For Being Looked At, currently on view on our Media Wall, and to celebrate the publishing of Feast For the Eyes (Aperture, 2017), the book’s author Susan Bright introduces some of the complexities of food’s visual forms and meanings, as we find it in the history of photography.
We are what we eat. Food both fuels and shapes our physical bodies from the inside, as well as being an outward expression of our pleasures and our principles. It crosses and transgresses boundaries in every sense. Eating is one of the most base, visceral, and profane of acts, yet it is also caught up in our rituals, religions, and celebrations—it is the most human of needs, both physically and culturally. Food can signify a lifestyle or a nation, hope or despair, hunger or excess. It is the site of protest and control. It can reinforce stereotypes or undermine them. It is given to riot and spoof—as in the ridiculous food fight—but also symbolises the most refined aspects of a culture. It carries our desires and fantasies; it can stand in for sex, be a signal of status, or engage in our politics, betraying our attitudes about immigration, domestic issues, the environment, animal rights, and travel. Ultimately, food is not only about literal taste, but also Taste with a capital T—both the lifestyles we aspire to and the building blocks of culture itself.
And so, similarly, photographs of food are rarely just about food. They hold our lives and time up to the light. As a subject that is commonly at hand, food has been and continues to be widely depicted. Many of the photographers in this book demonstrate that the most obvious of subjects is often the most demanding, and photographs of food—much like food itself—can invoke deep-seated questions and anxieties about issues such as consumption, aspiration, tradition, gender, race, desire, wealth, poverty, pleasure, revulsion, and domesticity. It can be a carrier for all kinds of fantasies and realities, and photographs of food can be complicated and deceptive, touching on many aspects of our lives, both public and private.
In addition, these pictures can be found in all sorts of places—not only in cookbooks, but also in art, fashion and advertising, or as vernacular, industrial, and editorial photography. But despite the ubiquity of photographs of food—or perhaps because of it—these images are rarely written about in their entirety.
Nickolas Muray, Lemonade and Fruit Salad, McCall’s magazine, ca. 1943; from Feast for the Eyes (Aperture, 2017)
Setting the Table
Early photographs of food feature in two parallel histories: that of art and that of cookbooks. But both environments show that photography is the magpie medium, borrowing, copying, and appropriating from other practices with bravura to create something unique. Early nineteenth-century art photographers faithfully followed the traditions of painting, reproducing established genres and calling upon the same strategies and symbolism. Early photographic still lifes, in emulation of paintings, gestured allegorically toward the different states of human existence by depicting certain foods: peaches for fertility, apples as the forbidden fruit, or grapes to reference the Greek god Dionysus, insinuating excess and good living. Early photographers concentrated on the richness of objects, the things that make up our world—turning what was visible into artifacts, and transforming them to resonate beyond mere subject matter
Roger Fenton, Still Life with Fruit and Flowers, ca. 1860; from Feast for the Eyes (Aperture, 2017)
But alongside allegorical meanings and similarities to painting, the photographing of food has also showed photography’s great differences to painting and the insecurities about its own status that have plagued its history. This can be seen in the richly toned black-and-white still lifes by Roger Fenton: the food he photographed may resonate with the history of painting that went before it, but it also works to show the abilities of photography to the fullest. Filling his scenes with rich textures and shapes to heighten the senses and show his skill, he showed great dexterity in illustrating depth on a flat surface—something which painting could do more easily, using colour and the three-dimensional texture of paint. Without an established history within art, photography had yet to prove itself—so the frames of Fenton’s photographs were trimmed to a curve at the top, as if to signal his work as art, rather than mere document. This device of trimming prints to this shape was common among other early photographers such as Julia Margaret Cameron in order to mimic the actual shape of the paintings they were directly referencing. As such, the picture isn’t about what is visible, and what is seen in the world, but more about what is photographed, and what is art.
Photographer unknown, Poularde à la Godard, chromolithographic print from Le Livre de Cuisine, 1869; from Feast for the Eyes (Aperture, 2017)
Like art, cookbooks also tell us about the values of their time, and are no less rich in symbolism and connotation. In addition, they have often traded in stereotypes and assumptions; they, too, are carriers for all kinds of fantasies. Early examples were no different: when photography was first used to illustrate recipes, it did not represent food eaten in the home or recipes passed down through families, but instead food for chefs, representing gastronomy and indulgence. This incredible image of Poularde à la Godard is a chromolithographic print—a technique that was among the first steps to colour photography in the nineteenth century—found in the hugely in influential Le Livre de Cuisine (1869) by chef and pâtissier Jules Gouffé. This book, and his Le Livre de Pâtisserie (1873), had a lasting impact on the evolution of French gastronomy. They are culturally important not only for the food they describe, but also for their many illustrations, wood-cuts, and extraordinary reproductions, which showed the potential and power that colour photographs could have within the pages of a cookbook. The lavish meal constructions speak to sophistication, extravagance, and French perfection, but to contemporary eyes, the elaborate concoctions make a turducken look humble.
However, going into the twentieth century, home-cooking manuals increased in popularity, stemming from a tradition most commonly associated with Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861). Early examples in the United States, such as Good Housekeeping Everyday Cook Book (1903), Mrs. Rorer’s New Cook Book (1902), and Mrs. Allen’s Cook Book (1917), all included small black-and-white photographs.
The photographs are carefully arranged and tastefully constructed to show tidy homes and tidy lives, but their cultural significance is huge—they paved the way for both the tone and usability of later cookbooks. These books come from the varied standpoints of domestic science, magazine writing, and, in the case of Mrs. Allen’s Cook Book, the making of “ modern” food, using products such as Coca-Cola and Pillsbury flour. The author of that book was not afraid to advocate for making women’s lives easier by using boxed and canned products; in this respect, she was an important predecessor of the brand-sponsored “ cookbooklet” and the cultural icon Betty Crocker.
But it is perhaps meals as they appear in vernacular photography that tell us the most about our relationship to food. Snapshots of food have increased and asserted themselves over the history of the medium, to the point where they are now part of the contemporary eating experience, captured with smartphones and distributed through image-sharing apps. But holidays and celebrations were being photographed almost as soon as cameras became readily available.
Due to the expense of very early photography, it was mostly the pursuit of the wealthy. Food did appear in nineteenth-century family photographs, but it was more into the twentieth century, as the camera became more accessible, that food often took centre stage. Since then, snapshots have been taken when extended families gather together around the table. Birthdays, parties, and wedddings are often photographed around the cake, and summer vacation pictures would seem lacking without the requisite ice cream cone or picnic shot.
Martin Parr, Untitled (Hot Dog Stand), 1983–85; from Feast for the Eyes (Aperture, 2017)
All You Can Eat
But the photographs that we now associate with the commercial practice of “ food photography” (as opposed to food in still life, art, or vernacular images) undoubtedly have their roots in the rise of magazines and packaged foods. The interwar period saw an explosion of inventive printing and publishing techniques in photography. No one mastered these methods more than Nickolas Muray, who, while working in Germany, had perfected experimental colour processes while studying photoengraving and working for a publishing company. On moving to America, he transformed that skill into a commercial practice, creating vibrant tableaux for magazines in both advertising and editorial. His photographs of food and homemaking are among his best, bringing a new and daring aesthetic to magazines like McCall’s. These heavily styled scenes of food offered a fantastical escape and a vision of America far removed from the food shortages and anxieties of the war. Due in part to the success of Muray’s photographs, the almost Technicolor results of the three-color carbro process became a staple of American lifestyle and fashion magazines from the late 1940s into the 1950s—despite the fact that the process itself was costly and time-consuming.
Nickolas Muray, Food Spread, Daffodils, McCall’s magazine, ca. 1946; from Feast for the Eyes (Aperture, 2017)
In addition to magazine editorials and advertising for brands such as Lucky Strike and Coca-Cola, Muray also worked for an ever-expanding range of processed-food companies, as new products needed new photographs. Muray was adept at altering his more active aesthetic to sparser scenarios such as frozen-food packaging, which needed to be more obvious and leave space for text and logos. These products represented something quick and modern in postwar America, available in the new shopping malls that were beginning to appear around the country. Commercial photographers such as Anton Bruehl and Victor Keppler also brought their own modern aesthetic to the homes and lives of Americans through their images of food in their bright, upbeat colourful pictures, all of which suggested an America moving forward, rather than looking back nostalgically to the past.
As advances in colour printing made magazines and cookbooks more affordable, photography became more of a feature. Popular product lines and time-saving gadgets such as pressure cookers, crockpots, and stand mixers produced their own books and cookbooklets; the latter were designed primarily to advertise the brand and incorporated plentiful, vibrant photographs, as can be seen in the examples made for Aunt Jemima, Crisco, and Knox Gelatine. The impact of these photographic and advertising techniques coincided with the fantasy of nationhood and the increased availability of food after the Second World War, especially in the United States. These books had a lasting influence on commercial food imaging, and indeed on the way that a nation ate. Foods such as tuna fish, avocados, and orange juice made their way into kitchens and became family staples due to the success and ubiquity of the promotional cookbooklet.
Harold Edgerton, Milk Drop Coronet, 1957; from Feast for the Eyes (Aperture, 2017)
Betty Crocker is also worth mentioning here. The first of its kind, Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook—or “ Big Red,” as it came to be known—was a guide to home cooking published in 1950 by General Mills. Its famous file system—with heading tabs like “ Quick Breads” and “ Frostings Confections” sticking out from its pages—and decadent colour photos, bursting with American bounty, are a joyful gateway into the nation’s food industry and changing tastes of the time. The pictures, like those in the cookbooklets, are more exuberant than they are appetising, speaking more to tastefulness than to taste itself. They also present a postwar nation of plenty and leisure, which was seen as being in direct contrast to communism.
Such books and the magazines of the time also gave rise to the art and business of food styling. Often shot under hot lights in the studio, food had to be meticulously arranged to last while the photographer worked. Heavily propped and fastidiously set up, food photography from this period relied on techniques that have become somewhat mythic and, of course, made the food completely inedible—such as spraying it with hair spray so it would appear shiny and fresh. Ice cream might be made from powdered sugar, ice cubes from plastic, foam from soapsuds, and condensation with glycerin. But it is not just the food that made a food photograph important; the tableware, tablecloths, garnishing, and props showed mastery in making a scene complete, and were illustrative of the collaborative teamwork needed in commercial photography.
Food For Thought
The 1960s and 1970s saw the increased publication of cookbooks and a shift from postwar ideas about national identity to a desire for armchair travel, a precursor to the multiculturalism of the 1980s. Popular cookbooks with skillful photographs illustrated the advances in colour printing and food styling in North America, Europe, and beyond, reflecting changes and attitudes particular to each nation.
In Australia, The Margaret Fulton Cookbook, first published in 1968 and going on to become a staple for generations, illustrated the impact of European immigration at the time, with the inclusion of Italian and Greek recipes. In the UK, Good Housekeeping Colour Cookery (1968) was as aspirational and unrealistic as many of its American counterparts, but differs in its more international feel. This was represented by lavish pictures of Scandinavian salads as well as a dramatic tableau of “ Ceylon Prawn Curry,” which reflected the wave of immigrants coming to Britain from Southeast Asia. There was also an increase in books featuring foods from a single country, as recipes and accompanying photographs from Mexico, Morocco, India, and Thailand became popular. This was the golden age of jet travel, and Western television began to feature more “ ethnic” chefs. This fascination with the exotic also inspired the American Time-Life Foods of the World series (1968–78).
John Baldesarri, Choosing Green Beans, 1972; from Feast for the Eyes (Aperture, 2017)
Coinciding with this explosion of cookbooks, the 1960s and 1970s also saw the rise of Conceptual art and, with it, artists who used banal subject matter, mixed high and low culture, and favoured repetition and seriality, both in topographical and typological explorations. They used food for comic effect, as can be seen in John Baldessari’s Choosing Green Beans (1972), Fischli and Weiss’s Wurst Series (Sausage Series, 1979), and Marion Faller and Hollis Frampton’s series Sixteen Studies from Vegetable Locomotion(1975). Marcel Broodthaers’s La Soupe de Daguerre (1975) is more mysterious, however: are these ingredients for soup? Unlikely, as this combination of “ real” fish and tissue cutouts could hardly be cooked. At the bottom is a label that suggests museums and classification. Here, Broodthaers presents food as a puzzle—very much at odds with the bombastic messaging of Pop art, in which food also often featured, and the advertising and lifestyle aims of cookbooks. Perhaps he is parodying oversimplified representations of food and the polarised positions across hierarchies and genres in the artificial divisions between high and low culture.
Marcel Broodthaers, La Soupe de Daguerre, 1975; from Feast for the Eyes (Aperture, 2017)
While much art of this time favoured systems, artists also turned to performance and visual playfulness. Semiotics of the Kitchen by Martha Rosler (1975) does not use food, only the kitchen equipment. In this performance/video piece, Rosler works through the kitchen in alphabetical order—apron, bowl, chopper, dish, egg-beater, and so on—demonstrating each appliance with increasing aggression, in a parody of the growing popularity of cooking shows on TV and the idea that a woman’s place is in the kitchen. Rosler has said of her work, “ I was concerned with something like the notion of ‘language speaking the subject,’ and with the transformation of the woman herself into a sign in a system of signs that represent a system of food production, a system of harnessed subjectivity.”
The theoretical language of semiotics gave artists much-needed linguistic and visual tools to reclaim their work from critics and their value judgments, often to comic effect. Roland Barthes famously illustrated how the tools of semiotics could be applied to the messages and meanings of images in his 1964 essay “ Rhetoric of the Image,” using an ad for the pasta brand Panzani. By deconstructing the scene, he showed (among other things) how “ Italianicity” could be read in it. These systems for the construction of meaning are key to how food is photographed in cookbooks and popular culture, both of which rely on easy readings across a wide audience. Clichés and stereotypes suggest authenticity.
Sarah Lucas, Self Portrait, 1999; from Feast for the Eyes (Aperture, 2017)
Another artist who has used food to illustrate its cultural and semiotic connotations is British artist Sarah Lucas. Food can be loaded with a relationship to politics and gender, especially the female body. Three decades after Carolee Schneemann’s performance piece Meat Joy, NYC (1964), Lucas made some of the defining work of the 1990s. In response to the “ lad culture” that had appeared at this time—also apparent in food, with the rise of celebrity chefs such as Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay— Lucas employed food such as bananas, fish, and chicken in both her photographs and her sculpture, to both call out the base language used to refer to women’s bodies, and reclaim it. Food still titillates, but with a very different stance; she refuses to take a submissive position when the joke is about male aggression. Lucas’s art takes the eroticism of food and turns it into sexual politics instead.
Ori Gersht, Pomegranate—Off Balance, 2006; from Feast for the Eyes (Aperture, 2017)
In Pomegranate—Off Balance (2006), Ori Gersht deals with politics and national identity. “ All my work has a direct connection with my upbringing in Israel, and this idea within the Jewish diaspora of a utopian place we can never quite obtain—the return to a place that doesn’t really have any material presence in the world, and that can never be realised,” Gersht has said. Here, food is used as a carrier for autobiographical ruminations on place and violence, calling upon traditions of Western art and the history of photography. It is painting that the photograph most obviously references—the still life by Juan Sánchez Cotán titled Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber (1602) in particular. The quince in the painting has been replaced by a pomegranate, not only for its ability to dramatically explode— immediately bringing to mind the experiments of Harold “ Doc” Edgerton—but also for its symbolic place in Jewish culture, as a sign for fertility and righteousness eaten during Rosh Hashanah. The lighting is dramatic, heightened by the black background, making a stage in which Gersht builds the sculptural scene.
The use of food to create a sculpture is something we see repeatedly in this book—not just in art, but also in commercial photography, most famously demonstrated by Irving Penn. In Gersht’s photograph, the sculpture is a stand-in for calm, balance, and harmony, while the exploding pomegranate illustrates the rarity of this state.
During the 1990s and into the 2000s, the rise of the celebrity chef, foodie culture, and eating out contributed to a rise in the popularity of cookbooks once again. The Western world shifted away from the idea that French cuisine was best, and embraced food from a wide range of countries, fusing flavours with the very best of local ingredients. Once again, a more international approach was accelerated by the availability of cheap flights to countries such as Thailand and Sri Lanka, and South Asian food grew popular in the West. Restaurants were increasingly producing their own cookbooks (such as the famous River Café series), and books by television personalities—such as Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver in the UK, and Mario Batali and Ina Garten in the United States—became more prevalent. Rachael Ray, Jane Grigson, Gordon Ramsay, Martha Stewart, Wolfgang Puck, Bobby Flay, and Anthony Bourdain followed and became household names, many with their own line of cookbooks and wares.
Photography became increasingly dominant in these books, and a much more relaxed style prevailed. The pictures featured food that you wanted to eat—food as it was cooked, rather than overly styled and presented on the table. The styling was made to look somewhat nonexistent, and, most important, photographers were more likely to be credited. Taking photographs for cookbooks became a more credible, legitimate space in which artists could work. Well-known photographers have shot for cookbooks—including Joel Meyerowitz, Adam Bartos, Richard Learoyd, Ron Haviv, and Jason Fulford, to name a few—illustrating the fact that photographs have become more important than the recipes in many instances.
This represents an important shift in how food is photographed for these books. With the rise of the Internet, most people turn to the web for cooking inspiration rather than books. But conversely, the production and sale of cookbooks and food magazines has never been stronger. A cookbook is no longer necessarily something you buy for the recipes; instead it has become more of a coffee-table book. Cookbooks are more collectible, as fetishised objects.
Perhaps this trend started out of necessity: with the rise of digital platforms, printed books needed to rethink their shelf appeal in order to reach consumers, and publishers have reached into the bag of tricks from art and design books. This has elevated cookbooks to become like photobooks; their pictures have become more aligned with still life and art practices. Though the pictures, in some cases, could operate in a proper artbook, in a cookbook they remain connected to lifestyle and taste, continuing to provide an aspirational experience that situates the reader in a very particular time and sensibility. They are for show, for seductive visual pleasure and for longing—all very far away from the labors of shopping, cooking, and washing up, but not so far away from the very earliest cookbooks, such as Le Livre de Cuisine.
Wladimir Schohin, Stilleben, 1910; from Feast for the Eyes (Aperture, 2017)
The distinctions between art and commerce that previously defined photographs of food are becoming much finer with the increasing cultural acceptance of commercial food and product photography, as well as a renewed interest in its history and pioneers such as Nickolas Muray. At the same time, fine-art photography has returned to the still life genre with new vigor. No longer at polar ends of acceptability, a crop of up-and-coming commercial photographers—such as Keirnan Monaghan and Theo Vamvounakis, Grant Cornett, William Mebane, Trey Wright, Lauren Hillebrandt, Paloma Rincón, and Stephanie Godot—produce exciting work that is often indistinguishable from art and its recent fascination with still life. Artists such as Maurizio Cattelan and Roe Ethridge also reference the commercial food photography of the 1950s through the 1970s, while Daniel Gordon and Laura Letinsky incorporate lifestyle pictures found in magazines and online into their collaged still lifes.
In short, many artists are turning to deconstruction, collage, montage, and appropriation to comment on the ubiquity of certain subjects on the Internet—food being one of them. Right now, commercial food photography is incorporating the tropes of fine art, while fine art simultaneously comments on commercial and digital practices. This creates a seesaw of taste-making, and the connotations of aspiration, class, and style are up for examination. All the while, irony, deadpan humor, retro styling, and bold statements dominate. Much of it may seem superficial—but at a time of renewed nationalism around the globe, when we are once again grappling with the intricacies of nationhood in the culture at large, photography is an important marker of how food can define who we are.
Roe Ethridge, Fruit, 2011;from Feast for the Eyes (Aperture, 2017)
And yet, despite how food has been photographed in art and commerce, it is how it has been photographed in vernacular imaging that has perhaps had the biggest impact on food as subject matter—and how those photographs are consumed. Photo-sharing on social-media platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter have made photography part of the dining experience itself. So many people are taking pictures of their meals that restaurants expect each party to take more time at their table. And for those restaurants, as well as for specialty stores and brands, this sharing, tagging, and geo-tagging of food photos has become a kind of grassroots advertising scheme, in which both the authenticity of the author (and their established connection to the viewer) and FOMO (fear of missing out) might drive others to want the same experience—and it’s all delivered directly into the hands, homes, and pockets of an attentive audience. Photographing your food has never been more popular or encouraged. This may explain why traditional commercial photography has simultaneously become more like fine art—as well as more diaristic, mimicking the “ realness” of social media.
The rise of photographing food has also changed, or at least heavily influenced, the way we eat in the home. The Western breakfast, for example—a historically routine affair of cereal or toast—is now (if we are to believe Instagram) a feast of avocado toast, muesli with a host of berries and toasted nuts, and chia-seed smoothie bowls. Food has become even more of a social currency, and social media provides a space in which to share, find like-minded people, and form communities. It has spawned a host of hashtags to accompany photographs—hashtags that instantly position and self-identify the photographer with a certain group or shared aspiration. These can include the more jovial #nomnomnom, to the more pointed #whatveganseat or #eatclean. On a more serious level, these communities also connect those who struggle with food issues, such as eating disorders, and who have traditionally been outside of the mainstream.
Tim Walker, Self-Portrait with Eighty Cakes, 2008; from Feast for the Eyes (Aperture, 2017)
Blogs and social media have also spawned a trend in books that promote healthy eating, the shunning of certain nefarious foods, and wellness, often written by young women who have little or no nutritional training. These sites have garnered huge followings and their authors include, most famously, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kris Carr in the US and Ella Mills in the UK, to name a few. The message is simple: eat like me, look like me. Highly constructed photographs of kale salad and quinoa abound.
But platforms such as Instagram can be outlets for more than just aspirational food porn, a term coined to poke fun at the glamorisation and proliferation of photographs of food on social media. Like the book The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady—in which Edith Blackwell Holden provides personal observations from her daily life in 1906 and intricate details of the woodland creatures near her home, along with exquisite paintings—Instagram can also act like a diary or journal, and of course food plays a part in this. Photographs of food in this context can be touching, a way of communicating with families and friends. There are mothers documenting care packages made for children who are away at university, families eating at holidays, and lovely tables, set for celebrations. Food is photographed as it brings people together, as ritual and tradition.
Laura Letinsky, Untitled #49, 2002, from the series Hardly More Than Ever; from Feast for the Eyes (Aperture, 2017)
Whereas letters, drawings, small gifts, and especially recipes were exchanged between friends and family in earlier times to sustain relationships and show support, photographs have become part of our larger cultural gift economy—one in which our private experiences are made more public, and a wider circle of friends and followers reciprocate their support through likes and re-sharing. Food photographs have often crossed the boundaries between private and public, and are a natural fit for today’s social media. They invite people into our lives on a much larger scale, in an act more akin to publishing than letter-writing.
The smell and taste of certain foods have an evocative power; for some, nothing says home like their mother’s cooking, while for others the opposite is true. For Marcel Proust, as he wrote in his book À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past), memories were triggered most famously by sweet madeleines dipped in tea. Food can arouse repeated and constant links between perception and memory, and when photographed, it is likewise transformed into a network of comparable connections and associated symbolic orders. Much like literature, photography is a medium closely woven with desire and longing—a vehicle for memory and a generator of metaphor and symbol. It also describes in the minutest of detail.
The photographs here will hand the viewer a key for coding and decoding society, if one is prepared to take the time to really look. They can celebrate, pervert, inform, and inspire. From the banality of the diner breakfast special captured by Stephen Shore to the allegorically dense still lifes of Laura Letinsky, from Roger Fenton’s elaborate nineteenth-century setups to the cookbooks of the 1960s, food—and how it’s photographed—defines how we live and how we value ourselves, and, at its very best, connects us to our dreams and desires.
Feast For the Eyes, recently published by Aperture, is available in the bookshop at The Photographers’ Gallery.
Susan Bright is a curator and writer. She has authored numerous books including Art Photography Now (Aperture, 2005), Face of Fashion (Aperture, 2007), How We Are: Photographing Britain (2007: coauthored with Val Williams), Auto Focus (2010), and Home Truths: Photography and Motherhood (2013). She co-curated How We Are: Photographing Britain (2007), which was the first major exhibition of British photography at Tate. The exhibition of Home Truths (The Photographers’ Gallery and Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago) was named one of the top exhibitions of 2013/2014 by the Guardian and the Chicago Tribune. She currently lives in Paris.