Why We’ve Always Been Obsessed With Photographing Our Food

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Feast for the Eyes-06
Lemonade and Fruit Salad, McCall’s magazine, ca. 1943Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives, Courtesy George Eastman Museum, gift of Mrs. Nickolas Muray

From Cindy Sherman to Martin Parr, photographs of food reveal bigger ideas about the way we live our lives, as a beautiful new book from Aperture demonstrates

When photographing food, nudging a condiment into frame or omitting an unseemly serving dish is nothing new. For as long as we’ve taken photographs, we’ve captured what we eat with artifice. Reading Feast For the Eyes: The Story of Food in Photography, a fascinating new Aperture-published book surveying the history of food through a lens, it’s something of a relief to learn that we are not the only generation to suffer the self-conscious indignity of rearranging cutlery for aesthetic reasons.

Beneath a bright butter-coloured cover, pictures by Man Ray, Sophie Calle, Stephen Shore, Cindy Sherman, Martin Parr, Wolfgang Tillmans and Nobuyoshi Araki jostle with Betty Crocker’s Baked Alaska, fashion editorials and wartime propaganda on the power of eggs. Photographs spanning from the 19th century until now – the age of eating with a smartphone at your elbow – show that what we eat is entangled with ideas about ritual, money, gender, control and leisure.

“Food is not only about literal taste,” writes Susan Bright, the book’s author, “but also Taste with a capital T – both the lifestyles we aspire to and the building blocks of culture itself… Like art, cookbooks also tell us about the values of their time, and are no less rich in symbolism and connotation… They are carriers for all kinds of fantasies.” Here, Bright talks us through some of Feast For the Eyes’ most striking images.

On autochrome and eggs…
“I think we forget that early photographic processes were so fragile and time-consuming it took great skill,” Susan writes in Feast For the Eyes. Elaborating over email: “The egg is particularly interesting; it has such a vibrant yellow, which was very difficult to achieve. Schohin was a master of the autochrome, a magical, short-lived colour process adopted by ‘avant-garde’ photographers like Edward Steichen and Baron de Meyer. A few years later most photographers had moved away from it.”

On garish tableaux in the interwar years...
“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 [Nikolas] Muray’s photographs, the almost Technicolour results of the three-colour carbro process became a staple of American lifestyle and fashion magazines from the late 1940s into the 1950s… This is not food to eat, but food to be looked at and dreamed about.”

On roadtrip eating…
“Stephen Shore took his famous picture of breakfast on a roadtrip across America in the early 1970s… By presenting his meals in situ, they are more aligned with how food actually looks… Shore represents an America on the move, through food that you’ll experience once you get out of your car. These pictures capture the romance and fantasy of the roadtrip.”

On tension at the table…
“This is really an incredible image. Food and ritual is a crucial part of photographing food; ritual often includes food on a table and people around it. What Callis’ picture does is confuse that. There is not a narrative that makes complete sense here – who are the people? What they eating? Why are they together? What meal is it? There is tension and awkwardness.”

On aesthetic trends...
“Sexual references have been ingrained in the representation of food from early still-life paintings onward – and the more luscious the food, the stronger its associations with memory, desire, and imagination. Colourscapes is very specific to Araki’s aesthetic, though. If anything this book showed me that ‘nothing is new’.”

On longing for a lifestyle...
When you look at the very best photographs, you want not only the food, but also the tableware and cutlery. You crave the feeling of comfort that comes from knowing somebody has taken the trouble to bake you a cake, or pick you gorgeous peaches. “Letinsky understands that commercial photography suggests a lifestyle, and her work takes that latent desire and transposes it to fine art. It’s not a critique of that desire, but an acute understanding. This piece is more concentrated on the patina of life, what is outside the frame and the history and symbolism of still-life.”

Feast for the Eyes: The Story of Food in Photography by Susan Bright, is out now published by Aperture.