Flipping through images of the Getty’s Tasteful Pictures exhibit, KCRW’s Evan Kleiman captured the essential puzzle of taking pictures of food.
“We can’t just shut up and eat,” she said to the capacity crowd. “We have to ponder.”
Kleiman joined Artbites’ Maite Gomez-Rejón, photographer Charlie Grosso, and Gastronomica founding editor Darra Goldstein to figure out what so moves us about food captured on film – or by digital camera.
Warts, bumps, fuzz, shine
The earliest food photographs, dating to the mid-19th century, were modeled after the still-life arrangements and hunting scenes of the Dutch masters who painted two centuries earlier, Goldstein explained. One early photographer was the British Roger Fenton. Better known for his shots of the Crimean War, he also excelled at capturing fruit textures – the warts and bumps of a melon, the fuzz on a peach, the shine of a plum – and a sense of abundance. Goldstein said. Gomez-Rejón added that Fenton, as a part of the British Museum photography staff, was eager to elevate photography to the level of fine art.
Another image, Adolphe Braun’s hunting scene, included, as Kleiman said, “everything you need to know about hunting” – the trophy, the rifle. Grosso found the work elitist and concluded, “The conversation is closed. The photographer put a period on it. The hunt is done.” Gomez-Rejón found that, in contrast to paintings of a hunt that showcase a painter’s skill at capturing feathers or fur, the prey here look simply like dead animals. Still, she said, viewers of the image in the 19th century probably marveled that a machine could capture what a human hand could.
Eugene Atget’s 1912 photograph of a Paris market and Walker Evans’ image of a fruit cart evoked for Grosso and Gomez-Rejón a sense of scarcity rather than riches or plenty. Atget captures, Gomez-Rejón said, a type of market that was slowly disappearing in industrializing Paris. Grosso noted that Evans depicts – by placing food in the foreground and a gaunt man in the back – social and economic dynamics of the time.
Later 20th century photography began to capture the sensuality and symbolism of food, the panelists noted. Edward Weston’s 1930 photograph of bananas arranged in a woven basket – “spirals that go around and around” – captures what Goldstein called, to a laugh from the crowd, the “essential banana-ness” of the fruit, along with its mystery. “I don’t even like bananas,” Goldstein admitted. “I have never in my life eaten a whole banana.” Kleiman compared the image to Weston’s nudes, citing the abstraction of both. And as Grosso noted of the bananas, “They’re both phallic and vaginal at the same time.”
For that, Kleiman suggested, Weston perhaps launched the realm of “food porn,” where food appeals to the viewer for its sensuality as well as for its sustenance. But the panelists seemed to agree that most photographs on contemporary food blogs are something else entirely. “For the most part they are not food photography. I think of them as photographs of food,” Goldstein said. “It’s a remove, a distancing from the food.” Kleiman noted that one Chicago chef was considering outlawing photographs in his restaurant because they were “an impediment to people enjoying the meal.”
Not all food photographs are appealing, the panelists observed. Man Ray’s image of a cooked chicken – part of an ad campaign to sell stoves – was not exactly “plump and juicy,” Goldstein said. A coil superimposed atop the dish made Grosso think of hypnosis and Kleiman of a microwave. “I wonder if this sold ovens,” Gomez-Rejón said. “It doesn’t make me want to eat the chicken.”
Weegee, best known for his shots of crime scenes, captured a man carrying bundles of bagels, wearing a coat and tie over his apron. “There’s something about his genuine joviality,” Goldstein said, “that it’s creepy.” A William Eggleston image of a freezer packed with TV dinners and ice cream tubs, Kleiman said might not be recognized as food by a lot of people, even though, she said, “this is the freezer I grew up with, although with a much bigger tub of ice cream.” Goldstein noted that although grubs are often eaten elsewhere in the world, Cindy Sherman’s photo of worms on a plate – set to look like sausages – evokes disgust. And Taryn Simon’s set-up of all items confiscated at customs in JFK over two days – including a pig’s head and maggots – looks like an operating table to Goldstein and Kleiman.
Remember to eat
Like the “What I Ate” Flickr group – totaling 300,000 photographs – some images of food serve to catalogue and order. A Leonard Freed image captures the sheer variety of food in a grocery store, but also the strict rules for consuming it – warnings against shoplifting, urgings to use a basket while shopping. Bill Owens’ picture of a cabinet piled with cookbooks and ingredients gives a sense of “comfort and order,” Kleiman said, and also “a Peeping Tom-type experience.”
“You know how you go into bathrooms and open up the medicine cabinet? When I cater I get to go into people’s kitchens and open every single cupboard,” she said.
The two images that seemed to most move the panelists captured not the meal but its aftermath. Floris Neususs’ “Supper with Heinecken,” by exposing film at different points in a meal, captured the process of a dinner party, Grosso explained. To do it, Gomez-Rejón noted, the diners had to eat their food – spaghetti, grapes, eggs – in the dark. Gomez-Rejón felt a similar sense of richness in a nearly 2,000 year old Roman mosaic, meant to decorate the floor of a dining room, of food scraps: fish heads, lemon peels, melon rinds, shrimp.
“It’s an invitation to have a good time,” Grosso said. “It’s not about being proper.”
*Photos by Sarah Rivera.