The next time you’re fussing to style a smoothie bowl photogenically for Instagram, think of William Henry Talbot. As inventor of the salted paper and calotype processes—precursors to photographic methods—Talbot amassed heaps of fruit as his subject matter in hopes his images would evoke European still life paintings; considered definitive high art. Styles have changed, but food photography’s ability to indicate cultural values has remained consistent—like Talbot’s fruits, your smoothie pic conveys the artistic ideals of the moment it was taken.
That power food photography has to contextualize the collective mindset of an era is the focus of Feast for the Eyes: The Story of Food in Photography. The 300-image survey of the Western history of food in pictures, from Talbot to the 21st century, was released by author Susan Bright and Aperture Publishing this June. “I’m interested in why photographs look like they do and what they might show us about our values and our culture,” says Bright of the project.
Bright’s interest in food photography has been developing since the nineties when she became intrigued by London’s foodie culture boom and appearance of zeitgeist-defining, photography-forward new cookbooks like Nigel Slater’s Real Food and Rose Gray’s The River Café Cookbook. In 2007, Bright co-curated an exhibit on the history of British photography at Tate Britain, which emphasized cookbooks as “social documents of our time rather than purely instructional.”
Styles have changed, but food photography’s ability to indicate cultural values has remained consistent.
In Feast for the Eyes, Bright delves deep into her subject, interpreting, for instance, the elaborate 1930s tableaux of staged food photographed by Nickolas Muray and postcards featuring comically oversized eggs and fish by William H. Martin as artefacts reflective of an obsession with Americans’ bountiful, idealized, post-New Deal sense of self. Bright continues through time, leading readers to the genesis of the “looking down onto a tabletop” shot, pioneered by Dr. Arthur Traube, whose cookie pictures were “utterly modern and different” when published, to the racial stereotypes promoted by cookbooklets from brands like Aunt Jemima, and the sexist “atomic age” of Betty Crocker’s lurid, lavish spreads.
Bright looks to food’s gradual incorporation into fashion and art photography as well, noting the significance of raw meat—and unconventional prop—appearing in Helmut Newton’s 1974 Cure for a Black Eye, smashed red fruit in Nobuyoshi Araki’s provocative Untitled (Watermelon) from 1991, and discarded rinds and pits in contemporary Canadian photographer Laura Letinsky’s still lifes. Throughout the book, Bright finds beauty in unexpected places—from the elaborate colour-coordination of sixties-era Weight Watchers recipe cards to early examples of the now-ubiquitous, minimalist, design-inspired food photography style featuring geometric forms on pastel in the IKEA cookbook, Hembakat är Bäst.
“Fashions change, and things date very quickly,” says Bright. “I am sure in 20 years’ time we will all be laughing at all this avocado toast sold to us by young thin women with ‘natural’ styling with short depth of field.” Yet Feast for the Eyes effectively illustrates that while food styling trends may come and go, the pictures we take of our food always connect us to a sense of meaning and identity and that there is a certain poignancy in examining sustenance from new perspectives.
All photos from Feast for the Eyes by Susan Bright, (Aperture, 2017).
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