The Internet, it's said, is a place where people go to talk about what they had for lunch. Increasingly, however, they are skipping the part with all the fiddly words, and simply posting a picture instead.
It's getting so that an unsuspecting web-surfer can't click a link on a Sunday morning without finding himself staring at a plate of somebody's hash browns. Sundays are the worst, of course, because the brunching hour strikes. It's the languid day when life is to be savoured, and in 2012, “savouring life” means taking a picture of it and posting it online.
It is time that we had a talk about taking photos of our food. The act isn't merely an extension of this documentary compulsion; it's a phenomenon unto itself. Dishes parade across the social networks like the stars of a drive-in concession commercial: Stacks of pancakes; pork served however you like; Eggs Whatnot; wine bottles and smudgy wine glasses. Things people stewed. Things people fried. Things people ate. Sure enough, there's a group on Flickr, the photo-sharing site, entitled “I ate this.” People have contributed more than 400,000 photos of things they ate. People do eat a lot of things.
The sense that something here is systematically amiss crystallized in my head the evening that a genuinely smart, charming fellow I know on Twitter posted a photo of a piece of crumby, leftover cake in the bottom of a box, which, he announced, he would soon be eating. I clicked, on the premise that this smart, charming fellow typically posts smart, charming things. But lo, it was a crumby piece of cake in the bottom of the box. It's as if the voice of compassionate self-editing that asks, “could this image possibly be of interest to the general population?” goes mute when confronted with something edible.
It's easy to assume that food is an inherently interesting subject. Eating is about as close to a universal hobby as we have, barring sex (there may be photos of this online, too). But the fact that almost everyone likes to eat does not mean that almost everyone wants to look at pictures of food. It's true that there's a lot to be said for synesthesia, but one's eyeballs are less likely to trigger a multisensory fantasy of eating a steak, when said steak is pictured through a grubby BlackBerry lens.
Food isn't just sustenance; it's edible status. Photographing food is, in the most literal sense, conspicuous consumption. “Look at this nice-looking thing!” says the food photographer. “Someone put a lot of effort into making it look just so. Guess what I'm going to do with it now?”
Food presentation is an ephemeral art; that's the whole point. The desire to capture that perfection before it gets mangled with a fork and eaten. But that's trying to have your cake and tweet it. It might be more to the point to enjoy your lunch.
Yet food, photographed rotely, is also incredibly, biologically mundane. It is the stuff of life in a very prosaic way. It is about to become part of my body. No matter how nicely arranged those banana slices and pancakes are, within minutes, they're going to be sloshing around inside my gut in a digestive process that will make them one with my life-force, and possibly my hips. You might see a lovely presentation, but as the food pictures course by, they start to look as indistinguishable as lumps of dog food.
Compulsive meal photography takes something that's tasty and turns it into something dreary. This is a particular vexation for me as someone who's spent years defending the social Web against charges of being boring because people use it to talk about “what they had for lunch.” I've long taken the position that even simple observations about the day can make great starting points for bigger conversations.
But simple observations need to earn their keep. They should add something to the conversation. Food isn't exempt from the standards of reasonable interesting-ness that govern other subjects. Maybe this is a rack of lamb of uncommon beauty. Maybe this is a wedding cake of incredible intricacy. Maybe you yourself have cooked something you're truly proud of and want to share. This makes sense.
But there exists a compulsion to point your camera at any foodstuff that arrives at your table because you're hungry and, on some level, pleased with yourself for having made it to a restaurant. Far too often, people think food is interesting simply because it's food.
So, I beg of you: Stop tweeting your food. Stop Facebooking your food. Stop Instagramming your food with a vintage-yellow filter, so it looks like it's been solidifying in a display case since 1981. You'll be doing a favour for both the food photography that comes with purpose, and for the rest of us, adrift on this sea of indistinguishable cupcakes, shortbreads and omelettes. Brunches, brunches everywhere, and nary a bite to eat.