Think of food photography and chances are your next thought will be something you saw on Instagram – perhaps a stacked burger or a magnificent shakshuka. Photos of food are as ubiquitous as the phones we carry and the meals we eat. Restaurant meals – perhaps you remember those – in particular, but also a beautiful plate of food created at home, something we’re particularly proud of. Snap, it’s shared with the world on Instagram before we tuck in.
But our interest in looking at food didn’t start there, and a new exhibit wants us to consider the ways in which we have consumed those images over the centuries.
Susan Bright and Denise Wolff have both always had a keen interest in food photography. They started chatting on a New York sidewalk about this shared interest after attending an event, separately and a connection was made.
The connection led to a massive years-long project that resulted in the book Feast for the Eyes: The Story of Food in Photography, written by Bright and commissioned and edited by Wolff. That led to an exhibition co-curated by the two women – because why not see these magnificent photos all blown up on museum walls?
Feast for the Eyes, the exhibition, is now installed at the Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver, B.C. – a year after it was initially supposed to be here. The exhibition examines food photography as fine art, but also in cookbooks, journalism, advertising and other commercial pursuits. (Not, however, on social media.)
It is a welcome bit of artistic respite during a pandemic – and maybe even inspiration to anyone who is sick to death of cooking.
Food has played such a huge role in this past year as one of the few things we could throw ourselves into – its preparation, its consumption. And it’s hard not to view the exhibition through this lens.
“I’ve been … looking at the show in a completely different way now,” the Polygon’s director Reid Shier says. “What it was before pandemic, what it is now.”
The early elevation of photography to fine art comes with some particularly fascinating stories, told in the exhibition’s first section, Still Life. Roger Fenton is known mostly for his pioneering Crimean War photography. In the postwar period, perhaps as an antidote to the horrors he witnessed on the battlefield, he created works such as the placid still-life photographs of fruit and tankards exhibited in this show. Fruit with Ivory and Silver Tankard and Ivory Tankard and Fruit – complex, textured delights – were both made circa 1860.
Then there is Charles Jones, born in 1866 and a gardener to the gentry in Sussex, England – and completely unrecognized as a photographer in his lifetime. His magnificent circa 1900 photographs of Brussels sprouts, lettuce, peas and leeks elevate the vegetables to art and give us an idea of the pride this man must have felt about the produce he grew. The photos were among a treasure trove of gold-toned gelatin-silver prints discovered at a London street market in the 1980s, long after Jones’s death in 1959. No negatives remain; they were used as makeshift cloches to protect growing vegetables from frost.
Food is about so much more than fuel for our bodies. It is about sustenance on many other levels; it is about family, community. And it can be very political. Feast for the Eyes examines food photography through the lens of sexual, gender and race politics as well as geopolitical concerns. There’s a lot more cooking here than the food in the pictures.
“Sometimes it takes the simplest subject matter to get at essential conversations,” Shier says.
The French photographer JR created a cross-border picnic party in October, 2017, half in the United States, half in Mexico, with the table separated by the border. A photograph of the event, taken from above, shows that the tabletop is adorned with the eyes of a Dreamer – a young migrant to the U.S. – one eye in each country.
Gender politics is a central theme in this exhibition, with work challenging the once-held idea that a woman’s place was in the kitchen. Martha Rosler’s video Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), features Rosler going through a list of kitchen implements alphabetically – but no actual food. Her exasperated parody of cooking shows is a protest and seminal work of feminist art.
The food-sex continuum is very much on display here. Some of the works are blatantly vaginal, including the oysters in Hannah Collins’s Sex 2, Plural/Wet (1992) and the pastries in Jo Ann Callis’s 1994 Forbidden Pleasures series. Carolee Schneemann’s 1964 film Meat Joy, NYC is food porn taken to a literal level, depicting a bacchanal of scantily clad participants and raw meat.
A sloppy cheeseburger is positioned in front of the crotch of a shirtless man’s jeans in Grant Cornett’s Sexy Sliders (2016). In a 1981 image shot by Guy Bourdin for Vogue Paris, two women lustily feed each other sausages.
In Hank Willis Thomas’s You’ll Never Guess Our Deep, Dark, Delicious Secret (1984/2015), a white woman who has taken a bite out of a chocolate pudding pop holds a finger to her lips. Shhhh. This is an image – originally an ad with that text – about sex and race.
Race is an important theme in this show. One particularly powerful photograph shows two Black men sitting at a whites-only lunch counter in the 1960s civil rights era, while two white waitresses sit on the other side of the counter, refusing to serve them. The men are reading. The women are giving them the evil eye; one has a cigarette in her hand.
When I saw the exhibition, just before it opened to the public, a selection of mass-produced free “cookbooklets” included one from the Aunt Jemima brand. I asked Shier about it, and while he initially talked about the importance of calling attention to stereotypes that have taken too long to correct, he texted me a little later to say that the photo of Aunt Jemima was no longer in the show. He had turned it to face the wall, so that its presence is still felt, but the visitor does not have to confront the racist image.
When I spoke to Bright and Wolff the next day, I told them how jarring it had been to see that image in the show.
“I personally think it should be jarring,” said Bright, noting that was the point of many of the images in the show – all contextualized with the wall captions. “Actually, an exhibition should be challenging, and it is a challenging exhibition in lots of ways.”
You might go into this show thinking that you’ll leave hungry. I did not. I left, if anything, with my stomach churning, a little disgusted with food – and the machinery behind promoting it.
Also with the commercial nature of art, as critiqued by Vik Muniz’s Double Mona Lisa, After Warhol (Peanut Butter + Jelly), 1999. Two images of the Mona Lisa comprise this work – one made with peanut butter, the other with jelly. It’s whimsical, sure, but its critical message about the artistic canon – what becomes iconic, and why? – stuck with me.
I was spectacularly grossed out by the series of Weight Watchers recipe cards from the 1970s, with impossibly styled photos of dishes like Fluffy Mackerel Pudding and Crown Roast of Frankfurters. Sorry, but yuck. The instructions on these cards involved the preparation of these monstrosities, but the message was something else: follow these impossible recipes and you too can achieve an impossible waistline.
The cards are installed across the room from Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #175 (1987), a grotesque critique of the messaging around food to women and the complicated relationship many have with it as a result. Women should be able to prepare all of this food! And enjoy eating it! And also have a perfect beach body! Sherman’s distressed image is reflected through the lens of a pair of sunglasses, overturned on a beach towel, surrounded by unappetizing food and what looks like a pile of vomit. This woman has been consumed by the messaging around consumption. This image is disturbing, nauseating. All these things that looked so beautiful in the other photos in this show appear here in a different light. What are they trying to tell us? What are they trying to sell us?
An online curators talk with Susan Bright and Denise Wolff happens Saturday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. PT, as part of the Capture Photography Festival.