FEAST FOR THE EYES: Curator Susan Bright, in conversation with Bernard Hay
Feast for the Eyes: The Story of Food in Photography is published by Aperture (June 2017)
"Because of my interest in cookbooks, commercial photography, vernacular photography and art photography, I really wanted this to be represented in Feast for the Eyes. Photography is a very discursive medium that cuts across many areas, and food touches on all parts of our lives. This needed to be represented as it’s crucial to the story of how food is photographed, what it means, and what it says about us in society and our relationship to it. To not include all the different ways food has been photographed would have been very partial."
Feast for the Eyes: The Story of Food in Photography is the latest project by curator and writer Susan Bright. Known for highly acclaimed exhibitions, including Home Truths: Photography and Motherhood and How We Are: Photographing Britain, Susan’s work explores the medium of photography through a range of human lenses, be they social history, national identity or personal experience. Her most recent book also focuses on an all-too-human topic: the history of food in photography.
Spanning the history of photography from the 1840s to the present day, Bright’s book seamlessly juxtaposes images by artists like Man Ray and Cindy Sherman with commercial photography and recipe books. At the heart of this project is an attempt to show the ways in which representations of food reveal social histories and fantasies. As Bright puts it in her introduction: “photographs of food are rarely just about food."
In preparing for this interview, I came across numerous articles about this photobook. Some reviewers described it as a coffee-table necessity, whereas others treated it as an art-historical treatise. Part of its joy comes from the way it spans the two worlds of art and the everyday so seamlessly, in much the same way as its subject matter. Food is a subject on all sides of the photographic spectrum: at the time of writing this, there are over 229 million images of food on Instagram, and artists like Wolfgang Tillmans are exhibiting photographs of food in London’s national galleries. Equally, food itself has an ambivalent cultural status: at once a necessity for survival and, for many, a refined pleasure, the meanings of food are often elusive and difficult to pin down.
What can photography teach us about food? And what can photographs of food reveal about us? These were the questions with which I approached Feast for the Eyes.
What first interested you in creating Feast for the Eyes and why did you choose to explore photography across such a wide range of contexts?
My interest in photographs of food comes from two distinct moments in my life. Firstly, I was living in London during the 1990s and experienced firsthand the explosion of “foodie” culture and London having a particular cultural moment. Food was as much part of this as music and fashion. Restaurants and chefs were rock stars in their own right. It was also a time where I was teaching myself to cook properly, so like many of my generation I turned to a new wave of cookbooks including the River Café series and books by Nigel Slater. These not only have delicious recipes (which I still use) but looked different from cookbooks of the past. They were dynamic and easy to follow in a way a photobook is. They told a story. They were documentary in flavor and didn’t just show the food, but the way it was cooked and the cooks themselves. They were books you wanted to spend time with outside of reading the recipes. I later learnt that one reason this change in approach happened in publishing was due to the rise of food blogs on the internet and the fact that publishing houses had to present cookbooks in a different way in order to appeal. They had to up their game. These books were very exciting and felt very much of the moment, mixing black and white and color photographs.
Secondly, in 2007 I co-curated an exhibition at Tate Britain with Val Williams called How We Are: Photographing Britain. In this we included a Good Housekeeping cookbook from 1968. We wanted to show it as social history rather than purely instructional. It was such a treasure trove of information in the same way that the Betty Crocker books are in the US and the series of Healthy and Tasty Food was in Russia of a similar time. These books are representations of a country, its aspirations and how it wants to present itself to the outside world. The Good Housekeeping book said a lot about how the UK saw itself as becoming more international with the inclusion of “Ceylon curry” (which represented a recent wave of immigration from Southeast Asia a the time) and Scandinavian salads illustrating the rise of package holidays and the rise of holidays spent abroad rather than at home. The colors are wonderful, the tableaux ornate and decorative and it really is a wonderful book. This really opened my eyes to seeing cookery books as social history. It also was a fantasy, many of the ingredients were hard to come by and the recipes very long winded. They were aimed at women in the home, but how useful a book like this really would have been I don’t know. I think it made women feel inadequate rather than inspired.
Because of my interest in cookbooks, commercial photography, vernacular photography and art photography, I really wanted this to be represented in Feast for the Eyes. Photography is a very discursive medium that cuts across many areas, and food touches on all parts of our lives. This needed to be represented as it’s crucial to the story of how food is photographed, what it means, and what it says about us in society and our relationship to it. To not include all the different ways food has been photographed would have been very partial.
Because food is so closely linked to desire and need, it has often been treated as a counterpoint to art in the history of aesthetics. In your book, you note that early photographers used food as a subject to give their photographs the status of “art.” Why did they choose food as their material for this? And how did photography later give us a unique perspective on food, unlike other art-forms such as painting?
Food has always had a place in still life painting. It has come to represent so many things and has taken on symbolic meaning in all cultures. It makes sense that it is a central ingredient to still life. It is so rich and meaningful to everyone—therefore it has had a literal as well as a symbolic and metaphorical place in the history of painting for centuries. Photography, in its early years, suffered from a huge identity crisis and did not know its place. One of the joys of the medium for me is that it has no place—it slips and slides into all aspects of visual culture. However, the early Victorian pioneers tirelessly worked to have it understood as art. In order to do this they copied painting and with that the dominant genres and their legacy. Of course still life is one of these.
In photography though, there are subtle and important differences to note. Where texture of food can be easily represented in paint, that is not so possible in photography, so Victorian still lifes by pioneers such as Roger Fenton relied upon fruit of different textures to illustrate depth. A pineapple will often sit next to a peach for example. They still held their symbolic meanings until Modernism was able to strip those away and rely on aesthetics more than meaning (worth noting here is the gardener and amateur Charles Jones who also did this in his lush still lifes of fruit and vegetables at the turn of the twentieth century). There are other oddities specific to photography and food. For example, eggs feature heavily in the way that food has been photographed as still life. This is not the case in painting. An egg is incredibly hard to photograph well—it shows the skill of a photographer to include one.
Photography can also be used for advertising in a way that paint can’t. This is the most obvious way photographing food (and brands) can offer something wholly different from other art forms.
One of your main arguments is that food photography is a vehicle for fantasy. Today Instagram is one of the main platforms for images of food, with millions of images of avocado on toast and symmetrical breakfasts uploaded every day. Why are so many people sharing these? And did you find any dominant fantasies in food photography online while writing this book?
I think this leads on from food being used in advertising—a vehicle which functions purely on fantasy and desire. Instagram operates in a similar way. The popular argument goes that on Instagram, you don’t portray yourself; you paint a desirable persona—you sell yourself in a way. You show yourself how you want others to see you. Food of course is a shortcut to this. A $12 ice cream says you are wealthy enough to afford that and have the time off to eat it. Home baking shows off your domestic skills, healthy juices show you care about your body. But this is not the only reason why people share their food—the reasons are complex and plentiful just as people’s relationship to food is. I think it’s too easy to lump it all together as a kind of narcissistic showing off. This happens of course, but there are also lots of other examples—the most poignant being peer groups that have found each other to deal with eating disorders and body issues.
Regarding dominant fantasies that are being photographed they are all there! It really is whatever floats your boat—delicious cakes, kale juice, vegan diets, bad baking, kids food, family dinners or extravagant sandwiches. You can find whatever you are into.
Food has been a major subject for many feminist artists including Cindy Sherman, Carolee Schneeman and Sarah Lucas. How did these artists challenge the gender stereotypes that dominated earlier food photography and cook books?
Food is gendered. Whatever way you look at it stereotypes and associations abound. The best chefs are male; a woman’s place is in the home. These “truisms” may sound outdated and clichéd but they infiltrate domestic politics, professional ambitions and sales of books and almost everything. It is well documented that women still do most of the heavy lifting in the home, and this includes the drudgery of cooking dinner for the family every night (and the associated cooking and washing up). Feminist artists like those you mention above turn to food to highlight these issues. With Sarah Lucas, it’s taking the derogatory implications of food names and the female body and subverting them. Fried eggs, fish, kebabs, chickens, bananas are all stripped of any sexist connotations and reclaimed. Photography is the medium in which we understand food to some extent so it is the obvious medium for many artists. It is also representational so it has the ability to get over political messages fast and clearly.
Images of food were powerful tools of propaganda, often suggesting excess and modernity in times of food scarcity. Why were images of food, such as those in Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook, such powerful devices for this? And do you see any equivalents in today’s food-image-saturated world?
Betty Crocker perfectly represented its time as I have suggested above. It was aimed at young brides who were setting up home. They were expected to give up their jobs and make their world a domestic one centering around their husbands and soon to be children. This coincided with the growth of malls, an increase in branded food, a coming out the war and an establishing of a strong American identity and before the women’s movement really took hold. The pictures of abundance were showing America to be wealthy and forward looking. It was an America that was modern, plentiful and colorful. Of course the reality was something very different for most people. It was propaganda aimed at selling a brand.
It’s a very different world now as our tastes have shifted so significantly. Not so seduced by brands or packaged shortcuts, cookbooks have a very different function. But I would argue that all cookbooks trade in stereotypes and fantasies to some extent. Cookbooks such as Jamie Oliver’s 15 Minute Meals is a good example. The opening pages are a large double-page spread of Instagram-styled snapshots of his family. It’s a happy family of course, with his wife at the center. Even before you get to the recipes it’s subliminally showing itself as a book for busy mums with families—all brought to you by a dad. Recent books on Scandinavian cooking are another example. I was looking at one recently where the recipe called for fish to be buried in seaweed. This is never going to happen—but it allows the reader to dream of a life where they might live by the sea and be connected to the earth in the way they may not be in their current lives.
Artists such as Fischelli & Weiss and Faller and Frampton used food as a comedic device. How did these artists explore the relationship between food and humour, and what did they aim to achieve through their work?
Fischelli & Weiss and Faller and Frampton are very different types of artists. The former use food as a device for their childlike investigations into the fantastical and absurd. Faller and Frampton directly reference and ridicule the objectivity of photography by mimicking Eadweard Muybridge’s early experimental investigations into photography and movement. However, where they are similar is that they both produced their series in the book during the 1970s and use food to mock the seriousness of much of conceptual art of the time.
It’s interesting that in the early stages of photography food was used to elevate its status to art whereas here it’s been used to criticize that seriousness. Why was food an appropriate tool to challenge art’s “high” status?
There is an inherent ridiculous quality to some food and these artists both managed to capture that. The sausage in the case of Fischelli & Weiss and an abundance of vegetables with Marion Faller and Hollis Frampton. It’s also interesting to note that photography always wanted to elevate its status to art, but here both artists use photography because of its lowly status and ability to reproduce itself and be used in series rather than as a one off “art piece.” They are perfect bedfellows for critique at this time. It must be remembered that conceptual art of the 1970s came after some pomposity of Abstract Expressionism and followed in the wake of Pop (where you can also find examples of food—most notably in the soup cans by Andy Warhol of course). Both food and photography offered a way of challenging hierarchies of high and low culture.
When so many people live fast-paced lives, it is easy to forget the pleasures of cooking and eating. In your view, which photographers best capture the pleasure that food can bring? And what do they reveal this to be?
I think the best photographs which capture the pleasures of cooking and eating can be found in the plethora of independent food journals at the moment. There is such a rich array out there at the moment and the photography is exceptional. These include Gather, Luncheon, Lucky Peach, Put A Egg on It, Alla Carta, to name a few. They really take food seriously and the joys of eating, ritual and cooking. They are exuberant, cool, clever and fun. The food doesn’t always look delicious but that is kind of fun too. It’s about the whole culture and what food means in that mix. Still life has often played second fiddle to the glamour of excitement of fashion photography and these journals are changing that. I can’t get enough of them!
I also think the artist Laura Letinsky manage to exquisitely capture the pleasures of cooking and eating, ritual and conviviality. Her meticulous still lifes of the 1990s and early 2000s are influenced by seventeenth century painting and later masters and focus on the remains of the day. The togetherness of family or a gathering of friends is is out of the frame or just passed. There is a latent desire in them and they come from a place of intimacy, love and tenderness. What makes her so smart as an artist is that she realizes that this lifestyle is also inherent in commercial food imaging which she also critiques as well as being seduced by. Her more recent work addresses how food has been imaged, imagined and consumed. Our relationship to food and how it is represented in the culture at large, what it stands for, and the role of photographing this lies at the heart of her work.