Ugly. Pretty. Food Art.
Take a look at your Instagram feed. Chances are at least 60% of your friends’ post feature (ahem, brag about) their latest meal. Whether #avocadotoast or #meatlessmonday, food photography is as popular as selfies and there is no denying it.
As banal as these quick snaps might seem, they are an immediate reflection of ourselves. These sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly snapshots are blatantly rooted in culture – an instant expression of our attitudes towards food. Though its history is short, food photography lies at the intersection of aesthetics, art, and popular culture. Let’s dive in!
If you look back at the 17th century still life paintings, when food painting became its own genre, ordinary objects, and in particular food, stands out as the secular subject matter of the time. Bowls full of food set against a dark background are the direct opposite of the highly regarded paintings of religious scenes that gained popularity amongst the elite. These paintings nonetheless are full of contradictions. Take for example Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit- an ordinary wicker basket overflowing with perfectly positioned, rotting fruit. The subject matter couldn’t be humbler, more realistic verging on grotesque, yet it is painted with the uttermost detail. It is simultaneously beautiful and UGLY.
1. Still Life with Carp - Edourd Manet 1864
2. Gentl and Hyers - Lummi Island 2015
3. Gentl and Hyers 2015
4. Basket of Fruit - Caravaggio c. 1599
This style made a comeback in the late ought’s[MF1] . With the “Farm to Table” movement and The Great Recession, a desire to eat local, home-cooking gained popularity. From 2008-2009 food bloggers became the key drivers of food aesthetics – remember when Food52 was simply a crowd source community cookbook? Fueled by social media, anybody could chime into the conversation, developing an aesthetic that soon began to feel homogenous and eventually adopted by everybody in the food world. Whitewashed backdrops, linen napkins, and antique flatware, became the props of choice. Though seemingly natural, each shot was meticulously stylized to convey a laissez-faire, haphazard look and feel. Every crumb, spill, and splatter was carefully placed to convey an emotional connection to the one looking. Messy is beautiful.
Contemporary food photographers are now pushing for a new aesthetic, one that is less haphazard and more intentional. It comes closer in style to that of the fifties: 45-degree camera angles, over-the-top stylizing, and super saturated, almost technicolor shots. This new, yet familiar style, embraces the ugly as much as it embraces the polished. It lives somewhere in between the super natural and the super artificial -a dichotomy that continues to drive our fascination with food and the representation of it.
Take for example the work of Mauricio Cattelan & Pierpaolo Ferrari. The subject matter of The Joy of Looking (neon pink Jello and langoustines) and the selection of props is purposely referential to the style of the 1950’s. The composition, nonetheless, feels fresh and whimsical. A theatrical stage set narrating a playful story about entertaining with food. These photographers are not trying to sell you a product or inspire you to cook. Instead, they are using food as art in a way that is terrifying and beautiful, unappetizing yet playful and visceral.
1. Lima Beans in Jello - Woman's Day Encyclopedia of Cookery 1974
2. Mauricio Cattelan & Pierpaolo Ferrari - The Art of Looking, NYT 2015
3. Gentl and Hyers "A Grandmother's secret Turmeric Prescription" NYT Magazine 2017
4. Henry Hargreaves - Celebrated for you 2016
5. Mauricio Cattelan & Pierpaolo Ferrari - Toilet Paper Magazine 2012
With this new trend, one can only wonder: are entering a neo post-modernism in food photography? Is food photography more of an art form and less a mechanism for selling food? But then again, since food is a democratic part of our daily life (we all have to eat to survive), food photography will forever be different from other visual art forms. While we aspire to make it beautiful, we end up humanizing it just enough to remind us that at the end of the day, it is not that precious after all.