A Feast of Historic Food Photography
By Shauna Lyon
With the rise of foodie culture, not to mention the rise of social media, a certain strain of food photography has gone the way of cliché. That doesn’t stop us from ogling a nice, juicy cheeseburger or a hot-pink hibiscus doughnut every once in a while (or several times a day). But a new coffee-table compendium, “Feast for the Eyes: The Story of Food in Photography,” harks back to a time when food was still a fresh subject. The book, with text by the British curator Susan Bright, is a skipping stone through photographic history of many genres—art, cookbook, advertising, journalism—showing food in all its glory, from the simplest egg to the most ornate bride’s cake. What’s more, as seen among the nearly two hundred photographs here, starting with a precisely staged still-life of fruit, by William Henry Fox Talbot, from the eighteen-forties, and continuing through the cheeky D.I.Y. food-journal pictures of the twenty-tens, food and the way it’s shown can be a potent indicator of—or affront to—culture, class, race, religion, and survival itself.
The images in the beginning of the chronology share a formalistic elegance, as the new art form of photography basks in its own novel wonders. Some of the most drop-dead beautiful images in the book were created in the eighteen-hundreds—William Louis Henry Skeen’s exotic fruit with lizard, appearing gilded even in black-and-white; or William Lake Price’s “The First of September, England,” a sepia-toned print of two dead game birds, hanging regally, wings akimbo, from a nail. As printing techniques became more sophisticated, so did artistic inquests. The formal provocations of Paul Strand, in “Still Life, Pear and Bowls,” magnified to otherworldly proportions, from 1916, seem to lead naturally to Man Ray’s probing into the mysteries of electricity, in an outré shot of a turkey as a sci-fi bull’s eye, from 1931.
Food takes on political meaning in Russell Lee’s documentary pictures of families eating humble meals of biscuits and beans at the beginning of the Second World War. A handsome photograph of two black, male college students, studying at a whites-only lunch counter while two white waitresses refuse to serve them, by an unidentified photographer, from 1960, carries a calm fury that resonates as if it were taken yesterday. A still from “Meat Joy,” the film by Carolee Schneemann, from 1964, gleefully captures the beginnings of a decades-long feminist struggle to flout conventional views of women as kitchen-keepers; the image, which shows its subjects rolling around on the floor with raw chickens and fish, makes perfectly clear that these women in their prime would rather make art than cook for any man or child waiting at the table.
As you flip through the book, questions arise. Why does Edward Weston’s iconic pepper, shiny, curvaceous, downright sensual, still require a double take to make sure it’s not actually a curled-up nude woman? What right-minded person would (even in desperation) find appropriate guidance in the Weight Watchers recipe cards from the seventies, which include Fluffy Mackerel Pudding (topped with hard-boiled eggs), a putty-colored Melon Mousse, and a tomato-cabbage-asparagus concoction called Inspiration Soup? In Fischli and Weiss’s “Fashion Show,” from 1979, part of the Swiss duo’s “Sausage Series,” five little wurst try on capes, skirts, and dresses made of their meat-product brethren, while a long-haired, red-belted beauty takes center stage—fashionable wieners looking just as bemused as anyone else who might be wondering, What’s the point?
If all you really want is luscious food, that’s here, too. For McCall’s, in the nineteen-forties, Nickolas Muray shot exuberant postwar tableaux that seem to insist on both order and abundance, grape-orange-strawberry fans and bacon-egg biscuits arranged just so. These were a precursor to the true bounty and joviality of the fifties, at least in the way that Betty Crocker cookbooks suggested it should be. In the seventies, Irving Penn made clean, bright color-block pictures that would surely get thousands of Instagram likes today. That was years before the beloved Gourmet covers came along to make you weep from the gorgeousness, a tradition referenced, in the twenty-tens, in Laura Letinsky’s modern-day twists on Renaissance paintings—ripe peaches, grapes, or cantaloupe strewn about a white tablecloth, remnants of a feast for some unwittingly lucky gluttons. Look at those luscious things. You could just eat them up.