January – February 1994

With the invention of photography in 1839 food found itself before the camera’s lens. Occasional still lifes of food and photographs of people eating and drinking appear among the many portraits and architectural views made during photography’s first decade. A copy of Humbert de Molard’s 1846 calotype, “Men dressing a hog,” is the earliest photograph in the exhibition. It is obviously posed, a sort of tableau vivant, reflecting both a painterly style and the long exposure that was required.

As cameras became more portable and lenses and emulsions faster or more light-sensitive, a journalistic approach to food began to emerge. Carlo Naya’s “Donkey drivers,” made in 1876, shows boys who, having stopped to eat, seem to have been stumbled upon by a Western photographer looking for an exotic subject. Naya probably posed his subjects, but his exposure time was likely to have been much less than Humbert de Molard’s, and the effect is more journalistic than painterly. A.C. Vroman’s image of Hopis eating a mid-day meal (1901) looks completely unposed. The slight blurring in the boy’s surprised glance suggests that he was suddenly and unexpectedly confronted by the camera.

The journalistic approach to food and eating occurs repeatedly in Twentieth Century photography. Nothing illustrates the human condition more clearly than the interrelationship of people and food immutably fixed in the still photograph. To understand, one need only examine two powerful images: Willy Georg’s photograph made in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941, and Cartier-Bresson’s 1938 picnic on the banks of the Marne.

Food frequently appears in fashion and art photography. Sometimes it may be used simply as a prop. Irving Penn photographed two models casually lounging over lunch (1950). Though their lunch is in the very center of the photography, the eye focuses on the models because of their striking poses. On other occasions, food may be the focal point, if not the actual subject, such as the frozen foods in Penn’s 1977 photography. The fish add a surreal element in Diana Blok’s “Portrait of my father and mother, 1987,” while the food Larry Pine is shoveling into this mouth during a theatrical production is both repellent and fascinating as captured by Richard Avedon (1970).

The development of color photography and sophisticated methods for reproducing color photographs in books and periodicals led to its widespread use in cookbooks and advertising. The studio photographer who illustrates cookbooks, food magazines and advertising, produces realistic or even idealistic treatments. Jack Richmond’s lobster suspended over a steaming pot is artifice, the ideal that could only be achieved in a studio. But it is the very lobster we want to see emerge from our kitchens, that makes us want to buy the cookbook it illustrates or eat in the restaurant that it advertises.

From a few laboriously produced still lifes, food became a subject, and sometimes a specialty, for many photographers. Today, like other photographic genres, food photography is omnipresent, often taken for granted and only as far away as the nearest library, bookstore or newsstand.

This exhibition was prepared by Kathy Wachel, Rijn Templeton, Cynthea Mosier, and Jody Beek.