Lunch and Other Distractions: On Susan Bright’s Pictorial History of Food Photography

By Geoff NicholsonJune 30, 2017

Lunch and Other Distractions: On Susan Bright’s Pictorial History of Food Photography

Feast for the Eyes by Susan Bright

I ONCE BOUGHT lunch for the great English photographer Martin Parr. This is not, or at least not only, a name-dropping boast. We ate at the Pizza Express in Bristol, England. I was there interviewing him for a magazine, and although I’d been told to take a few snapshots to accompany the article, it never even occurred to me to photograph him while he was eating. Even less did it occur to me to photograph what we ate. If this happened today, I’m absolutely sure I’d try to do both. I like to think he would too.

That lunch took place in 2002, so it’s not quite ancient history. The internet already seemed a bit part of the culture (how little we knew), but even the basic version of Facebook was a couple of years away; Instagram had yet to be thought of. Nevertheless, our notions of how and what we photographed, how and where we viewed images, and our sense of what a photographer was or did, were already changing.

I remember Parr expressing vaguely Luddite views about digital photography and the internet, although he told a prescient story about being commissioned to photograph the food at some fancy New York restaurant, the kind of place that was fully accustomed to having food photographers around the place. They were expecting to deal with lighting people and food stylists, but Parr arrived alone with his camera and a ring flash, the food was set out, the pictures taken, and the job was done in 15 minutes. The restaurant staff was baffled, but for Parr it was very much business as usual.

Luddite or not, Parr, in his own work and via the three volumes of The Photobook: A History (edited with Gerry Badger), has helped create quite a few changes in the photography world. I’m not sure that anyone (other than perhaps Nobuyoshi Araki) has ever photographed food quite so relentlessly and with such attention as Parr. There are also a lot of Parr imitators out there, who mimic the form without understanding the content. He’s on Instagram these days too.

I mention all this because Parr’s influence looms large over Susan Bright’s Feast for the Eyes. For one thing, his work appears in the section labeled “1990s,” although of the eight Parr pictures included only one actually comes from that decade. Here you’ll find his deadpan images of British food: beans on toast, pink cakes in the shape of pigs, half a grapefruit in a bowl on a placemat that depicts John Constable’s The Hay Wain.

The book also features photographers Parr has championed. John Hinde, for instance (considered, possibly even by himself, to be a humble postcard photographer), had his reputation much enhanced and reevaluated after the publication of Our True Intent Is All For Your Delight (2002), shepherded to life and with an introduction by Parr. Hinde’s photographs in Feast for the Eyes are from The Small Canteen: How to Plan and Operate Modern Meal Service, published by Empire Tea Bureau in 1947. There’s a pink and white dome of blancmange surrounded by tinned fruit, and a pastie angled across a plate with carrots, leeks, sprouts, and roast potatoes lined up against it in serried rows. These photographs achieve the unlikely effect of seeming simultaneously both muted and garish. And I think it’s fair to say that pre-Parr, these images would not have appeared in a serious book about photography, which would have been a shame.

And who, until the arrival of The Photobook: A History, had heard of, much less prized, the extraordinary 1903 volume The Book of Bread? It’s a 360-page practical manual for the professional baker, written by one Owen Simmons, containing 40 or so images of loaves, some in color, some black and white, some tipped or pasted in, all of them life-sized. It is a genuine wonder: as Simmons wrote himself, “However critical readers may be, they will be forced to admit that never before have they seen such a complete collection of prize loaves illustrated in such an excellent manner.” (And yet he didn’t feel it necessary to mention the name of a single photographer.) This book makes an appearance in Feast for the Eyes, and Susan Bright also includes a companion volume, The Book of Cakes, same author, same publisher, same format, same year, although lacking the full minimalist splendor of the bread book.

Susan Bright obviously had quite a task on her hands putting together a collection like this. The end result has to strike a balance between the known and the unknown, between the totally obvious and the willfully obscure. (And that subtitle is all-important too: this is the story — not the history — of food in photography, although definitely not the story of “food photography” per se.) Given that just about every photographer who’s ever lived has taken pictures of food at one time or another, the editor’s job is knowing what to leave out as much as what to put in. It would, of course, be possible to compile a book many times the length of this one and still not have exhausted the subject. By the same token, there’s the risk of trying to be all things to all people and spreading the material too thin. Under the circumstances, complaining about omissions may seem ungrateful, but I’d have liked to see a couple of Andy Warhol shots in there. (Maybe that would have killed the budget.)

And the book does cover all the important bases: not just the photography of high art and low commerce (and it’s not always easy to tell which is which), but also the diaristic, food in fashion, in portraits, the highly personal and the overtly political, the erotic, even — in the case of Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy — food in performance art.

Inevitably, and necessarily, the book contains many of the usual subjects, beginning with William Henry Fox Talbot’s A Fruit Piece (1845), a still life with wicker baskets, peaches, and a pineapple. We move on rapidly through Roger Fenton, Man Ray, Edward Weston (that damn close-up of a green pepper again), Imogen Cunningham, Stephen Shore, and William Eggleston, via Helmut Newton’s image of Jerry Hall rubbing a raw steak into her eye, past various luridly illustrated cookbooks, a photograph of a 1960 lunch counter sit-in in Raleigh, North Carolina, and an image from Cindy Sherman’s Disaster series Untitled #175 showing a mess of food on the floor and the artist visible, reflected in the lens of a discarded pair of sunglasses.

Here are Vik Muniz’s portraits of Che Guevara “painted” in black bean soup, and his double Mona Lisa in peanut butter and jelly. There’s a photograph by Weegee of a children’s birthday party that looks as grim as any of his crime scenes. There’s Ed Ruscha’s Spam cans, Sophie Calle’s The Chromatic Diet (meals with a different, unified color scheme for different days of the week), and Araki’s heartbreaking The Banquet — the photographic record of the last meals he and his dying wife Yoko ate together, until she wasn’t able to eat at all. There are also a great many lesser-known photographers and images.

Women are, perhaps inevitably, underrepresented in the first half of the book. The earliest picture here taken by a woman is Florence Henri’s still life Composition Abstraite from 1929, involving an apple, a couple of lemons, and some mirrors. Susan Bright tells us, rather dispiritingly it seems to me, that “[h]er interest in these fruits is purely in their form.”

Things pick up after that. You’ll find Sandy Skoglund’s gorgeous arrangements of simple food items against saturated colored backgrounds. Some slices of luncheon meat on a yellow counter top that has the same patterns running through it as the meat does is especially startling. There are a couple of photographs from Susan Meiselas’s book Nicaragua, showing the significance of food during wartime. Rinko Kawauchi’s mysterious and ethereal close-ups of sometimes barely recognizable food items are among the most haunting in the book; the photographs on her blog are much more down to earth.

There are some unexpected but very welcome inclusions such as William H. Martin’s “tall-tale” postcards from the first decade of the 20th century using photomontage to depict fruits and vegetables at hundreds of times their actual size, a jokey symbol of American prosperity and productivity. Paul Outerbridge (best known to most of us for his fetishistic nudes) is represented by some amazing advertising shots he did for the A&P supermarket chain in the 1940s: in one of them we see men, distant precursors of Don Draper, so comfortable in their masculinity that they can sit around the kitchen drinking coffee (just like housewives!) — one of them is even wearing an apron.

And there’s one color image that’s an absolute revelation — actually a “chromolithographic print,” titled Poularde à la Godard, from a cookery book, Le Livre de Cuisine by Jules Gouffé — showing an arrangement of chickens, with coxcombs and truffles. It looks as though it might have come straight out of Salvador Dalí’s Les Dîners de Gala, but in fact it precedes that volume by a good 100 years, dating from 1869.

I’ve never been altogether convinced that a picture is worth a thousand words, and obviously Susan Bright isn’t either. It all depends on the picture. Some photographs speak for themselves, some don’t. I’m very glad to have Bright’s text locate Nickolas Muray’s place in the history of magazines and the history of photographic technique: I’m even more grateful for the pictures. I’m rather less grateful to be told with reference to Schneemann and her crew rolling around semi-clad in raw meat, that “such behavior is far removed from the implicit values and controlled food spreads laid down by cookbooks such as Betty Crocker’s?” You don’t say.

When things work best, the reader enters into a healthy dialogue with the author. Susan Bright finds “sheer disgustingness” in the images on the Weight Watchers recipe cards from the 1970s, which I don’t at all. Now, why should I be? Is it about the food itself or about its depiction? On the other hand, she finds Irving Penn’s photograph of a runny Camembert with an ant on it to be a “masterpiece of understatement,” whereas I find it kind of creepy, if also a knowing reference to Dalí’s soft clocks.

Knowing references tend to pop up in the later work seen here — Bright finds echoes of Matisse and Cézanne in a photograph of a pineapple by Daniel Gordon — and perhaps this demonstrates the struggle contemporary photographers can have between presenting food in interesting and original ways, as opposed to trying too hard. One of Sian Bonnell’s images from her book Everyday Dada depicts a toilet and sink pedestal surrounded by fried eggs, and strikes me as just plain silly. By contrast, Sarah Lucas’s Self-Portrait with Fried Eggs — a couple of sunny-side ups on her chest standing in for breasts and nipples — seems challenging, fierce, and possibly (but not definitely) playful, which has a lot to do with Lucas’s facial expression, also challenging, fierce, and possibly (but not definitely) playful.

The last few pages of the book feature photographers new to me, like Lorenzo Vitturi, whose book Dalston Anatomy features food bought in the Ridley Road Market in East London and arranged into sculptures — lamb trotters and taro root coated in bright pink cassava powder, for instance. And Joseph Maida’s photographs are all about queerness, apparently: one of them features sardines stuck into the center of doughnuts. Really.

If nothing else, these images remind us that the journey from Classical to Romantic to Mannerist to kitsch is a circuitous one that regularly backtracks on itself. If you want to see some really over-the-top food photography, take a peep in Visual Feast: Contemporary Food Staging and Photography, published by Gestalten — opening line of the introduction: “The diverse landscape of contemporary food culture is a rich frontier for the creatives working within it.”

Susan Bright’s text escapes that sort of nonsense, but there were areas where I was unsure about the book’s intended audience. On the one hand, it’s a beautifully produced coffee-table book; on the other, the text deals in matters of patriarchy, culinary imperialism, identity, racial politics, and whatnot. There are also a couple of places where I think she’s way off beam. She tells us that the writers of the Time Life Foods of the World series “attempted to make sense of other countries’ food and culture without inviting people from other countries to contribute.” Now I don’t own the complete set, but the ones I have at hand — Japan, Germany, Russia, the British Isles — all contain significant contributions from writers and/or consultants from the respective countries. Elsewhere she says that Martin Parr “simply wants to make a good picture” which strikes me as simply meaningless. Still, if this is only to say that there are a great many different stories to be told about food in photography, the one told in Feast for the Eyes is generally a very persuasive and, above all, celebratory one.

And here’s another, final, food and photography story of my own: Martin Parr once bought me dinner, or at least his gallery did. It was the night of an exhibition opening, just a few weeks after I interviewed him and bought him lunch in Bristol. I can tell you exactly what we ate, because there was a specially printed souvenir menu, which I’ve kept. Therefore I know we were offered tomato and chili soup, teriyaki salmon, and coconut tart. Again, neither I nor anyone else took any pictures of the food. But Martin Parr did sign the menu for me, with a cryptic message that still puzzles me: “This is a waste of printing.”


Geoff Nicholson is a novelist and nonfiction writer and a contributing editor at LARB.

LARB Contributor

Geoff Nicholson is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books. His books include the novels Bleeding London and The Hollywood Dodo. His latest, The Miranda, is published in October.


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