Thoughts on the Nature of Food Photography

The Act

I have witnessed the growth of the food pic trend over the past few years.  How could I not?  Every time I go out to eat, there are people taking phone pics of their meals.  And like everyone else, I’m annoyed by it. I find the act of taking the pictures in the middle of a meal rude.  The pictures themselves are usually uninspired and they fall flat in their effort to convey the essence of the food.  My most frequent reaction to such a pic in social media is to skip it.  If my eyes accidentally stop on one, I am overcome by the thought, “Who cares?.”

But I am not holier than thou.  I am a sinner as well.  Perhaps the gravest sort, the hypocritical judge.  Have I become the Elliot Spitzer who sees prostitutes on the side while prosecuting and damning them before the courts. The urge to take the pictures is so irresistible at times, I fall from my high horse and muck about in the mud with my phone out and the camera shooting away.  Yes, I confess, I am weak and cannot help myself.  Though I do my best to rise above, some rare courses call out to me and require my hamhanded, amateur, photographic talents.  I convince myself that these are different from the many pics taken around me, that these are special.  In the words of Thorin, from Tolkien’s The Hobbit, “I have never been so wrong.”

 

Nom Nom Nom

We eat to survive.  Eating uses all of our senses and I assume, from an evolutionary standpoint, this is to determine if our food is going to kill us.  Taste and smell are obvious senses with eating.  Without these two, it doesn’t much matter what you pick on a menu. 

With our sight we can tell if we have received what we ordered, or if our nut allergy is going to react to the ice cream sundae we definitely ordered without nuts.  It also helps to see if our lettuce is wilted or if mold has appeared on our delicious loaf of cheese bread.

Consistency (touch) is extremely important.  We don’t want to discover something hard inside our mashed potatoes or for our steak to have the consistency of mush.  Some food should be hot in our mouths and some cold.  If you aren’t sure of the role of touch, just think of a bowl of Cheerios.  There isn’t much difference for taste between one that is just right and another that has sat for too long as we answered the door, but a mushy bowl of Cheerios borders on inedible.  And good luck enjoying your room temperature coffee.

Lastly, hearing.  We probably use this least when we eat, and hearing food eaten is considered bad manners in the West.  Yet foods that are supposed to crunch, like Vlasic pickles or potato chips, advertise it.  Pick a food that shouldn’t crunch, like a hot dog, and if hear a crunch, you know something has gone terribly wrong and your meal is finished.

When a photograph is taken of a beautiful Katz’s Deli pastrami sandwich, it can look good and make me salivate.  But it only includes sight and that misses most of the point.  The pic has no people in it, and unless I’ve eaten such a pastrami sandwich at Katz’s, or requested the pic of their food to satisfy my curiosity, I receive very little of the joy of the soon-to-be-stuffed photographer.

When a moment is captured with people enjoying their vacation, I can vicariously experience their joy and see the happiness on their faces.  But there is nobody in the picture of food except the food itself.  Pictures of food can look good, but are unlikely to take your breath away or force beauty into your day if you have never eaten that particular meal before.  I prefer a painting of the Last Supper over a still life of fruit.  Of course, there is one exception, but it took Salvatore Dali to make it happen.  Add some action or people to the pic and it becomes much more interesting.

 

Food as Art

Most people go through their days without noticing the beauty and wonder surrounding them.  They wake up, blah, blah blah, blah blah, boring, boring tedious boring, and they go to bed.  Maybe they love their jobs, or their significant others, their kids, whatever floats their boats, but they do it without art.  They live each day without really looking around themselves.  They don’t notice the varying color of the sky, the expertise and talent of the builders and architects of their house or the buildings around them.  They don’t look too closely at the lines for traffic that have been drawn a bit wavy on the road or the shoddy service they receive at the drive-through window.

But they all notice their food.  They really look at it, at least when it arrives.  They sit in judgement over it.  They see it, they smell it, they experience it.  This is true even if they are getting a coffee and a donut at the Waffle House instead of La Bernardin.  My father sometimes watched the look on people’s faces when their food arrived, the look of expectation, or disappointment, or even uncertainty as the dishes were brought to the table.  This is one of the rare moments of attention, true attention, in most people’s days.  The food has been made for them.  If they’re not careful, it might taste terrible (watch out for that hot pepper), have an obvious defect (such as an errant staple or bug), or even kill them (if they have a shellfish allergy).

It is a personal, commissioned work of art.  You picked it out of a menu and decided it was your personal choice.  Effort will be put in the manner in which your choice is presented to you.  It has been plated in a certain way, it has been arranged for both ease of eating (not often will you find a steak carefully balanced on end), for looks based on tradition or originality, for a mixture of flavors and colors.  It has been served separately from other dishes based on whether it is to entice the appetite to start a meal or top it off at the end. Some food it plated so beautifully, it seems a shame to take the first bite and mar it’s initial beauty.  Perhaps it’s time to take a picture of this ephemeral experience before its inevitable consumption?

Some things on the dish aren’t to be eaten, but exist only to add to the artistic merit.  A sprig of parsley or an extra small dish for cole slaw was a choice made by the chef or owner.  The big red container of McDonalds french fries, the fries standing tall above the edge of the open container is an intentional choice to make them more accessible and appetizing.  While the McDonalds owner does not know you personally, this container of fries was made for your enjoyment.  You will smell them and taste them.  You will judge if they are too salty, or slightly stale, or hot out of the frier.  You are truly paying attention, at least to that first fry you put in your mouth.  A few grabs later and the art has dissipated.  Even a hour later and your beautiful Mexican food, with its melted cheese and refried beans, has lost its appeal.  It is so easy, so natural to take out your phone, to try to preserve this very personal piece of art forever.  This art that continues to excite your senses even as you make your poor, deficient, two-dimensional rendering of its essence.

Your drink arrives as you sit at the bar.  It comes in a specific glass depending on whether it is a scotch on the rocks, a martini, a bit of brandy, or a Belgian beer.  The beer has a head, the martini has an olive or two, perhaps a twist of lemon peel.  Depending on the wine you ordered you may get a tiny desert wine glass or a mammoth one for a hearty red.  When the drink arrives, it is beautiful.  It has been made just for you, it is what you ordered.  The bubbles float to the top of the champagne flute and you are ready to celebrate an achievement.  Time for a picture?

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This absurd drink has obvious artistic merit, I mean, it sits in grass!

Hat tip to The Aviary in Chicago

 

Curiosity in the Bizarre or Disgusting

Who doesn’t enjoy a freak show?  Who doesn’t steal a glance at the unusual, the bizarre, the obscene, even the disgusting, if only to wrinkle their nose and look quickly away?  Few people watching a horror movie can resist peering through their fingers covering their eyes before closing their fingers again.

When we eat at new restaurants, or in places of different cultures, we are confronted by highly unusual dishes.  TV shows have been made purely on the basis of people being forced to eat food that disgusts them or even eating dishes of their own free will that the viewer finds repulsive.

This is also the basis for an entire genre of food photography that is much more desirable to the viewer of the picture than a picture of a burger.  These are pictures that appeal to the curiosity of the viewer, pictures that are designed to fascinate without the viewer risking the food ever approaching his mouth.  They are pictures that entice, at least in part, because they only require the sense of sight, and never have to sully the other senses.  Some people enjoy eating cheese with maggots or eggs that have been buried in a yard for some time, but I prefer to see these pictures rather than enjoy the meal myself.

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From some excellent place on Avenue B? in Alphabet City, NYC, 2014

Tasty, Disgusting, Satisfying, Interesting.  And absolutely artistic in the presentation.  Far superior for being bizarre and unusual.  It is firefly squid sushi that I ate because I gave my word to JP that would eat anything the chef served me.  But it’s a lot more interesting to me than to anyone who wasn’t present.

 

The Camera (Phone) Comes Out

If any thought at all is given to fellow diners, I assume it travels along these lines:

This’ll only take a moment and I’m sure the other people at the table can appreciate my need to capture this for posterity.  How can it be rude to take a picture with my phone in front of me instead of continuing conversation and discussing our newly arrived dishes?  If I’m rude, it’s only for a moment and I want my friends to see what I’m about to eat.  Anyway, everyone in this place seems to be using their phones and that includes people at my table.  I suck terribly as a person and should be ashamed of myself.

 

But if the desire for a pic stems from the desire to share life experiences with loved ones, is it really that shameful to whip out your phone? We have easier access to cameras than ever before, with the instant knowledge of the quality of each picture coupled with the ability to share it at no cost.

In my family, it was traditional to offer anything on your plate to anyone else at the table.  Often a spoonful of soup, in contradiction to all good manners, was passed over the middle of the table.  In our close family, it was entirely acceptable to request a taste of anyone else’s dish.  Poor manners?  Well, for us it was love.  We loved to eat and we loved to enjoy.  We loved each other and nothing could be better than sharing the joy of a well made or interesting dish.  We wouldn’t stab it off someone’s plate, but a request to try a taste of an unoffered dish was entirely within the realm of acceptable conduct.  At our table, this wasn’t rude.  We were in our own little Rome and we did as we liked.  And no, we didn’t share ice cream cones, that would have been gross(er).

Yet sometimes it is an opportunity to show off one’s sophistication or wealth.  Taking a picture at Masa of a $100 appetizer plate of raw sliced kobe beef with shaved truffles on it says more than just “look at my food.”  It also says, “look what I can afford, look at this luxury, look at the places I go to eat a $1000 meal.”  That may not be the photographer’s intention, but it certainly has that effect.  It is boastful, conceited behavior best left out of the public sphere.  It is gauche to show off your million dollar toilet, even if it is truly the best seat you’ve ever owned.

 

Food As Disappointment

At least a small percentage of the pictures are of the low quality of the presentation.  The pictures of food that don’t match the ads.  The Subway footlong that’s 11 inches, or the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder that is distinctly wilted, with a greasy fingerprint on the top bun from a careless chef.  This is similar to the bizarre food shots in that they do not present food to be experienced, but a show of careless quality in its many forms.  Who wants to experience disappointing food?  But we still look.  I find it easier to commiserate  with the disappointed gourmet than with yet another picture of a standard bologna sandwich.

I never review my pictures of food.  With art, people, landscapes, etc. it is another matter.  I am drawn to pictures of smiling people, fat and happy around a table or dirty plates and demolished goodies.  I love candid shots of serious discussions over drinks, or a smiling couple cutting a wedding cake.  I don’t really need that extra pic of the cake, no matter how delicious or artistic, sitting without human accompaniment.  But taking food pictures can be a joy by itself, even if I rarely look back at the photos.  I must remember that nobody who has seen them, unless they contain some unique curiosity, will ever give them a second glance.

 

I have had many musings on this subject and it was my wish to put them together in one place.  As I failed utterly to examine any literature on the matter, or to consult with more than a handful of close friends and family, I am certain to have omitted many obvious and important points.  Many other points are not original to me, but are the result of my theft of the thoughts I found insightful after long discussions with others.  Please be forgiving for the lack of completeness on this subject, but understand I am only bringing up an array of thoughts rather than a doctoral dissertation.  And, dear reader, take no offense in considering your own food pics or my judgement of them.  All the pictures of food sent by my friends, family, and readers are, without exception, inspirational works of art that excite my senses and bring out the best in me.

H. R. Giger, RIP

H.R. Giger passed away on Monday and the world has lost an artist with amazing vision and quality.  He produced some of the most interesting art I have ever seen.  He was most famous in popular culture for the design of the alien in the movie Alien, for which he won an Academy Award.

I never met the man personally, but I did buy a few of his books of collections over the years and even owned a few that weren’t so overtly sexual that I could put them out in the open.  I found his work to be brilliant in both its distinctive style and originality.  You couldn’t come across one of his pieces and mistake it for the work of another talented artist.

My first introduction to his work was at the Lit Lounge, which was (is) the bar in front of the Fuse Gallery on 2nd Avenue between 5th and 6th in Manhattan.  Downstairs in the grimy and wonderful depths of the bar, all the way in the back, was a table with Giger’s engravings all over it.  I think it was offered for around $12,000 at the time by the owners of the bar, but I can’t remember too well.  I admired it often, but the piece was damaged through use, parts of the metal flattened, the table all scraped up and covered with (removable) bar muck.  It was heavily used, but absolutely beautiful.

I didn’t have the money to buy it at the time or some such excuse, but I made a point to try and see it every time I went to the bar.  It was there that I was corrected and told his name is pronounced “GEE-ger.”  I came back years later to find it gone.  I finally found a poor picture of it online, so here it is:

hrgigertable

Here is a part of the image:

giger2

Bizarre, unusual, amazing.

I will miss his work and the chance to meet him, but I never doubt his legacy will last in its beauty, originality, and ability to evoke interest (and sometimes horror).

May he rest in peace.