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The Big Picture: How Food Photos Have Told Our Story Over The Decades

Grant Cornett, Jello Disco Floor, 2016, for Gather Journal, food styling by Janine Iversen.
Courtesy of the Artist
Grant Cornett, Jello Disco Floor, 2016, for Gather Journal, food styling by Janine Iversen.

Photography documents life — and food, whether in the fore or background, seems to always be in the picture. The two intersect in a new book, Feast for the Eyes, written by photography curator Susan Bright and published by Aperture.

The way that food has been photographed over the years is a reflection on the times we live in. The first still-life like images of overflowing fruit baskets soon branched out into ways of commercializing food. As photography evolved, food was sometimes used to make statements during important moments in history, such the Great Depression or the fight for civil rights.

And sometimes, food is just photographed as art for its own sake.

Today, we want food to look real. In the past few decades, food photos have taken on a real-time documentary feel, from a chef captured mid-flambe to a scoop of ice cream that has just begun to melt.

Though the style of photography has changed over the decades, the images in a Feast for the Eyes show that our relationship with food has always gone beyond the merely ediblewhether it's humorous, artistic or political.

All of the following images, which are in the book, represent the ways in which food has appeared in photography through the ages. Each tells us something about ourselves, our values, and the world of food that we live in.

Until the 1910s, commercial food photography was largely black and white. Early on, the only color photographs were made through the use of pigments and dyes. The first true color photo was created by French physicist Gabriel Lippman (who earned a Nobel Prize in physics for his invention), though even his process was too slow to be of use for commercial photography. Ultimately, color photography sprang from the idea that all color could be reduced to red, blue, and green. By the 1910s, photographers finally had a working way to create color photographs in the field (or in the kitchen).

Since food is such a central part of so many social gatherings, it's no surprise that many photographers began documenting how people ate along with how they lived. This photograph by Russell Lee was taken for the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration, part of a New Deal program that resulted in iconic images of life in America from 1935 to 1944.

Food has long been a favorite topic for government propaganda. In the 1930s, the Soviet Union commissioned two books cataloguing the country's modern and efficient food industry. During World War II, Nazi Germany papered its citizens with propaganda convincing them to be happy on a diet of poor-quality meat and potatoes. Meanwhile, the Farm Security Administration repurposed many of its photos to create a video called "Today's Storage is Tomorrow's Dinner." It's goal was to educate the public on how to preserve, can and grow as much of their own foods as possible.

In the 1950s, the fictitious Betty Crocker spawned an iconic food brand. According to Feast for the Eyes, the brand "offered an exuberance and spirit which opposed the penny-pinching, storing-and-preserving relationship to food of the New Deal and wartime eras." Many brides received the Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook as a wedding gift. The Technicolor photos and lavish spreads it featured remained a popular style of food photography for years to come.

Cutting-edge photographers used food as a medium to showcase new technology like stop-motion photography. The photographer, Harold Edgerton, was a professor of electrical engineering at MIT when he took this image of a milk drop suspended in air. Feast for the Eyes notes that the "legacy and influence of these photographs cannot be underestimated; variations on them can be seen regularly in advertising, and even in films such as The Matrix."

Over the years food photography has been used for political-artistic purposes: to question the expanse of our industrial food system, challenge gender norms or comment on aspects of consumer culture. Chris Maggio's "Male Chef" series fits into the latter category. It "indirectly mocks healthy living and food blogs and the values to which they aspire," writes Susan Bright. This photo is from his Thanksgiving series, which includes images such as spray bottles filled with blue cheese dressing and turkey gravy or a Powerade-drenched turkey. Male Chef attempts to satirize the food porn seen on television and Instagram. The spreads he presents are almost decadent — overflowing with cheese, meats or sugar — but the combinations (as well as presentation) make them feel like a craving gone terribly wrong.

There's been a burst of creativity and experimentalism in food photography, thanks to independent journals like Gather or the now-defunct magazine Lucky Peach. They've showcased some of the most creative ways to photograph and style food, like this jello disco dance floor, or a series of edible images of Trump and his cabinet members crafted from tortillas, smoked fish and roe, and produce. "This is not food you want to eat," writes Bright. "Instead, the food here seduces the viewer in another way altogether."

Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Ore.

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