Inspiration Soup

A recent photography exhibition investigates the politics and aesthetics of food, encompassing everything from the Civil Rights movement to the New Deal, from Weight Watchers to Spam.

As photography has struggled to achieve an artistic status equal to painting or sculpture, food has not been taken seriously as a subject of artistic or theoretical enquiry. Perhaps ephemerality is the issue. Food, by its very nature, vanishes (burp!) And food which is left uneaten quickly becomes an inedible taboo, ceasing to be food at all. Food by definition must correspond to an eating subject, and therein lies another problem. Disapproval of the body and its desires is ingrained in much of culture and politics. Food is messy, leaking through time and space, melting into memory, ranging across every social and economic class, going mouldy before it can be subjected to thorough enquiry. Food is too much like sex, or is too quotidian, or is too domestic, prepared and served by women or low paid workers or by machines. Food lacks the smoothness of ideas that transcend materiality. It is difficult to write about, too; most books concerning food (cookery or otherwise) capture refractions of one small aspect. Cooking is a form of knowledge with a history as long as humanity that is barely recorded. If you are alive, you have never been separated from food for any duration, but its ephemerality can mean it is forgotten once digested, save a few nostalgic traces. Here, photography can help. As John Berger writes, “the objects in any photograph (from the most effective to the most commonplace) carry approximately the same weight, the same conviction.” The medium does not differentiate between the eternal and the fleeting, and food enfolds both of these qualities.   

Walking through ‘Feast for the Eyes – The Story of Food through Photography’ made me emotional; I hadn’t realised how much I needed to see a show like this, how rich it might be. Curators Susan Bright and Denise Wolff manage to tell the story of ‘food in photography’ through an art historical lens, while encompassing its many other guises, including amateur photography, political reportage, commercial imagery and recipe books. This is a touring exhibition, put on by the US-based Aperture non-profit foundation, and there is a US bias to it (though it features photographers from across the globe). However, a spectrum of socio-political aspects of American history are represented through the images. The selection from the 1960s, for example, is at once exhilarating and heart-breaking for the range of political moments it includes. 

A smallish and uncredited black and photograph from 10th February 1960 shows two young men sitting at a diner counter reading and writing. It’s a normal scene at first glance but on closer inspection, something’s awry. The men, both black and immaculately dressed in suits, do not have anything to eat or drink, only the pre-laid cutlery and napkin. A wedge of white sponge cake is under a glass cloche in front of the man closest to the viewer; on the other side of the cake behind another counter, are two white women. The women, one old and one young, are wearing white waitressing uniforms but they are both sitting down, and the younger woman is smoking. In fact, this photograph is an image of resistance. The exhibition text tells us that the students from Saint Augustine College in Raleigh North Carolina are conducting a sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter while the waitresses refuse to serve them. It is a protest against racial segregation in the South, which continued until 1964 until it was outlawed by the Supreme Court.  

A different aspect of 1960s liberation is expressed through performance artist Carolee Schneemann’s film Meat Joy NYC (1964). Schneemann takes food out of a domestic setting replete with technicolour images of housewives in aprons (also on show in the exhibition), to make a grainy black and white film of her ground-breaking performance piece. Near-naked bodies writhe in a frenzied, sexual performance mixed up with raw fish chicken and pork sausages. It’s still shocking to watch, at once disgusting and sensual, joyful and repulsive. In the same instant, food and bodies break free from the repetitive and increasingly commodified rituals of idealised domesticity into an ecstatic, erotic, and wild (though meticulously choreographed) “celebration of the flesh as material”, in Schneemann’s words. 

Elsewhere is an example of Ed Ruscha’s investigations into Spam through photographs and paintings. The photograph Spam, 1961, is a black and white portrait of the still immediately recognizable branding of the processed ham and meat product invented in 1936 during the American depression. The photograph within the image – on the can itself, shows a baked Spam criss-crossed on top, with several slices displayed around it as if it were a real ham joint. The meat is displayed invitingly and mimics the bright, overblown food styling in cookery books of the period, which are also part of the exhibition. The photo on the can reveals the producer’s aspirations that Spam might take the place of traditional roasted joints, ritually carved at the table, keeping the family together in lean times. The image is also a way of disguising a processed industrial foodstuff with the nostalgic aura of family tradition, so as not to scare off customers. But the gaudiness of the Spam branding jars with the sobriety of Ruscha’s composition, which makes it appear somewhat ridiculous. Other of his images from this series, not on display here, make links between Spam and the US imperial ambitions – wherever in the world the US army has been, there is Spam. Grease from the cans was rumoured to grease guns during WWII, and in his biography Nikita Khrushchev credits Spam with preventing starvation, “without Spam we wouldn’t have been able to feed our army”.

There is much fun to be had at ‘Feast for the Eyes’, too. Swiss duo Fischli and Weiss’s absurd and hilarious scenes in the ‘Wurst Series’ have sausages in a fashion show wearing coats made from mortadella and cured ham, with bottle caps and napkins as hats (Fashion Show, 1979), or At the Carpet Shop, 1979 positions gherkins as people inspecting piles of ‘carpets’ that are in fact different types of meat. Displays of historic recipe cards from Weight Watchers (1974) also bring forth much glee, for the props as much as the dishes. ‘Inspiration Soup’, looks like tomato juice with anonymous floating items and is surrounded by burning multicoloured candles. Mysteriously, the photograph of ‘Chilled Celery Log’ is surrounded by examples of Victorian ironwork, so who knows that might compel. ‘Crown Roast of Frankfurters’ is so magnificently odd you would be forgiven for thinking it was constructed by Fischli and Weiss.

Alongside the elegant, unsettling compositions of Paul Strand (1910s), Florence Henri (1920s), Imogen Cunningham (1950s), and Laura Letinsky (2010s), who share a talent for transforming banal objects into uncanny wonders, many of my personal favourites were documentary photography of social eating situations. Russell Lee, who was working for the historical section of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to deal with rural poverty during the Great Depression, portrays small town struggle in images such as The Faro Caudill [Family] Eating Dinner in their Dugout, Pie Town, New Mexico, 1940. The narrative richness of amateur photography at weddings and parties is a highlight, too, portraying moments of love in difficult years.

The argument that Bright and Wolff make through this exhibition, to read the world and its (recent) history through food photography, is compelling – both intimate and epic in scale. I was moved by the juxtaposition of cookery books, fine art, and images of protest; the breadth with which the subject is treated refuses an aestheticization that would diminish its political and emotional range. At this moment, too, I find it heartening to think that life and solidarity are so often built on gestures made across tables and countertops, very often wordless; that is how we can begin. 

‘Feast for the Eyes – The Story of Food in Photography’ was on at The Photographer’s Gallery, London.

About the Author

Rebecca May Johnson is a writer and academic based in Harwich, Essex. She is writing a book about cooking and gender.