“Authenticity in food is hard to find,” writes chef Fergus Henderson in the introduction to Martin Parr’s Real Food, a new book published this month by Phaidon, which collects the British photographer’s images of things to eat around the world, made throughout his career. While plenty of food photography celebrates the ascendent strain of farm-to-table, organic food which claims authenticity from a connection to the earth and the animals who graze on it (some of which is served by Henderson’s London restaurant St. John), that is not Parr’s subject. Instead, he delivers the cheap thrills in the form of sugar skulls and packaged pudding, corn dogs and buttered slices of plain white bread, all shot with Parr’s distinctive eye for bright color and lurid pattern.
“In a day and age when chefs announce that everything they cook is seasonal and local, Martin publishes a book celebrating the opposite,” writes Henderson. “There is a strong spirit of place here—not the one I look for, that of seasonality and local growing, but a different one,” made up of the regional specialties found at county fairs and bake sales, and sold from stalls at the beach or the night market. Parr’s food might be highly processed, but it not global or anonymous—even Spam takes on local flavor, framed by cherry blossoms in Tokyo.
Rather than season, color drives many of the images, especially a certain shade of unnatural pink that equally describes ice cream and jello cake, meat patties and frosting. Parr celebrates a democratic kind of authenticity in food, one that is honest about how far removed it is from nature. “Perhaps Martin is bringing to our notice the fact that there is a culinary history running parallel,” to the one in the media mainstream, writes Henderson, driven by deliciousness, however you define it.