Food photography is “rarely just about food,” writes Susan Bright in her new book, Feast for the Eyes. Instead, she argues, food photography is a little like tofu—it soaks up the flavor of everything around it, including trends in fashion, art, food styling and cuisine, and technological advances in photography and printing. Food has long been a subject for fine-art and commercial photographers, but food photography as a genre has evaded much scholarly attention. Feast for the Eyes aims to change that, bringing together surprising and influential examples from the past century and a half, ranging from Roger Fenton’s 1860s studies of fruits and flowers to poppy images by Yale MFA grad Joseph Maida and the graphic images in the IKEA cookbook Hembakat är Bäst (Homemade is Best).
Feast for the Eyes is made up of heavily illustrated short essays on photographers, artists, books, magazines and blogs. The essays are organized chronologically like encyclopedia entries that cover high and low culture. A photo of pink Baked Alaska in Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook (“A dessert of beauty…and mystery,” its caption reads), is followed by still lifes of Spam cans and boxes of Sun Maid raisins photographed by conceptual artist Ed Ruscha. Pages from Jacques Pepin’s La Technique, an illustrated textbook, are followed by an entry on Helmut Newton, who photographed fashion models holding raw steak and roasted chicken. The decade-by-decade format lets viewers trace the use of saturated color, from an opulently styled fruit salad that Nickolas Muray photographed for McCall’s in 1946 to a melting tub of strawberry ice cream that Keirnan Monaghan and Theo Vamvounakis shot for Gather Journal in 2015. The looser, messier food styling that has been ascendant since the turn of the century appears later in the book, in entries on Romulo Yanes’s work for Gourmet, Laura Letinsky’s fine-art photos of wrinkled tablecloths and deconstructed salads from Heidi Swanson’s blog, 101 Cookbooks.
Bright writes that, “despite the ubiquity of photographs of food—or perhaps because of it—these images are rarely written about in their entirety.” But with close attention, these images can be “a key for coding and decoding society” and understanding “how we live and how we value ourselves.” —Rebecca Robertson