"Food and how it is photographed defines how we live and how we value ourselves, and, at its very best, connects us to our dreams and desires"
There is a new exhibition at The Photographers' Gallery in London, exploring the rich history of food photography. Women in The Food Industry co-founder, Mecca Ibrahim, went along to Feast for The Eyes, with a number of expectations. Discover the gallery's take on the development of food photography and the artistic, social and political contexts that have influenced it.
“Food – and how it is photographed – defines how we live and how we value ourselves, and, at its very best, connects us to our dreams and desires.” says Susan Bright the co-curator of the exhibition. Split over two floors and featuring over 140 works, the exhibition is arranged around three key themes: Still Life, Around the Table and Playing with Food.
Still Life - the blue section - traces food photography’s relationship with a genre that we are very used to with painting. It looks at how that age old tradition of taking pictures of bowls of fruit, game and feasts has changed over time. Sharon Core's work is a good example of how the food photography in this exhibition plays with our expectations of food as an art form.
Around the Table (the yellow section) is on two floors and looks at the rituals that take place around the consumption of food. It looks at how our identities are revealed through who we eat our food with. Close to that section are a number of cookbooks which almost form a section in their own right. Most of the ones in the exhibition are from when illustrated cookbooks were at peak after the World War II. The books all have that idealised notion of plenty. A post war era which promised to lighten the load of women in the kitchen, but at a time when many places were still struggling with food shortages. The booklets and cookbooks offered a way forward, showing that a banquet was still possible, with photography giving housewives the chance to dream.
The final section, Playing with Food (the red section) shows what happens when food photography is mixed with irony, humour and fun. The focus is on the senses and draws on how food smells, feels or sounds. There's a video of an artistic food fight "Meat Joy" from 1964 by Carolee Schneemann— where people (including Carolee herself ) are covered in paint, paper and writhe around on the floor together, playing with raw fish, meat, and poultry.
Another bold image that stops you in your tracks is Sarah Lucas 'Self Portrait with Fried Eggs'. The caption of the photograph says "In response to 1990's lad culture which also coincided with the rise of celebrity chefs like Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay, British artist Sarah Lucas employed food such as bananas, fish, and chicken in her photographs and her sculpture, to call out the base language used to refer to women’s bodies, and also reclaim it. In doing so she takes the eroticism of food and turns it into sexual politics instead".
If you go the Feast for The Eyes expecting lavish perfect food photography which makes you hungry afterwards, it's unlikely you will go away with that feeling. Granted, some of the food photography is beautiful, but in the main it is thought provoking and shocking.
Visit Women In the Food Industry to read the full review of Feast for The Eyes - The Story of Food in Photography at the The Photographers Gallery 16 – 18 Ramillies Street, London, W1F 7LW until 9 February 2020