As I write this, I’m already eyeing up the tin of tomato soup I plan to treat myself to for lunch once I’ve finished. (We self-employed have to make our own motivation somehow.) Though I’ll be having it at my desk, the photo on the front of the can, in which a homely red bowl sits on a tartan cloth somewhere whitewashed and rustic, conjures a tantalising alternative involving me, a cosy Highland bothy and possibly a peat fire. It’s a comforting image that says as much about my daydreams as it does my taste in soup.
Such gastronomic subtexts were the subject of the recent “Feast for the Eyes” exhibition at London’s Photographers’ Gallery; a show, as guide Anna Dannemann explained, more interested in the representation of food than the food itself.
Pausing on the stairs, briefly transfixed by a huge denim-clad male crotch thrusting up against a dripping cheeseburger, I begin to see what she means. All of the pictures on display, from the carefully composed still lives of Victorian fruit and vegetables, revelling in the textural possibilities of this new medium, to the clinical step-by-step illustrations of interwar cookery manuals, tell us as much about the context in which they were created as about their ostensible subjects.
There’s the deliberate subversion of the gendered gaze in Sarah Lucas’s famous 1996 Self-Portrait with Fried Eggs, which, according to co-curator Susan Bright, takes the eroticism of food and turns it into sexual politics. Something similar can be said of the class politics at work in the later editions of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, with their aspirational shots of domestic staff and elaborate menus.
Examine the ready meals in any supermarket and ponder the message behind the exotic styling of Chinese or Indian dishes vs the nostalgic, artfully plain image on a box of shepherd’s pie. Looking beyond the food is nothing new of course; Roland Barthes dissected the semiotics of a pasta advert back in 1964, yet considering the ubiquity of such messages, they attract surprisingly little attention.
Bright notes how many acclaimed photographers, including street photographer Joel Meyerowitz and war photographer Ron Haviv, have worked on cookbooks. In an increasingly digital age, these have become fetishised objects: “photographs have become more important than the recipes in many instances”.
Depressing as this is for those of us responsible for said recipes, like any food writer I’m only too aware of how highly photographs are valued by the reading (or viewing) public, despite the cost implications for both publisher and purchaser. (How could I forget the one-star Amazon review of one of my books: “I’m sure the recipes are perfectly useable but as a visual person this book just isn’t for me.”)
Our appetite for pictures of food has only been stoked by advancing technology; in an age where almost everyone has a camera in their pocket, ready to snap a shot of their dinner, the professionals have had to raise their game. Hence the technical wizardry of books such as Modernist Cuisine, with its incredible cross-sections of the cooking process, or the high art on show in Food in Vogue, which features shots from fashion photographers like Helmut Newton and Eric Boman and food that often looks more beautiful than appetising – selling a dream as well as dinner. Just like my humble tin of soup, in fact.
Next week: John Burnside on nature
This article appears in the 19 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The age of pandemics