by Patrizia Cuonzo

For foodies and photo enthusiasts FOAM – FOtografiemuseum in AMsterdam – has a very interesting exhibition on the history of Food Photography: Feast for the Eyes, open until 3rd March 2019. 

If you think that food photography has become popular only thanks to the rise of social media you will see enough to make you think again.

This exhibition is about food as the subject of art, but also as a metaphor, as a memory, as a statement of identity and a political manifesto, and much more.

Food is culture, as it always implies knowledge and skills, a very ancient know-how that we started developing before choosing to shift from hunter-gatherers to farmers. Think about cave paintings! Food as culture has always been a medium for other content and therefore very easily portrayed. 

As part of the portfolio of the Aperture Foundation, curated by Denise Wolff,  Senior Editor at Aperture, and Susan Bright who is also the author of the exhibition catalogue, Feast for the Eyes  gives the visitor two possible itineraries: one chronological and one thematic.

There are three thematic sections: Still life, Around the table, and Playing with Food, and each section allows the visitors to retrace various phases throughout time of the aesthetics of food in images.

The visual legacy of food in painting reinterpreted using new techniques is the natural starting point of the Still life section. Highlights: Edward Weston’s sensual B&W Pepper n.30 taken in 1930; Harold Edgerton’s famous stroboscopic images, including what is probably his most famous, the stop-motion photograph Milk Drop Coronet taken in 1957, and the neat formal aesthetics of the images created by Carl Kleiner for Ikea.

Around the Table: when we share food it almost immediately becomes an obvious statement of identity, whether it’s about social status, ethnicity, or lifestyle, as you can see in the images of the soup kitchen, or of the America on the road of the ’70s captured in the breakfast series by Stephen Shore, or the more indulgent Botero-like Sunday on the Banks of the Marne by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Playing with Food: or rather what you usually forbid kids to do, but which is actually allowed when you are an adult. Playing as in using food in an allusive, symbolic, ironic and at times mocking way, which, again, is also a rather old cultural act. Here you can see the improbable and absurd mise-en-scène of processed meat by the duo Fischli & Weiss; the famous provocative photos by Guy Bourdin which border on political incorrectness and gender disrespect and the irony present in the portrayal of the yearning for modernity of American society in the ‘50s through its symbolic fast food: Ed Rusha’s SPAM processed meat [Spam cut in half 1961 C Ed Ruscha.jpg press kit].  Also intriguing is Irving Penn’s frozen food.

Part of the Around the Table section – almost a story within a story – is the narrative display of cookery books, which have always relied upon images. It’s a very peculiar kind of storytelling which, seen from the aesthetic viewpoint of our times, can cause tenderness, laughter or genuine horror. But you might be inspired to explore your mother’s or grandma’s cookery books …you never know…

Two images seemed to have a stronger impact on me, as well as on the visitors roaming the exhibition during my visit: the first is a B&W image by an unknown photographer portraying a scene of ordinary racial segregation in the States during the’60s.

The other is a large blow-up of an aerial photo capturing the performance of the artist JR. “Giant Picnic” was taken last autumn at Tecate, on the border between Mexico and the States.

The artist used a photo of a kid’s eyes – chosen as the symbol of the “Dreamers”, the thousands of young undocumented immigrants whose hopes were abruptly destroyed when Trump cancelled the  DACA program last year – to create a huge table from one side of the border to the other, around which hundreds of people shared food, music, and probably hope.