When in Rome….

Rome and cities of the Netherlands and Northern France were the leading regions of still life painting, depicting “tables laden with food, frugal snacks, game in the kitchen and tableaus in which sweet dishes take pride of place.” (Malaguzzi, S. 2008, p53). Still life was also known as ‘bodegon’ in Spain, which literally translates as ‘cellar’ or ‘tavern’. Thus Spanish still life focused on just a few kinds of food in a small area. Similarly, artists in Florence kept this simplistic depiction in still life paintings, but incorporated influence from scientific diagrams. An example of this style of Roman paintings can be seen in Flegel’s ‘Still life with Flowers’ painted in 1630.

Georg Flegel, Still Life with Flowers, ca. 1630

The table is overloaded with food; a variety of snacks, poultry and a sweet dish. The selection and combination of food stuffs within the painting provides many connotations, alluding to various symbolic messages of food associated with God, heaven and the Eucharist. Allegory and meaning were important in still life paintings of this time, but given the shift away from religion as a dominant social concern, such religious connotations tend not to occur in contemporary food photography.

At the same time in England, there were many conventions in the display of food and drink in still life paintings; “vessels and dishes set out upon a table top, usually with some hint of disorder or indication of recent consumption, but no sitters at the table; it really looks as though the prime contents of the larder have been, literally tipped out on the table to form an exquisite composition of game, bread, cheese and fruit.” Notably, there is no human interaction at the table. It makes the food more attainable to a viewer if there are no other human elements in the scene. This theory is later backed up by Barthes analysis of the Panzani advertisement (which I’ll discuss later on), where the composition and arrangement mirrors paintings of this era. Dutch painters of the 17th century piled “succulent foods of all kinds high in a setting of glorious table coverings and fine tableware.” (Garwood, N. and Voigt, R. 2001, P148) Paintings like these were used to reinforce the idea that having plenty in the larder was a sign of wealth, since they display indicators of class and status associated with the wealthy at the time, a significant historical point when then assessing contemporary food photography.


Setting the table….

Before we can even begin to look at food photography, we must first look at still life paintings, since arguably, the food photography genre, however uninspiringly commercial it may have seemed at points in the 20th century, has undoubtedly developed from this art historical tradition. Even now, contemporary food photographers refer back to still life paintings as an acknowledgement of their roots. “It is this aesthetic tradition, nourished by Flemish and Spanish artists, which has been passed down to us in today’s glamorous cookery books” (Plimmer, C. 1988 p8). First we will examine the origins of still life painting, assess the importance of these beginnings, and explain how and why food was first used as a subject in art. As we will see, there are many key aspects of interest that painters have used that have later been taken up by food photography.

Still life paintings of the 17th century seemed to draw attention to food as having a ‘natural beauty’, which “was celebrated most brilliantly of all, of course, by the still life painters of the c16th and c17th centuries.” (Plimmer,C. 1988, p8). While the genre of still life in painting can be traced back to the 16th century, it wasn’t until the 17th century that it became well known in Europe. These paintings were privately commissioned in which “inspiration was provided by inanimate nature in all its shapes, volumes, materials, colours and reactions to light.” (Malaguzzi, S. 2008, p53). This is significant because the commissioners had more creative control over the paintings than the painters themselves. The painters were required for their skill, which was assessed by their aesthetic choices and their meticulous arrangement of objects, their ability to portray the subject and whether the painting expressed an allegorical message. Food was often used as subject matter, as it allowed painters to meet all of these criteria. A notable example is Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio, in Italy in the early 17th century, who preferred creating compositions containing realistic depictions of fruit.

Michelangelo Merisi daCaravaggio, Still Life with a Basket of Fruit, ca. 1597-98.

Paintings like these highlight the key aspects of interest in still life; realism, painterly skill, effects of light, arrangement and composition, allegory and indicators of lifestyle. As we will see in later blog posts, realism, ‘painterly’ skill and these other key aspects of interest are techniques that have carried over into food photography.


With good intentions….

So this blog seems to have taken a back seat in the last few months to moving house (twice!) and working. It’s been pretty hectic, but I do intend to post something at least once a week.

It’s difficult to know where to begin (I had the same problem when starting my dissertation!) so I’ll try and keep things in chronological order as much as possible so you can appreciate how food photography as a genre has become much more prolific in recent years than 50 years ago!

More posts to come shortly!