Irving Penn

This art and social documentary photography (mentioned in the last blog post) also occurred in colour. Irving Penn, who shot still life images for Vogue and House and Garden magazine in the 1940’s (Penn, I. 2001) produced images that were art photographs with food as a subject like those in the In Focus: Tasteful Pictures exhibition, showing ingredients, but used to illustrate the lifestyle pages of magazines.
Irving Penn, Salad ingredients, editorial photo for Vogue, 1947.
The placement of the objects seems random, but stylised at the same time. You can see the reflection of the studio lights in the spoons and the image has not been retouched; the random flecks of pepper have been left in even though some have gone astray from the centre of the set up. It was around this time that food images began to be used commercially for the purpose of advertising. Perhaps it is in the form of advertising that the food photography lost its credibility as an art genre, as the images were not being used as a work of art, but to promote goods to consumers.

In Focus: Tasteful Pictures

When food was first used as a subject in photography the images were imitating still life paintings. These images were classed as a form of social documentary, whereby the food was viewed as a cultural item. A collection of these social documentary images were compiled by curator, Virginia Heckert, at the Getty museum‘s photography department, in a recent exhibition titled In Focus: Tasteful Pictures.  She said, “the images are meant to illuminate the history of photography, not just show off what someone ordered in a restaurant. The pictures also are intended to show how the photographers used the technical aspects of their art.” (MacVean, M. 2010 [online]) It is in this exhibition where we can see the first instances of food photography. Among the images are Edward Quigley’s six peas in a pod, taken in black and white, which is an observation of the beauty of the form of peas, paying particular attention to the lighting and shape of the peas.

Edward W. Quigley, Peas in a Pod, 1935

To contrast this, the exhibit includes one of the most notable black and white food photographs, taken by Man Ray in 1931. Titled ‘Kitchen (cuisine)’ it was not commissioned for a food outlet, like a cookbook or magazine, but for a Paris utility company to promote the use of electricity. The advertising campaign was to encourage people to use electricity in their homes. This can be seen in this image, the cooked chicken shows what electricity can do using an electric oven, while the spiral pattern, created using a photogram, communicates a heating element of an oven or more simply, generating electricity in a symbolic form. (MacVean, M. 2010 [online])

Man Ray, Kitchen (cuisine), 1931

19th Century Still Life Painting and Chromolithographs

While photography was still in its early stages of development, 19th century still life paintings saw a “radical renewal” (Malaguzzi, S. 2008, P 55), no longer just private commissions, but experimentations by French impressionist artists. The transition was ‘radical’ because the French painters of this time had the view that all aspects of daily or mundane human life deserved the same aesthetic attention, including food. The heightened level of value placed on food and its aesthetics was new, and was added to other aspects of interest from the 17th century that reappeared in the 19th century, such as the focus on light and the subject matter as indicators of class and status. Impressionist artists, like Monet and Manet, and painter-friend Fantin-Latour, endeavoured to capture the effects of light on the form and colour of the food subjects. Impressionism in still life paintings focussed on consumption and indication of class where the painter created a seemingly natural arrangement of objects despite meticulous arrangement. This radical renewal of the genre by the Impressionist movement was arguably a reaction to the newly established medium of photography. Impressionists focussed on “developing into an art form its very subjectivity in the conception of the image, the very subjectivity that photography eliminated.” (Levinson, P, 1997, p47) Rather than mirroring a scene like early still life photographs, artists aimed to subjectively depict their own visual experience. This can be seen in the work Henri Fantin-Latour, a key painter of this period, who painted ‘Still Life: Corner of a Table’ in 1873. The painting is his perception of a moment in bourgeois Parisian life, showing key indicators of class and lifestyle.

Henri Fantin Latour, Still life: Corner of a Table, 1873.

A considered effort has been taken to create a natural, random arrangement of the objects. The painting is very detailed and realistic and is reminiscent of still life paintings from the 18th century by Jean Simeon Chardin. The composition of the painting is of clear importance “The rhododendron prominently placed in the foreground joins the elements resting on the table, which are in turn silhouetted, frieze-like, against the dark background. By contrast, the white tablecloth shows off and brings visually forward to stunning effect the pink-tinged blossoms that reach up to the golden orbs of fruit in the compotier” (Rathbone, E, E. 2001, p100) As we will see, the way this informal scene was composed to suggest lifestyle, status and class, is now crucial to modern food and lifestyle magazines.

This could also been seen in Victorian England where “…the still life of gastronomic plenty seems to have enjoyed resurgent popularity.” (Garwood, N. and Voigt, R. 2001, p148). The first instance of food illustrations, published as special plates in the illustrated London News, in 1860, may have influenced contemporary images of plentiful amounts of food.

Fresh fruit chromolithograph plate issued with the illustrated London news, 1860

In the same decade, chromolithographs were featured in ‘Le Livre de cuisine’ (“The Royal Cookery Book”) written by Jules Gouffe, a well-known French chef. (Garwood, N. and Voigt, R. 2001, p167). Printed in Paris in 1867 the cookery book contains 25 chromolithograph platesprintedincolour. This is arguably the beginning of food illustrations being used in cookbooks and, significantly, appears to emerge concurrently with the ‘radical renewal’ of the French Impressionist’s interest.

Although black and white pictures began to appear in early printed cookery books, the process was slow. Professional photographers used the half-tone process for cheaper reproduction. By breaking up the images into a series of dots, it was much easier to reproduce the full tonal range of a photograph in printed matter. As photography became a popular medium, advancements in printing techniques paved the way for easier production.

Although food was appropriated as a subject in photography, still life painters in the 20th century continued painting food as the genre maintained its popularity. Developments in printing techniques paved the way for photographic printing in newspapers and magazines yet the aesthetics of still life paintings were still seen and reflected upon in commercial food photography magazines of the 20th century. Aspects of realism, painterly skill, effects of light, composition and arrangement, allegory and meaning, and indicators of lifestyle and class were all elements of modern of still life painting and as we will see, were mirrored in commercial food photography.


Early food photographs

‘Food’ photographs started to appear in the early 19th century in the form of copied still lives, focusing on realism, composition and most importantly the effects of light, essential to producing any photograph. Photography’s first still life was a picture of a table set for a meal made by Nicephore Niepce in 1827. (Szarkowski in Penn, 2001 p2) Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre produced a still life by 1837 while Talbot and Hippolyte Bayard produced theirs by 1840. Among these accomplishments, Henry Fox Talbot photographed an overflowing basket of fruit in 1842 (Plimmer, C. 1988, p9) and later produced a series of still life photographs, entitled ‘Pencils of Nature’ in 1846 featuring images of fruit baskets on patterned tablecloths. The compositions in the images are reminiscent of Flemish still life paintings from the 17th century. 
Henry Fox Talbot, from series ‘Pencils of Nature’ 1846.

Jean-Simeon Chardin

Aspects of realism, attention to composition and arrangement and a concern with allegorical meanings carried over in the 18th century, which saw more elaborate still life paintings. The food items were more carefully chosen for visual interest, like unusual shape or texture and grand banquets were depicted in their entirety (Malaguzzi, S. 2008, p53). Jean-Simeon Chardin, a significant still life painter, produced many realist paintings between 1720-1770 (Malaguzzi, S. 2008, p 139) He depicted everyday objects with illusionist elements yet blended these into a realistic atmosphere. Much of his work focuses on seasonal food relating to religious events.

Juxtaposing food and kitchen utensils in a still life suggested that a meal was about to be prepared. Sometimes ingredients of liquor in a bottle were displayed alongside it to show its flavour. The image above clearly intends to suggest that this menu was meant for a day outside Lent.