Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year Award 2012

Mall Galleries

Today I’m drifting away slightly from the chronological order of my blog to talk a little bit about the Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year exhibition on at the Mall Galleries this week. This is an excellent example of food photography being taken seriously as an art genre.

The exhibition celebrates the art of food photography and showcases the winning images in 9 different categories. Looking around the gallery, you can see how many of the images have been influenced by 17th century still life paintings – in particular, Jonathan Gregson’s entry into the Cream of the Crop category.

Jonathan Gregson – 3rd Place – Cream of the Crop  

The images in the ‘Food Portraiture’ category were excellent, such beautiful images of food, where the subject is almost glorified. The winner of the category, Hilary Moore, really captures that in her image of blueberry ice cream – shallow depth of field is used to really draw your attention to the ice cream, the blueberries in soft focus, hinting at the flavour. The other images were equally outstanding – the judges must have had a very tough time choosing the winners.

Hilary Moore – 1st Place – Food Portraiture

It was also great to see some beautiful work in the ‘Young (Under 18’s) category and how food photography appeals to young people. This image below by Kyle Meadows, winner of the 15-17 category, reminds me of Harold Edgerton’s milk drop image by the way he has captured the liquid in mid-air.

Kyle Meadows, Winner of 15-17 Young (Under 18’s)

Photographers from all over the world entered this competition, so it’s great to see such a varied collection of work. Congratulations to the overall winner, Jean Cazals The rest of the images can be seen here, but I would definitely recommend going to see the prints in person as they are really quite breathtaking. Word of warning though, you will come out ravenously hungry!


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.


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.