Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present

In my last post I wrote about a hyper-real 3D artist, Richard Kolker and how he was influenced by Juan Sanchez Cotan’s “Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber”. Another artist influenced by this particular painting is Ori Gersht, who created a HD film piece where a bullet soars through a pomegranate (instead of the quince) creating a visually exciting explosion of seeds and juice, celebrating the fruit’s colour and beauty. His work, along with paintings by Henri Fantin-Latour are currently featured in the Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present exhibition at the National Gallery (open until 20th January).

I visited the exhibition last month and thought it was excellent because it explores how photographers use fine art traditions to influence their own work. Early photographs from the 1800’s and contemporary photographs sit next to historical paintings. Covering a number of traditional genres; portraiture, still life, nudes and landscape, I think the exhibition takes a really interesting look at how influential painting actually is to contemporary photography. My only disappointment was that there wasn’t enough! For the ‘Still Life’ section of the exhibition there were 15 paintings/photographs and a moving image piece by Sam Taylor Wood. Obviously I would have liked to have seen more from this genre! Also it would have been interesting to have seen some supporting text from the photographers stating which elements of the paintings they were stimulated by to see how the photographer was actually influenced by its adjacent painting. Understandably this might not have been possible with some of the older photographs.

Along with images from Ori Gersht and paintings by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, it was great to see such strong influence between imagery. In particular, the very visual link between George Lance’s ‘Fruit (The Autumn Gift) alongside Roger Fenton’s ‘Flowers and Fruit’.

Still Life with Lemons and Oranges’ by Luis Melendez, 1760’s


Oaxaca Jar with Aubergine (Still Life No. 2) by Evelyn Hofer, 1996










To see 18th century Spanish ‘Still Life with Lemons and Oranges’ by Luis Melendez, alongside Evelyn Hofer’s Oaxaca Jar with Aubergine was an excellent show of how elements of composition and lighting have been drawn on in contemporary photography.

I would definitely recommend visiting this exhibition while it’s still on –  the concept and the idea of it alone is inspiring and I think what you take away from the exhibition is knowing how influential fine art traditions can be.


Richard Kolker’s Digital Modelling Photography – Hyper Real Food

When looking at the history of food photography, sometimes it’s interesting to consider it’s future. Richard Kolker is a ‘synthetic photographer’ who records “virtual light interacting with virtual geometry using a virtual camera”.

Influenced by Juan Sanchez Cotan’s “Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber”, painted in 1602, Kolker uses various 3D modelling and rendering software packages such as Maxon Cinema 4D and Maxwell Render to create his images. Elements of the lighting and careful composition in Cotan’s painting are carried across to Kolker’s work. For him, his virtual camera is much the same as a physical camera, as is his work flow; he still builds a set, lights the scene then photographs it. Even though the images are created using a computer, the same controls and conventions, like aperture/depth of field and exposure are very much present. Photoshop is used, but only for colour correction and contrast rather than any drastic alterations.

“Around the Bodegon – after Juan Sanchez Cotan 1602”, 2012

Is this the future of food photography? With CGI becoming more popular, will this combination of 3D modelling and rendering eventually end up moving it’s way into food photography? It’s something to think about… You can read more about how Kolker creates his imagery in this article here


‘Still Live’ exhibition the Sarah Myerscough Gallery

I’ve been writing a bit recently about still life for the Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year blog and I stumbled upon an exhibition which shows the genre in a whole new light. Despite being quite good at going to exhibitions, I managed to missed this one, but spoke to the wonderful gallery organisers at the Sarah Myerscough Gallery who gave me a little bit of info on the show.

'Still Live' exhibition the Sarah Myerscough Gallery

‘Still Live’ exhibition the Sarah Myerscough Gallery

Still life is often overlooked and seen as a boring genre of art so I’m glad that an exhibition has finally been dedicated to it, taking a contemporary look at this historical genre through the work eight different artists. The ‘Still Live’ exhibition showcases a mixture of painting, photography and sculpture to show the artists’ representations of still life.

The work that stood out to me the most was by Spanish photographer, Leticia Felgueroso. She creates a series of images of tables laden with magnificent and colourful feasts which are reminiscent of still life paintings from the 18th century. The images however are slightly surreal as the colours are saturated and the backgrounds create an almost dreamlike scene.

Cortinas rojas by Leticia Felgueroso

Bodegon blanco by Leticia Felgueroso

I’m hoping for more exhibitions like this in the future!


Colour photography in cookbooks

While the first colour photograph was produced in 1861, colour photography in cookbooks wasn’t used until the 1930’s due to the difficulty of colour printing. (Plimmer, C, 1988, p10)  Colour food photography can be traced back to as early as 1935, (Thomas Perich, S. 2010) when Nickolas Murray first adapted the three-colour carbro process. McCall’s commissioned Murray to create colour photographs for their cooking and food pages. He used the colour carbro process to make rich and colourful photographs of food spreads for the magazine and for other advertisers through the 1950s. Within the context of commercial photography, the rich colours in these images were used to grab the reader’s attention which can be seen excellently in the image below.
Nickolas Murray, Untitled, circa 1935.
The image is very much like Fantin Latour’s painting discussed previously. There are visual similarities in the way lifestyle, status and class are implied in both images and is testament of significant and perhaps even direct influence.
Food photography progressed over a matter of years, where colour food photography was being used not only in single sheet advertisements but in cookbooks as well. Shakely commented that “The earliest cookbooks were for simple palates, records of cooks’ favorites, or the king’s favorites, writ down so that they could successfully be repeated by those who could imagine how they should look and taste when finished. Like any kind of book, the evolution of cookbooks paralleled the progress of printing technology.” (n.d. [online]) While colour photography was still in its early stages in the 1950’s, block prints were frequently used in cookbooks, not actual photographs. Illustrations were popular too and usually a number of black and white photographs were used to accompany the recipes.
A few years later, colour photographs were used in the first edition of Larousse Gastronomique. (Plimmer, C, 1988, p10) It included 36 colour photographs but since it was a large and expensive book, it still contained 1,850 black and white images. World War Two slowed the production of colour photography for many due to cost and there wasn’t a high consumer need for the process. However after the war, there was a boom in ladies magazines, awash with colour advertisements and recipes.



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.