Roland Barthes – Panzani advertisement

Prior to 1977, nothing had been written on the importance or significance of food photography and the symbols used in advertising photography. This changed when Roland Barthes wrote an interesting analysis of a Panzaniadvertisement highlighting the importance of images used in advertising “because in advertising the signification of the image is undoubtedly intentional; the signifieds of the advertising messages are formed a priori by certain attributes of the product and these signifieds have to be transmitted as clearly as possible” (Barthes, R. 1977, p 270) He looked at the image in terms of semiology and how we decode a food image and referred to the connotations given in the choice of props, colours and composition. The image shows a scene represented as the return from the market – fresh produce, suggestion of domestic preparation, and a half-open bag, spilling open.
Panzani advertisement.
Barthes refers to the composition of the image, relaying back to the influence of still life paintings on food photography “evoking the memory of innumerable alimentary paintings, sends us to an aesthetic signified: the ‘nature morte’” or ‘still life’”. The image tries to give the viewer a sense of having-been-there, and the photograph acts as ‘evidence’ of this. “A kind of natural being-there of objects: nature seems spontaneously to produce the scene represented.” (Barthes, R, 1977, p279) It is this actuality that seems to be the general rule for food photographers when producing images.

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.