On November 10th at the Shakespeare and Company café in Paris, Susan Bright (author of Feast for the Eyes), Denise Wolff (editor of Feast for the Eyes) and Matthieu Nicol (a cookbook collector) will gather for an event around the photographs that appear in cookbooks. This event will follow the classic show-and-tell model and introduce books that influenced the conception of Feast for the Eyes as well as other stunning examples from France and America.
The photographs that appear in cookbooks are rarely just about food. They are rich documents that illustrate the lives and times in which they were published. They raise questions which cut to the core of the most human of activities—that of preparing food and feeding others and ourselves. Eating is the most visceral of acts, but it is also caught up in a host of rich associations such as ritual and religion, to name but a few. The photographs in these books show us a lifestyle we aspire to, but at the same time, they are also the building blocks of culture itself.
Some of the photographs that will be on view at the event are drawn from cookbooks in Matthieu Nicol’s collection. These resonate beyond mere subject matter, often obliquely commenting upon French culture and nationhood (and in the case of one example, the culture of East Germany). They are books that are rich in symbolism and connotations and often trade in stereotypes and assumptions. They are carriers for all kinds of fantasies, from the suburban to the most bourgeois.
Another slice of images comes from Susan Bright’s book Feast for the Eyes, which shows how art and more vernacular photography featuring food are no less concerned with showing us how we live and how we value ourselves. The earliest examples of food photography initially took their cue from painting. This new genre quickly developed its own vision and set of aesthetics, however, often seesawing between commercial and artistic influences.
Finally, Denise Wolff concentrates on American examples ranging across very different moments and audiences of American life and lifestyle. Designed for use in the kitchen as well as display on the coffee table, the books featured here lean heavily on ideas of archetype and fantasy. Some of them are very local and specific, appealing to the quintessential housewife, while some appeal more to armchair travelers. What ties them together is their extraordinary use of photography.
Photographs of food—whether designed for the kitchen shelf or art gallery wall—connect us to our dreams and desires in a way that suggests a lifestyle which taps into our most latent desires. These photographs can reinforce stereotypes or undermine them and signify anxieties and questions about ourselves. So in retrospect, what may seem funny and strange to contemporary eyes was often vital and modern at the moment of its creation.
It’s easy to laugh—but just think how ridiculous our obsession with avocado on toast will look in twenty years.
—Matthieu Nicol, Susan Bright, Denise Wolff