Eye candy: Susan Bright excites the senses in a new food photography book

Peaches in fruit basket
Untitled #49, from the series 'Hardly More Than Ever', by Laura Letinsky, 2002.
(Image credit: Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richard Gallery, NYC)

‘Photographs of food are rarely just about food,’ writes Susan Bright, the photography curator and writer, whose latest book Feast for the Eyes is published by Aperture this month. She’s not wrong.

Across 300 pages Bright takes us on a visual journey that presents photos of food in all kinds of contexts, from 19th-century still lifes, to vintage cookbooks, fashion editorials, conceptual art and industrial advertising. In the age of #foodporn, you might feel surfeited on food pictures, but Bright might just change your mind.

Riffing on the analogy between the way we consume food and the way we consume photographs — with our eyes — Bright reviews the relationship between the camera and eating, ‘one of the most base, visceral and profane of acts’, ultimately reflecting on taste in a wider sense, and the shifting politics of food through the decades.

Fried beans in the plate

(Image credit: © The artist)

Peas on a plate, by Sandy Skoglund, 1978, from Feast for the Eyes.

Peter Menzel and Faith D’Alusio’s 2007 Hungry Planet project, for example, documents how families eat around the world, with the implication that food stands for social class — as it does in Martin Parr’s photographs of British people eating ‘ordinary food’, or Robert Heinecken’s TV dinners, full of pathos and humour, reflecting on the state of American habits.

Food can, of course, be sexual — as in Jo Ann Callis’ seductive Forbidden Pleasures pictures or Rotimi Fani-Kayodé’s grape-draped genitals. But it can also be grotesque, especially in its excess, such as in Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy, in which performers revel naked, covered in fish, chicken and pig offal. For others artists, such as duo Fischli & Weiss, playing with food comments on the proximity of the delectable and the disgusting — without taking itself too seriously.

This is certainly not all symmetrical plates of saliva-inducing fantasy — though there’s plenty of aspirational food porn here too. There’s a visual connection from the cookbook photographs of the postwar, easy-food era, (Aunt Jemima’s Magical Recipes and Betty Crocker prompt nostalgia) to Sandy Skoglund’s surreal meals, and later, Joseph Maida and Grant Cornett’s highly stylised visions of the edible. From appetiser to dessert, Feast for the Eyes is not only a delightful account of delicious, but food for thought.

Sago balls in the spoon

Untitled, from the series Utatane, by Rinko Kawauchi, 2001. 

(Image credit: © The artist)

Pink Pig Cup Cakes

Pink Pig Cakes, by Martin Parr, 2002. 

(Image credit: © The artist / Magnum Photos)

Womens , girls enjoying at Hotdog Stand

Hotdog Stand, by Martin Parr, 1983-85. 

(Image credit: Courtesy of the artist)

Pancakes with muskmelon on the table

Trails End Restaurant, Kanab, Utah, August 10, by Stephen Shore, 1973. 

(Image credit: © The artist. Courtesy of 303 Gallery, New York)

Serving Pinto Beans at the Pie Town, New Mexico, Fair Barbeque

Serving Pinto Beans at the Pie Town, New Mexico, Fair Barbeque, by Russell Lee, 1940.

(Image credit: Division, Library of Congress Prints)

Boiled egg in egg holder

Stilleben, by Wladimir Schohin, 1910. 

(Image credit: Courtesy of Amatörfotografklubben i Helsingfors rf, Finland)

Pineapple and Shadow,Jello Disco Floor for Gather Journal

Left, Pineapple and Shadow, by Daniel Gordon, 2011. Right, Jello Disco Floor, for Gather Journal, by Grant Cornett, 2016, food styling by Janine Iversen. 

(Image credit: Courtesy of the artist)

Lemonade & Fruit Salad, by Nickolas Murray

Lemonade & Fruit Salad, by Nickolas Murray, 1948. 

(Image credit: © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives. Courtesy of George Eastman Museum, gift of Mrs. Nickolas Muray)


Feast for the Eyes, $60, published by Aperture

Charlotte Jansen is a journalist and the author of two books on photography, Girl on Girl (2017) and Photography Now (2021). She is commissioning editor at Elephant magazine and has written on contemporary art and culture for The Guardian, the Financial Times, ELLE, the British Journal of Photography, Frieze and Artsy. Jansen is also presenter of Dior Talks podcast series, The Female Gaze.