A gorgeous new coffee table book is an historical and artistic look at what we eat.

By Adam Campbell-Schmitt
Updated June 06, 2017
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Feast for the Eyes
Credit: Courtesy of Aperture

Take a casual stroll through any museum and you will no doubt agree that food has played an integral role in art. From the early depictions of the hunt on cave walls to the Flemish still life fruit bowl paintings of the late Renaissance, artists have used food as a prop, to convey a mood, or even make powerful statements. So, too, has it been a subject for photography since the art form’s inception in the 19th century. For the first time ever, images of, about, and reimagining what we eat have been compiled into one comprehensive, mouthwatering tome.

Feast for the Eyes: The Story of Food in Photography,” written by Susan Bright and published by Aperture, is just what the title suggests. With mustard-yellow binding and a vintage typeface, the coffee table book looks like something you’d snatch up at an antiquarian shop, but its scope includes everything from the 1840s to the Instagram Age. We spoke with editor Denise Wolff who has a theory as to why food photos are so engaging. “It’s almost like looking at a nude,” Wolff says. “I think what makes these pictures so powerful is how they affect your sense. I was hungry the whole time I was working on it. It impacts your body’s senses and your intellect at the same time. It creates desire.”

Still Life of Exotic Fruits and Lizard from Ceylon
Credit: Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Sources for the photographs include fine art collections, advertising and cookbooks (some of which were even culled from Food & Wine’s archives). Wolff says it was important to show the breadth of food image uses as well. “We represented commercial and artwork together, because they’re both feeding off of each other in many ways and both off of the still life tradition,” Wolff explains. “Color photography itself was influenced by commercial food photography because they wanted the pictures on the packaging to look appetizing and attractive.”

Lemonade and Fruit Salad
Credit: © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives, Courtesy George Eastman Museum, gift of Mrs. Nickolas Muray

Appetizing and attractive indeed, though some of the mid-20th century foods (Jell-o molds and pineapple-garnished hams) are laughably dated. But Wolff warns we shouldn’t get too glib. “Whatever we’re eating and photographing now is going to be embarrassing later, you know what I mean? Some of these foods you’re like ‘what is that?’ But it was very en vogue at the time. So these quinoa bowls and avocado toast things happening, could become funny later. Our ideas of food as health and culture change over time.”

Peas on a Plate
Credit: © 1978 Sandy Skoglund

But just like our attitudes shape food photography, the medium itself shapes real life food. “In Susan Bright’s introduction there’s a funny part where she’s talking about how breakfast used to be a quiet affair of toast and now you’d think from Instagram that it’s all about this feast and oatmeals with all these different kinds of toppings. It has revolutionized what we think our home cooking should be. Getting the food to look good is really important right now for that purpose,” Wolff observes.

Credit: © Nobuyoshi Araki, Courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo

Elevating the expectations of a dish’s visual appeal is having an impact beyond the Internet. “The cookbook has become the art book. As the publishing industry has changed and the food industry has changed you really see them upping their game and focusing more on design and that started, I would say, in the late 90s with Chez Panisse. Everyone picked up that ball and ran with it.“

Pineapple and Shadow
Credit: Courtesy the artist and James Fuentes Gallery, New York

Throughout this deliciously thorough book, you can see that evolution for yourself. “Feast for the Eyes: the Story of Food in Photography” ($42) will be available online June 15th and is already in some bookstores now.