Monday, August 6, 2007

First in a Series

Years ago, when I was first getting serious about photography, Dawn and I visited Savannah, GA, and fell in love with SCAD, Savannah College of Art and Design. The way they have revived downtown by placing the school in abandoned buildings is very inspiring. While touring the school, I was lucky enough to meet with the chair of the photography department. When I returned home, I sent him a link to my website and asked him what I could do to improve my chances to be accepted to the MFA program. He very generously took time to look at my "portfolio"--it hardly deserved such a professional title--and gave me some advice. He said study other photographers to understand the field as it currently existed and to think beyond the single shot. He said I had a "good eye"--a nice way of saying I was a hobbyist still--but ultimately just had a bunch of snapshots. To really move forward and grow as a photographer, he told me I needed to develop ideas for series of connected images.

Needless to say, this was disappointing to a self-deluded photographer who just wanted to hear that I didn't need to apply to SCAD since my talent was so self-evident. I would be accepted without question. However, after the sting wore off, I realized he made a lot of sense. I certainly had a few themes that I was drawn to--see earlier posts for examples--but had never started with an idea first and then took pictures to embody that idea. I had always worked the other way around, just taking photos of things I responded to viscerally and afterward trying to see a narrative that connected them together.

Over the ensuing years, as I've developed as a photographer and artist, I've been thinking about Ideas and what would make a good series and have come up with a few possibilities. I wanted to take this entry to sketch out one such series. It is still very fuzzy in my head and so would love to get any feedback from you.

Food. I'm fascinated with food. Not only the consumption of it--I love to cook, love to eat--but also the ways in which it gets commodified in our culture. Needless to say, our relationship to food in the United States is different than a society that doesn't have such abundance. Only in an industrialized, rich country, for example, could food literally be a toy.

Food is a complicated commodity though because it's not just a sign of wealth or prestige, but is essential to life. Unlike most consumer items, food is actually consumed. The bare nutritive value of it gets repackaged in a variety of ways though according to social and cultural values. I'm fascinated with how we package and sell this essential item. The various brands of foodstuffs stacked on grocery store shelves have roughly the same nutrient value, no matter what brand. So what stimulates the competition for sales required in a capitalist food culture? Primarily, it's a graphical battle. The artistic design that goes into creating the labels marks the food as creating its value to consumers through how well it calls to the eye on the shelf as a graphical abstraction separate from its nutritive value. In some ways, this is a topic already well explored by the likes of Andy Warhol in his famous Campbell soup can pieces.

However, grocery stores are not the only gathering places for food in our culture. I'm also fascinated with the visual aspect of food when it is presented in restaurants. The visible markers that go into differentiating a fast food lunch at McDonald's--the paper wrappers, paper cups, and colorful cardboard containers--from a fancy dinner at a gourmet bistro--flowers and candles on the table, china, a garnish on the plate. It is a feast for the eye as well as the belly.

I became especially interested in how we interact with the food, as the consumer literally consumes the work of art. My idea was to capture the canvas of the plate *after* the consumer/eater/artist had finished eating. Here are two examples:

Chinese Meal

Mexican Meal

I like these photos because they work abstractly as art with the vibrant colors and swirls and shapes of the emptied plate. However, they also stand as testament to the consumer and the consumed. They represent both the nutritive value of the food as well as its visual impact.

One concern I have about this series is whether it would get too repetitive. Would one emptied plate eventually look just like another emptied plate? However, I think that this would be a problem for any series. If the items are connected through a strong, central, controlling idea, then isn't repetition an inherent danger? Now, I'm aware that this idea for a series isn't fully developed yet, but I remain intrigued by it. What I'm hoping is that you can tell me what you think. Is it worth pursuing? How can I further flesh out the idea behind it? The center pole needs to be strong to keep this tent up. Very curious what people think about this direction for me. If nothing else, I hope I've given you some food for thought. Ha!



Jacob said...

I think it's a great idea for a photo series. I don't know if you are planning to compose the photographs similarly, but you can probably change it up by having different angles, different depth of focus, etc.

Just a thought.

I love the "Mexican Meal." The yellows and reds and whites really do invoke images of a a full plate.

Empty plates can tell a lot about the person that ate them. Did they clean their plate? Leave all the vegetables? Make a mess of things, or leave every individual part of the meal in its own neat little pile.

I'm assuming most of your photos will be of yours or Dawn's empty plates -- can't imagine you barging in on diners and asking to snap a picture of their plate of vanquished french fries -- so in that sense it is almost like a gastric diary of sorts.

Certainly having a range of dinners, from a cardboard tub of nachos to the fanciest of dinners.

Have fun exploring the concept. Sounds like a winner.

Jacob said...

God, I wish I could edit my posts. Ignore the parts where it seems English isn't my native language.

Riley said...

Thanks for the feedback, Jacob. I agree that the color, texture, and shapes of the emptied plates can be very interesting. I'm thinking that they will be varied enough just from random eating that they will look different enough. The setting will also make it different as I eat in different restaurants. My plan is to have the plates all be my own.

Jacob said...

Cool. Since they are all your plates it makes it sort of autobiographical.

Anonymous said...

Andy, how about a series on back hair? You know, it's signification both of virility and, um, being hairy? You could shoot yourself by facing away from the mirror and holding the camera backwards!

Seriously, I think the food idea has lots of obvious innervation points for art/critical theory types, though I'm not sure I agree with the SCAD chair that one has to think beyond one shot. Why? I don't see why connections can't be drawn afterward, as you suggeested in your post.


Matt Morris said...

How about capturing eaters in the photos? It may add another element to show the dinner plate's relation to who left it.

Riley said...

Yeah, I'm thinking that capturing eaters might be a good way to get my ass beaten. Of course, maybe if I can capture back hair in my food, I'd have a lawsuit and would never have to work again!

Matt Morris said...

All good points. Too bad you don't know people who eat, cause if you did . . . well, anyway. On the other hand, if you got your ass kicked over a photo . . . you're the photographer so I hardly need to tell you this, but think about the exposure!

Anonymous said...

check out this guy's site. There's mucho info on food photography that you may find interesting:

Bees Knees Imaging

Riley said...

Thanks, David. Good to know!