I shall begin this by saying that this post will be about images of food and the act of looking at them. I am neither an art historian nor an artist: I’ve dabbled in practising art and studying its history for much of my life, but it is not my career so I am essentially an amateur. My words really aren’t going to be that much more thoughtful than anyone else’s.
With a mix of joy and sadness I finished the linden honey last month. I decided to eat it in the way I enjoy best, which is with melting butter spread on a split and toasted muffin accompanied by some tea.
I’m fairly sure our downstairs neighbours saw me as I was taking this photo. I was inspired by Flory’s images as she takes quite a few photos of dishes from a top-down view, which creates a neat and informative picture of your food if you do it right, like she does. I am sure you could–should–use a tripod or put them on a lower level with a fetching background board. However, due to the state of my kitchen and my short stature, the only thing for it was to stand on a stool and lean over the wall-mounted side table. Our kitchen windows are fairly tall so I was visible at street level at the moment when our neighbours were arriving and entering the building. Matters were probably not helped because my loungewear comprises brightly coloured batik pha toong worn with hoodies or cardigans.
But then, this incident doesn’t much matter in the grand scheme of all my life events as they have so far been a constant string of mild-to-moderate embarrassments. For the past decade, my reaction has been to share these incidents on the internet in the hopes that I can embarrassment-bond with other people. We can all fail together. Hurray!
Tangentially related is not the actual content of these sunrise photos, but how these photos happened. I was on my way to work when I noticed the early morning sky was streaked with bright clouds, so I got out my little point and shoot. There was another person taking a photo of the sunrise on his phone; when I went to the spot next to him, he shuffled away. I walked on and noticed another interesting scene, with the dark silhouette of a tree and the moon in the sky like a fingernail mark. The other person was there with his phone, too, and again he hurriedly went away when he noticed me. He wasn’t in my way or anything; it was as if he was embarrassed. At this point I wanted to shout after him, ‘NO, WAIT, DON’T GO, WE CLEARLY UNDERSTAND EACH OTHER AS WE ARE DOCUMENTING ENTIRELY MUNDANE THINGS BECAUSE OVERSHARING MINUTIAE OF OUR DAILY LIVES ON THE INTERNET IS ONE OF THE FEW WAYS WE CAN GAIN INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL VALIDATION! LET’S TAKE A SELF-SHOT TOGETHER OR SOMETHING.’
But I didn’t, because even I know what is appropriate sometimes.
Sometimes I think in a lightly meandering way about how social networking has impacted our daily lives. In meatspace I am often too shy to do perfectly normal everyday things, like paying up for items at a shop counter, but I find it very easy to open up to a blank screen. Why am I sharing pictures of food with you? Why do I share some personal bits, too? Why did I start using a dSLR in part to improve the visual aspects of the blog? Why do I still find this whole thing mildly embarrassing, and am still mostly very shy about commenting and doing most forms of self-promotion? It’s just a Thing that I do; I don’t aim to be the very best (LIKE NO-ONE EVER WAS), the most I can really hope for is that we can learn about these things together. I suppose the question which then arises is whether or not it is roundly self-indulgent for me to carry on doing what I do in spite or because of my mediocrity.
I don’t think any of these questions are new. Undoubtedly actual academic study has been done on sharing personal information both mundane and shocking on the internet and on the specifics of blogging, fitting it into a history of ideas.
Wouldn’t this be a neat image to follow on from my last paragraph? But no; this is just for sheer humour, to ease you along with laughter as I veer from topic to topic.
I find the mechanics of humour interesting. This image is probably funny for several reasons but I think one main source of humour is this: the obviously erroneous conjecture that Cézanne’s still life paintings are the 19th century equivalent of Instagramming your food. Cézanne mostly (though by no means exclusively) painted in oils which is the slowest drying paint in the history of ever, and is therefore quite different to the usual way in which people snap a photo with their phones. There is also the amusing dissonance between images which are considered fine art by a famous painter and the general level of output from the average Instagram user. For this dissonance to happen, it is assumed the viewer at least vaguely knows the cultural standing of Cézanne’s paintings and how Instagram is used, and humour is thusly derived from the fact that Cézanne’s work is seemingly debased by the perceived pretentious superficiality of Instagram.
Cézanne’s concern was more likely food as a subject to be painted, the main delight being the simplified natural forms with focus on their basic geometric shapes. I mean, let’s be honest, we don’t really look at his still life paintings and immediately think, ‘Damn, get in my mouth.’ On the other hand, the interest of Instagram users and indeed food bloggers at large lie in presenting food as dishes and items to be consumed; its form must be relevant to the idea of its consumption, that is, for maximum appeal to the (presumed ever-present) readers, food should look as good as it tastes. Surely if the food looks good in front of you then taking a picture will capture that moment perfectly, so everyone is happy.
But, as anyone who’s fiddled about with taking pictures of food can tell you, it’s not quite that simple.
A cursory glance at my food pictures tells you that I am only a beginner. You might remember this post, where I borrowed Mr. Pear’s dSLR to take the photo because my own little point and shoot was lost down the side of the sofa. That was about 3 months ago. Because I am only simple, it has been quite a steep learning curve for me. It has taken me that quarter of a year to learn how to shoot using manual. I haven’t yet taken any lessons. I’m quite willing to admit that the camera is a decent one (a Canon EOS 450D, also known as an EOS Rebel XSi), but it’s still not the kind of exquisite machine which could make an accidental nighttime photo of fox droppings (stubbed toe, country fields) look like a perfect fruit salad in a glass bowl irreproachably garnished with a mint leaf lit by the gentle mid-morning sun.
I do have friends who are photographers, both professionals and experienced hobbyists, so it’s unfortunate that I am insufficiently embarrassed or humbled enough by the idea of their gaze to stop displaying my photos in places where they might be observed by a trained and tasteful eye. But then, I imagine that my shoddy attempts are no more distasteful to them than sloppy writing is to me: much of the time it simply doesn’t register as anything remarkable because they’re not trying to Do Art. I’m not presenting myself with an identity built on skill that is worthy of recognition. What I really just want at the moment is to take clear pictures of food which look okay; there’s no real attempt to ‘tell a story’ or transport you into an ineffably beautiful scene. Don’t get me wrong, I love looking at those photos, but at the moment it is beyond the purview of my skill and intent.
Indeed, it’s something which has interested me when I have read tips and tricks written by food photographers and/or bloggers: they almost always encourage you to try to ‘tell a story’ with your photography, an assumption that with narrative comes escapism, that you enter the image and experience it for yourself. Obviously a part of it is to do with the fact that, in food blogging, it’s assumed that images won’t only tell you about what the finished dish looks like but will appeal to you so strongly that you will think about making and eating the food in the image. The narratives revolve around this–you see a set table, and from the arrangement of the plates and the tea lights you see it’s probably an intimate meal for a couple. A wooden table in the dappled shade with a large bowl of salad suggests that a group meal is happening in the garden during a leisurely summer. Whether or not such meals are actually happening is beside the point; the images seem more real than real in their suggestiveness.
Meanwhile, a mug of tea and some cake perched on a cracked window sill shows that a feckless blogger with too much time and not much room in their flat tries far too hard to arrange food photos. I always think my images look a bit lonely, like someone’s just abandoned the food, but I don’t mind.
I do, at any rate, hope to develop my image-making. I wonder where I will be at 6 months and then 1 year.