Any guesses what the first photograph of food was? Avocado on toast? An ice cream captured against a pastel-coloured wall? Close, but not quite. It was actually a couple of baskets of plump peaches and a single pineapple. Taken in 1845 by William Henry Fox Talbot, the grainy black and white image was the first photograph where food was the main subject. Carefully composed, it looks more like an artwork than a photograph, and that’s because food photography in those early days, with no other frame of reference, was heavily influenced by still life paintings.
While food photography started out being viewed through an artistic lens, it soon became a different sort of beast in the commercial, advertising and editorial world, when magazines, cookbooks and ads wanted visual representations to accompany articles and recipes. Over the last two centuries food photography has developed in a way few could have predicted, and with the advent of social media our interest in the form has grown even more. It makes sense then that The Photographers’ Gallery in London aims to explore this phenomenon in rich, delicious detail in its latest exhibition, Feast for the Eyes.
Looking at the development of food photography and the artistic, social and political contexts that have informed it, the show embraces “fine art and vernacular photography, commercial and scientific images, photojournalism and fashion”, highlighting the variety of forms food photography has taken on since Talbot’s peach image. Here, the curators Susan Bright and Denise Wolff, as well as those working within the realm of food photography today, give us an insight into how food photography has changed and what the impact of social media has been.