Thursday, August 4, 2011

Still Life.

When I was 19, I dated a photographer at the School of Visual Arts in New York. By dated, I mean I took the train up to visit him in Brooklyn and hang out and pray he’d notice. It was really more a friendship. He tolerated my hick Southern ways, and I pretended to be more worldly than I was and flirt like mad. It never worked. He was one of those obsessive artist types, who live for the work and focus on nothing else.

Those trips were quintessential 80’s vignettes. I’d arrive at Penn Station, subway out to Brooklyn, and literally run to his apartment because his neighborhood resembled Beirut, all bombed out buildings and burned up cars. He’d meet me at the door in his giant blond Mohawk and leather jacket. Punk rock dreamy. His roommates were painters. She was a hippy blonde who focused on giant flowers resembling vaginas and Charles was African-American, a political artist who specialized in distorted portraits of black men wearing KKK hoods pushed up on their heads like some kind of demented bee bonnet. It was 1986, and I thought they were the coolest people I’d ever seen.

The photographer and I would spend our days scouting out dirty landscapes, which wasn’t hard to do. I remember a freezing night on the Brooklyn Heights walkway, the traffic rushing under us while he attempted to capture the Manhattan skyline in time-lapse. I was colder than hell, but there was no way I wanted to leave. I felt like I was in a movie. A really cool Jim Jarmusch one.

We’d ride the subway in every day. 1980’s Manhattan, before the big Disney cleanup. I marveled at Charles. He fearlessly made small talk with other passengers. They thought he was crazy, so did I, but for different reasons. Didn’t he know you’re not supposed to even make eye contact? Charles was unfazed. Smile on his face and in his heart. When he asked how you were, he genuinely meant it. Every conversation was a precious stone. I envied him.

I distinctly remember one afternoon spent photographing cookies in the depths of the SVA studios. The photographer had a box of Entenmann’s, and spent hours arranging cookies and box on a high platform surrounded by white canvas screens and lights on tripods. Adjusting the lights ever so slightly, crumbling some, arranging the crumbs, opening the box, then deciding it looked better closed. Stacking the cookies, then unstacking them. Taking hundreds of pictures. This was a film camera remember. He’d have to look at tiny samples on a contact sheet later, then decide which ones were best for submission as his class assignment.

I didn’t see the point. Let’s just take the pictures and go. I was beyond bored, ready to get something to eat and attempt once again to bore behind those eyes and that gorgeous Mohawk and get to know the person inside. The photographer was having none of it. All he saw were cookies.

Now each time I attempt my own food porn these vignettes pop up. All those rides on the subway. All those cookie crumbs. All that arranging. Will the carafe of sangria look better with the handle arranged this way? Or that? Should I turn the peach so the crease on its skin is showing or is that too pornographic? What perfect arrangement of food and light can I create to elicit the most amount of drool from the onlooker? How can I make someone actually do a Pavlovian stunt the minute they look upon my masterpiece? What photo will get my blog a rating of “M” for mature?

I think back to the photographer’s efforts and laugh. He was trying to do the same thing. What any good photographer will do really. Elicit a response whether cerebral or physical. The food porniest of food porn. I do wish I could go back in time and tell him daylight is really the best. You’re never going to light cookies as well using 10 gazillion flashes or lights on tripods. Fake is fake and it always looks fake.

Why all the effort to elicit such an illicit response? What are we all trying to do anyway? We’re not selling 7-up for chrissakes. I’m thinking specifically about the 1970’s ads showing ice in a glass, but if you looked closely, you could see naked ladies. Google “subliminal advertising” if you’ve no idea what I’m talking about. Subliminally it was supposed to get you REALLY thirsty for 7-Up. Hell, it was MY favorite soda growing up ;)
I guess to some extent I’m selling my product, my writing. My ability, my expertise in talking about food. Trying to get people excited, inspired by looking at some picture of a cocktail I had one summer afternoon a few weeks ago.

What about the great artists of long ago? Like Adriaen Coorte or Willem Kalf? Feast your eyes on masterful works of still life if you want to sink into some truly great culinary porn. What were they selling? Their expertise and ability to paint glass? This astounds me. How in hell do you take paint and create something transparent? Maybe it was more than just bragging. A statement on luxurious waste. On the fleeting nature of living things. Or was it just a commission? Because some rich lady wanted a picture of apples and grapes for her drawing room.

Are all food photographers just modern day still life artists? Rather than dead game and diamond-encrusted goblets, we showcase cupcakes, cocktails, whoopie pies, and handfuls of flour thrown oh-so-expertly on a well-worn Pottery Barn cutting board. What’s it all for? To make people hungry? To create art? Or just a cute pin for our next Pinterest pinboard?

I wonder if that photographer’s cookie picture got a passing grade. I wonder what the purpose was. I wish I could go back in time and ask him. I wish I could ride a subway train and run into Charles. In 1986 I was frightened church mouse quiet, but now? We'd have quite the conversation. And I'd thank him. For showing me you can smile at strangers. For teaching me to speak. And to walk around with an open heart.

2 comments: said...

What a wonderful post. I can not believe you rode the subway in the 80's. I remember a pre-Guilliani NYC and no amount of summonsing my inner bad-ass could have convinced me to get on one (or make eye contact, conversations)!

p.s. Your photos are lovely. More like tasteful, soft porn for food!

Libby said...

Thank you so much! Used the "soft" setting on the camera to heighten the effect lol! And believe me, I was scared shitless on that subway, but now see it as my badass badge of honor :)