One career day in elementary school, I took a field trip to a food photography studio. The encounter sticks in my mind not because the job sounded particularly interesting, but because I remember the photographers describing how often they had to cover the food with inedible glazes and fake water droplets in order to make it presentable enough to shoot. One of them told us he once took home a rare, unsprayed pie, only to discover that the crust was filled with newspaper.
This childhood memory jumped to mind as I walked through Ryan Lee gallery’s exhibition of Sandy Skoglund’s Food Still Lifes, a series of 10 color photographs of painstakingly arranged processed foods, all set against popular — and at times instantly recognizable — 1970s contact papers. Shot in 1978, when the artist was in her early 30s, the series marks the beginning of what came to be Skoglund’s signature style of staged, surreal, and carefully pigmented tableaux.
The gleaming white walls of a commercial gallery are perfect for this series, which melds classical still life paintings with Cold War–era consumer culture. Skoglund’s images of corn, peas, and carrots — all obviously taken out of a can — hang on one wall. A second presents us with more obviously processed foods: marble cake, rectangular slices of ham, and Keebler Fudge Stripes. On the third wall, the food is merely implied — save for one lonely orange, the only seemingly natural food in the series — by way of mysterious boxes wrapped in the same contact papers as their backgrounds.
Skoglund’s pairing and arrangement of foods with the matching designs, textures, and colors of the papers is astounding. The careful consideration of hues especially calls to mind the photographs of William Eggleston, while the self-consciously artificial compositions are characteristic of someone like Cindy Sherman — both artists who made some of their best work in the 1970s. “Nine Slices of Marble Cake,” “Luncheon Meat on a Counter,” and “Cookies on a Plate” are particularly arresting for the way they play with the two-dimensionality of the photograph itself. Shot from above, they lack the shadows that would place these compositions in the real world. It’s as if they, like the processed foods they show, only exist in the abstract, as Platonic forms. But isn’t that what commercial photography has always aimed for — presenting the idealized image of something that has and will never exist in real life?
Which brings us back to my field trip to the photography studio. Like the story of the newspaper-filled piecrust, Food Still Lifes reminds us of the emptiness of so much of what we eat, our increasing distance from what we call food, and, perhaps most importantly, the artifice of tricking ourselves into desiring something that straddles the line between fiction and reality. It’s called “food porn” for a reason.
Sandy Skoglund: Food Still Lifes continues at Ryan Lee (515 W 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 11.