Thursday, November 11, 2010

A recipe for collective identity in the food photographs of Magnum

Posted by David Ryder, guest blogger.

Above image: Martin Parr/Magnum. New York City.

"Milk is more than a food, it is an embodiment of the politics of American identity over the last 150 years." -E. Melanie DuPuis, Nature's Perfect Food. Page 8.

Milk is not just something that provides sustenance; it is a location for the manifestation and (re)production of collective identity. As DuPuis says, milk embodies American identity and the politics that are a part of that. There is a multitude of reasons for this and one is that food, power and culture go hand-in-hand, especially when talking about milk. But of course, it is not just milk that embodies collective identity. Recipes, traditions, restaurants, brands, and food in general - all of these things emobdy, produce, and reproduce collective identity. The goal of this blog post is to show how this happens, visually, through a critique of a selection of images from photographers of Magnum Photos. Magnum is home to some of the world's best photographers, many of whom have shot food at one point or another in their careers. Some food photographs of Magnum's are famous, while others are not.

Beginning with the opening image, we can see that the gratuitous use of the American flag shows the 'Americanness' of the food on display. The photographer, Martin Parr, is a British photographer who photographs Western culture in a way that is often funny or critical. He often shots food, which for him seems to be one of the easiest targets of critique in the U.S. and the U.K. Here, the sausages and the bright colors mix with the harsh on-camera flash to create a stale, unnatural snapshot of American eating habits. We see collective identity and it is not pretty. Of course, many Americans do not eat meat and even the notion of 'collective identity' is problematic in that regard, but nonetheless the 'Americanness' of the photograph is easily read and comes across visually without the need for a caption.

Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum

Above we see an image by the co-founder of Magnum, Cartier-Bresson, who made this photograph for a journalistic story on the lives of workers in France. In the image, working class people enjoy a meal by the River Marne. Cartier-Bresson gives us a sense of the life of the working class French through the picnic setting and the placement of the river in the background. Clearly for them, sharing meals is a nice way to come together and relax. The moment that really makes the photo is the pouring of what looks like wine, and this decisive moment also helps us to see that wine is part of the subjects' life.

Gueorgui Pinkhassov/Magnum. Uzbekistan.

Above is an image of a market in Uzbekistan. What is different about this image is that we see the potential for social interaction and the sharing of ideas and friendships at the location where raw food supplies are purchased - in this case the raw food supply is a live chicken. Instead of identity production through the sharing of a meal or the still life of a processed meat product, we see the location of the market as a cultural hotspot. The image clearly shows multiple people at the market, albeit silhouettes, and we can make out several other chicken silhouettes, too. The chicken is in color, with the red attracting our attention, and it is placed centrally in the frame. The humans, secondary in the image, are in the background, and it feels like they are surrounding us as the viewers, giving the photograph has an almost three-dimensional feel. The food commodity - the chicken - is here in the image as the central point around which the people can congregate, interact, and build connections.

Alex Webb/Magnum. Istanbul, Turkey.

Finally, we see an image from Alex Webb, which is the cover image for his book, Istanbul. The image has a beautifully soft interplay of color, typical of Webb's work, and in this case the complementary reds and greens are adding depth and a mysterious comfort to the frame. The look of the boy adds mystery, as does the cotton candy, which seems absurd in this almost medieval setting. The image was made during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month in which one must fast during the daylight hours. We can see by the color and qualities of the lighting that it is nighttime, and the fact that the boy is eating means that the fast for the day must have ended. The draw for me in this photo is the cotton candy, for something would be lacking if the image only included the boy with nothing in his hand. Of course the scene is captivating and the boy and his sweater are intriguing, but it is the cotton candy that is what takes this photo from being good to being great. And it is the connection that I have to cotton candy, and the meaning it has for me, which makes cotton candy work well in this context. I do not doubt that it was the cotton candy that made Webb snap the picture in the first place, because Webb's interest in Istanbul is rooted in its mixed characteristics of East and West. For Webb, and for me, the cotton candy has a meaning that says 'West,' while the rest of the environment in the photo says 'East.' It seems that the boy is standing in a setting that could be anywhere in the Middle East, while he is holding a snack that looks like it was purchased moments ago from a vendor on Coney Island in New York.

As we can see, food holds meaning for all of us. It can represent many things, from being all-American, to being working class and French, and it can be the central part of a social hub like a market in Uzbekistan. Food can also house the idea of the West, even if that food is being consumed during Ramadan in a supposedly Eastern geographical location like Turkey. Food is much more than sustenance; it is full of meaning and that is why we as humans can shape our collective identities through it.

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