A Wild Life and A Feast for the Eyes

  By John Veldhoen

There is an academic discipline for everything.  In literature, scholars have studied genre as it appertains to works of literary expression since the Enlightenment. Long before that, philosophy discerned the production of ideas on the basis of type. Recently, I gave a talk at a local photographic society. I enjoyed doing it, and I liked having the opportunity. I had a question at the end that asked what type of photograph did I think should be made in order to successfully accomplish making a good picture, that is to say, a successful picture, one having a large and appreciative audience. I was at something of a loss answering, however.  The idea that a photographer would look for the elements in a frame as the basis for making a type of photograph seems contrary to the pursuit of photography as an art, or at least as I understand it. Photographers I have paid attention to, who have well-considered approaches to the ethics of photography, even going so far as to justify the ethics of having no ethics at all, and who argued for looking at the elements of a photograph purely as a thing-in-itself, tend to argue largely against type.

Lately, though, I have come to think of genre as an approachable way of learning more about the whole cloth of photography. If someone is interested in a corner of the subject, perhaps that is how to intrigue the viewer, and engage them, or transform their expectations, which were based on taxonomy, into a new way of individual seeing, and getting them all the way to the centre of the subject. The Aperture Foundation has two new books that I think were conceived as a way of achieving this. A Wild Life, a “visual biography” of photographer Michael Nichols, and a collection called Feast for the Eyes, which is the story of food in photography.  These books of pictures could be ostensibly categorized under the rubrics “wildlife” and “food”. Except that in the case of Nichols, the photographer approached his work with the ethical rigor of a reporter, and cares deeply about the whole subject of photography. What is interesting also is that biography is also a very particular genre of literary production, and this book subverts the expectations of writing a life by interleaving biographical descriptions, and photographic expressions. In the life of a photographer what else are the photographs except events housed by life-itself?  

Likewise, food photography has a ritualistic expectation of pre-selected ideas, and values, that make up what is considered “good” and “bad”. What a great photographer does is mix ingredients experimentally, so that categories cease to have value. Flavours blend into new, unfamiliar, but ultimately satisfying concoctions. Cookbooks are all very similar, and the pictures in them are rarely anything but boring. It isn’t just a matter of food, but how it is pictured: Howard Edgerton explodes the apple, Laura Letinsky composes it gracefully, depicts it with all the painterly subtlety of the painter Chardin, while interrogating the whole concept of domestic perfection at the same time. If you want to make food photographs, or if you’re interested in food, you’ll love the inventiveness and playful ingenuity of the pictures in this book: Think of it as expanding your palette.

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In addition to being on our sales team, John curates The Camera Store's book selection and is a contributing author of our blog. He likes to think about photography, talk about photography, and sometimes write about photography.