JTF (just the facts): A total of 25 color photographs, generally framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are color prints (no specific process noted), made between 1995 and 2001. Physical sizes are either 7×10 or 20×30 inches, and the prints are available in editions of 33. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: The photographs in Martin Parr’s series British Food were mostly made in 1995, years before the ubiquitous smartphone snapshot of a person’s meal became its own kind of food selfie. Now more than two decades later, this gallery show reprises these before-their-time pictures, and they haven’t lost any of their freshness.
The reason these pictures have retained so much of their biting vibrancy is that they simultaneously operate on two very different levels. On the surface, we can see them as a gloriously wry taxonomy of food options, and of the national quirks that are manifested in British cuisine. Parr offers us a parade of meals and specialities that will likely look familiar to locals and puzzlingly odd (and perhaps less than entirely appetizing in some cases) to outsiders.
For the main courses, there are mushy peas and squishy sausages, poached tomatoes and fried eggs, and wondrously messy plates of mixed salads with beets, onions, and lettuce stewing in unidentifiable creamy sauces. The bread course consists of a crumpet (or is it a scone?) with jelly and cream and slices of white bread. And the desserts pile up and multiply with delight: doughnuts, red and blue cupcakes with iced British flags on top, an artfully sculpted slice of lemon meringue pie, a green popsicle, and various cakes, some encrusted with rainbow nonpareils. Together, they are a cultural map of sorts, or at least a sampler of the cheery blandness that once defined British food.
Photographically, Parr hijacks the snapshot aesthetic and remakes it as his own. By cropping the compositions down to close ups of the food and then blasting them with what can only be called an aggressive use of flash, he turns his still lifes into color studies that thrum with eye popping vibrancy.
Those same mushy peas are now a lumpy textural landscape of glowing green. The shriveled tomatoes and sausage explode off the ordinary white plate that holds them, their redness now electric. Uncooked sausages and chewed gum have disconcertingly similar pink hues, while the messy plates have become wholly expressionistic, with whirling gestures of salad dressing connecting blobs of deep color (particularly the leftover beets).
Parr adds a further layer of brash color contrast when he frames the food against the backdrop of the person eating it. A doughnut (with one bite gone) is held in front of a brown plaid sport coat, the crumpet with cream and jelly is set off by a multicolored spotted dress, and the lime popsicle sits in front of a boy’s color-blocked jacket, with areas of purple, orange, and yellow fighting with bold stripes in black and white. As the pictures pass by, it is almost as if Parr was intentionally trying to one up himself, the level of bright color cacophony ratcheting up step by step.
In the years since the original British Food series, Parr has expanded his food photography to encompass visual samples found all over the world, his recent publication Real Food (reviewed here) going far beyond the shores of Britain in search of culinary eccentricity. But this show takes us back to where it all began, providing visible clues to the evolving aesthetic formula Parr has now honed to cutting sharpness.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at either £900 or £4000, based on size. Parr’s prints are intermittently available in the secondary markets, with recent prices ranging between roughly $1000 and $15000.
I can confirm that they are indeed scones in Parr’s pictures, and not crumpets. The ‘cream tea’ tradition over here consists of scone, jam (US ‘jelly’) and fresh, clotted cream, accompanied by a cup of tea, preferably in a posh cup. It’s a lower middle class treat. I just thought I should set the record straight on that key point.