Rick Poynor | Exposure

Exposure: Guts of the Beast by Marcus Nilsson

Marcus Nilsson, from “Guts of the Beast,” published in Black Ink, Fall/Winter 2012

The food picture is one of the most popular genres in contemporary photography. It thrives as an area of professional practice, where stylists and photographers have taken mouth-watering scrumptiousness to new heights of indulgence, and legions of smartphone snappers upload pictures of meals cooked at home or consumed in restaurants. Countless websites offer the same set of tips on how to take better food pictures—don’t use flash, do use a tripod, find the best angle, select good props, and so on.

Concern with what we eat is natural and universal, but the coverage of food in reality TV shows, celebrity chef books, blogs, and social media has reached a hysterical pitch. The drool-inducing culinary close-ups give spectacular expression to a culture in which people affluent enough not to worry about where the next meal is coming from spend a vast amount of time obsessing over food. These images have been called food porn, and as with actual porn, the etymology has evolved from a concern with social harm, caused by the promotion of unhealthy eating, to the pictures’ normalization as a source of pleasure free from moral judgement, and back to social harm again.

Although the best food photographers develop personal styles, the genre is largely formulaic, and experiments with the subject are unusual because most outlets don’t require it. Marcus Nilsson’s still life of a pig’s ears and trotters is a rare exception, its unsentimental matter-of-factness as likely to unsettle meat-eaters (and disgust vegetarians) as it is to provoke a hearty appetite. The lighting is clinical and the composition is not a succulent dish but a collection of raw fragments, some of them offcuts rather than ingredients. The supervising chef mentioned the need to shave the pig’s ears when preparing them, and the prop stylist supplied a pink disposable razor, which accentuates the disturbing femininity of the crossed legs. “I think it’s very sexy,” Nilsson told American Photo.

The picture was one of a series the Brooklyn photographer made for a feature titled “Guts of the Beast” published in 2012 by Black Ink, a magazine available only to holders of the elite American Express Centurion card. Does the revelation that this is a pictorial amusement crafted for an audience of the super-rich change how we see it? Do the amputated ears, with their ragged cuts across the ear canal, seem even crueller now? Animals die in their millions so humans can devour their flesh, but the reality of the once-living creature is not something most addicts of glossy food porn seem inclined to contemplate. Nilsson’s arrangement is both truthful and stylized. It offers the spectacle of the uncooked animal parts as a refined form of culinary anticipation for the diner untroubled by qualms. One way or another, the purpose of the food photograph is always to stimulate us to eat.

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