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'In Focus: Tasteful Pictures' puts food photos on the Getty's menu

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With just about a gazillion pictures of food on blogs and websites, accessible at the touch of a BlackBerry button, it might seem a little ho-hum to stage a museum show of food photography.

But an exhibition at the Getty Museum called "In Focus: Tasteful Pictures" is anything but boring.

In just one room, the exhibition, drawn from the museum's permanent collection, traces food photography over 150 years, from the mid-19th century to today. It includes meticulously staged still lifes, a performance art photogram and an enormous jumble of contraband food.

Not one of these pictures is made with a digital camera, said Virginia Heckert, associate curator in the museum's photography department and curator of the exhibit.

She said the images are meant to illuminate the history of photography, not just show off what someone ordered in a restaurant. The pictures also are intended to show how the photographers used the technical aspects of their art.

The exhibit came to be in part from a desire to show for the first time "Supper With Heinecken," by Floris Neususs and acquired in 1999 from Susan and Graham Nash, he of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young fame.

The 1983 piece — a photogram the size of a dining table and placed in the center of the one-room show — was made after a workshop that the photographer Robert Heinecken gave for Neususs' students. Auto reversal paper was spread over a table in a darkroom with only a safelight on, Heckert said.

The guests sat, and the paper was exposed for five seconds at the start of the meal and again at the end of it, with food and drink spilled all over. The resulting photo shows hands and wine glasses, a bottle opener, noodles and forks, grapes and shadowy forms that are hard to discern. The guests also signed their names.

"Everyone wants to leave their mark. No one wants to be forgotten," Maite Gomez-Rejon, who combines art and food in classes she gives at museums and elsewhere, said after seeing the show. The picture, she said, reminded her of ancient Roman floor mosaics that depicted fish heads, lemons and other food people ate.

The piece documents the ephemeral activity of the meal. "It's kind of messy, but it's also fabulous," Heckert said.

In contrast, the oldest photographs in the exhibit, made in the 19th century, mimic the composition and style of Old Masters still-life paintings.

In a studio photograph, Adolphe Braun presents a boar posed with its snout to the ground, between vine-covered branches. The horn and the gun of the hunt sit alongside.

"It's carefully staged to emulate the aesthetic standards" of higher arts such as painting, Heckert said.

Such pictures also show tastes change. "People would have been salivating" over the boar in its time, but today it seems grisly, she said.

That also might be because the painted boar is more appealing than the photographed one, which "just looks like a dead animal," Gomez-Rejon said.

The exhibit includes work by Man Ray, Weegee, Edward Weston and Roger Fenton.

One set of photographs, taken in the 20th century, shows off the mechanics of the art, focusing on cropping, abstractions, shadows and the elimination of the context of the subject — everyday foods like noodles, bananas and chocolate bars.

Among them is the exquisite "Peas in a Pod," taken about 1935 by Edward W. Quigley. The picture makes it impossible to see the peas just as nourishment; they're elegant and weighty.

Although all the pictures are of food, they're not all necessarily about food, said Heckert, who considered nearly 100 pictures for the exhibit. For example, a 1930 Weston photograph of five ripe, spotty bananas tangled in a basket is about the shape, "how the camera could reveal that essential form," not unlike his photographs of nude women, she said.

A few photos were taken for commercial use. Among the latter is a photograph by Man Ray from 1931 called "Kitchen (Cuisine)" and commissioned by a Paris utility company to promote the use of electricity. It shows a bed of rice topped by a chicken that's scrawny by today's standards. From its tail end emerges a coil, added in the darkroom and suggesting a heating element. It's hard to imagine that picture endearing people to the L.A. Department of Water and Power.

The two most recent pieces, including one from Martin Parr's "British Food" series that is on view for the first time, show food in ways that can be unsettling.

Parr's 1995 piece is made up of 24 small photographs, among them a full breakfast, white bread on a white plate, and a plate of bangers, or sausages, that look a bit like slimy worms. The garish nature of the pictures helps create an impression of the British "not really as a culture that savors food," Heckert said.

The final picture, taken in 2005, shows an astonishing pile of plant and animal contraband confiscated from travelers at JFK Airport in New York over just 48 hours. Near the center is a whole pig's head. There also are African cane rats infested with maggots, all manner of fruit and Andean potatoes. Taryn Simon's photograph, with its lush, saturated color, documents a modern moment and captures the feeling of a Baroque still life, Heckert noted.

For Gomez-Rejon, many of the pictures told stories. And Simon's reminded her of her Texas childhood, near the border of Mexico. When her family would bring mangoes back over the border, she recalled, her mother would light a cigarette to mask their scent. She imagines the owners of the contraband as people like her family, but who happened to get caught.

The exhibit is part of a series at the Getty called "In Focus." Others in the series have included "The Nude" and "Making a Scene"; "Tasteful Pictures" runs until Aug. 22. "Still Life" opens in September.

mary.macvean@latimes.com

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