After World War II, processed food emerged as a major force in America. But there was, at least at first, resistance to the frozen, canned, and dehydrated foods that manufacturers had learned to produce for military. The stuff looked weird, and its flavor and texture was often lacking. Initially, processed foods were even more expensive than fresh foods. 

So how did processed food manage to take over American culture? In a word, marketing. In the decades after the war, manufacturers ran colorful advertisements in magazines, organized nationwide baking contests, and sponsored television programs that suggested ways viewers could use processed foods in their recipes. Photography played a big part in making these strange products look like food worth savoring.

The artist Sandy Skoglund found all this fascinating. In 1978, she created a series of photographs, Food Still Lifes, that simultaneously critiqued and celebrated the food industry and the techniques it used to sell its goods. The series, which has only been shown in its entirety once before, in 1992, will be on display at Ryan Lee Gallery in Manhattan from July 12 through August 11. Select images are also included in the new Aperture book Feast for the Eyes: The Story of Food in Photography. I caught up with Skoglund to find out more about these arresting images and her work in general.

Extra Crispy: What was going on with you artistically in 1978?
Sandy Skoglund: In the '70s, the idea of fine art versus commercial imagery was not as fluid as it is today. There was a total schism between the two. I was interested in was investigating commercialism as a way of thinking about how things look. Food photography is about trying to make things look very natural and very appetizing, and they have to resort to artificial means to do that because the real thing very often does not look as appetizing as they want it to look. It was this enhancement of the real world that interested me. To me, Food Still Lifes is really about the idea that photography doesn’t always tell the truth. It’s just that simple. You can’t help yourself, once you get behind the camera, from going in and editing and moving things around.

This is a critique of photography and commercialism, but it’s a playful one.
In a way, it was making fun of commercial practices. It was a parody based on all the technology, all the lighting styles, all the careful arranging of food photography. That whole editing and massaging of the material really fascinates me.

How did you choose which foods to photograph?
I was trying to find subject matter that was not as common historically in still lifes and yet had a real tradition in commercial photography. I didn’t think too hard about the meaning of the foods, really. I guess I was looking for iconic food that would be common enough that it wouldn’t be mysterious, so that you could look at it and know you were looking at cookies or corn. Then I did extensive shopping for the plates and all the backgrounds.

Those patterns, in many cases, mirrored the patterns of the food.
One of my favorite ones is the lunch meat on the counter. We’re looking at this swirly yellow formica counter top which was very typical of the Mad Men era of the '50s and '60s. Now, what does that mean? It’s about American culture, which basically looked at marble, luxurious European surfaces and says, “Well, why can’t the person that lives in a mobile home have the same feeling as the person who lives in a palazzo?” So we took that look of organic swirly-ness, and we translated it into plastic. It’s kind of a top down approach to luxury that allowed everybody access. Then on top of that you have the luncheon meat, which is another kind of artificial construct. Why is it rectangular? It’s rectangular, so it will fit on the bread. And the idea of beauty in the lunch meat is really not a concern for that manufacturer. Showing the two together—the formica and the meat—hopefully says something about what is beautiful.

The photographs also play with space and dimensions. What was your intention there?
The patterning, the flattening of the space, all of that came out of looking at pattern painting. I really loved pattern painting. The overall intended effect for me was to pose the question, “What am I looking at?” “Am I looking at a photograph or am I looking at a drawing or a painting?” I wanted to make photographs that didn’t look like a photograph at first glance.