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Photography Review

Unnatural-looking food, inhuman-looking museum guards

Paul Greenberg’s “Guard with Henry Moore’’ at the Griffin Museum of Photography. Paul Greenberg’s “Guard with Henry Moore’’ at the Griffin Museum of Photography.
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / May 30, 2010

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WINCHESTER — Food photography has a long and cheerfully ignoble history.

A decade ago, I interviewed John Szarkowski, the legendary curator of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He’d started as an assistant in a Chicago commercial photography studio. When a photographer arrived to take Szarkowski’s picture, they regaled each other with tales of photo shoots for food ads. Put salt in the beer (makes a great head of foam)! Use shaving cream on the desserts (holds up much better than whipped cream under hot lights)!

The irony of Mary Parisi’s photographs of food is that, although completely undoctored, they look wildly unnatural, even unrecognizable, compared to the luscious offerings we see in the pages of magazines and supermarket fliers. “Mary Parisi: Food’’ runs at the Griffin Museum of Photography through June 20.

Before becoming a photographer, Parisi was a sculptor. She used photography to document her work (which was made out of fruit — already she showed an artistic interest in food). The documentation evolved to become food photographs for their own sake.

What’s more real — more material and meaty — than food? Yet Parisi’s relentlessly close-up color pictures of soup and ham and cooked chicken flirt with, and often outright embrace, abstraction. Their size adds to the effect. Most are 30 inches by 30 inches. What comes across is the essential unreality of the nutrition in question: something that was once a living creature and now has been processed and cooked and even, in some cases, covered with plastic wrap.

“I see food as complicated comfort,’’ Parisi writes in an artist’s statement, noting food’s capacity to be simultaneously “beautiful and delicious and horrible.’’ The delicious part is a bit hard to see. The bubbled condensation inside the shrink wrap can look like bits of Plexiglass — yum.

The images certainly play up food’s conceptual complicatedness. They’re also visually arresting, though not as arresting as some of the titles: “Wounded Soup,’’ “Textured Soup,’’ “Ham Mountain,’’ “Blackberry Residue,’’ “Tomato Spatter.’’ They could be names for bands. The important point is that they remind us, no less than the images they bear do, how much our understanding of what we eat depends on what we think, assume, and, yes, ignore.

Images of food are all around us. The same can’t be said for images of museum guards. Which makes all the more impressive that one show about them recently closed (“Andy Freeberg: Guardians,’’ at the Clark Gallery, in Lincoln) and “Paul Greenberg: The Museum Guard Project’’ is here at the Griffin. Like Parisi’s show, it runs through June 20

The Greenberg exhibition, which consists of 15 black-and-white wide-format photographs (they’re 18 inches by 8 inches), has a simple concept. Greenberg shoots museum guards in a gallery in proximity to a work of art. The guards are unposed, almost always the only person visible, and usually unaware of what Greenberg is up to. The one exception shows a guard with hand outstretched approaching the camera. It’s one of two images in the show with a sense of dynamism. The other, “Museum Guard with Giacometti,’’ shows the subject captured in mid-stride, like the figure in the sculptor’s celebrated “Walking Man,’’ which is in the gallery.

Dynamics don’t interest Greenberg. These pictures are about the space the guards are in — more accurately, the juxtapositions within that space. The individuals become formal elements in a visual arrangement, as the walls and art do. The effect can be funny (the somewhat beefy guard in “Museum Guard and Lucian Freud’’ mirrors the more than somewhat beefy figure in the Freud nude) or melancholy (the way the bronzes overpower any human scale in “Guard with Henry Moore’’) or funny and melancholy (the guard with the famed Warhol portrait of the Chinese leader in “Mao and Stills’’).

So while the pictures have emotion, it’s not intrinsic — and it’s slightly inhuman. Psychology doesn’t draw Greenberg. That’s a bit of an opportunity lost. What museumgoer hasn’t wondered about the thoughts that go through guards minds as they stand watch. Do they come to loathe the art they protect? Cherish it all the more? Simply become inured to it? What food is for the rest of us — a near-constant presence in our daily lives — art is for these guards. The state of their appetite is a question of more than gustatory interest.

Also up at the Griffin is “Photosynthesis V,’’ which shows work from photography students at Winchester High School and Boston Arts Academy. They all have talent, and some of them display a great deal of it. One day it may be work of theirs that Greenberg’s guards are watching over.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

MARY PARISI: Food PAUL GREENBERG: The Museum Guard Project

At the Griffin Museum of Photography, 67 Shore Road, Winchester, through June 20. 781-729-1158, www.griffinmuseum.org