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    Why All of That Instagram Food Porn Is Shot From Above

    Photo by the author

    Spend a day in Manhattan, and you’ll begin to feel as if you’re levitating above all the images of food you encounter.

    First, there’s a display in the Macy’s window, where a dinner table set for six is fastened to the wall, allowing any passerby a bird’s eye view of the place settings and floral centerpiece despite the fact that it’s  perpendicular to any pedestrian’s actual perspective. Duck into a contemporary art gallery in Chelsea, and you may be greeted by Joe Nanashe’s melting popsiclesJae Yong Kim and Peter Anton’s respective doughnuts, Motoyuki Daifu’s vegetable tempura, or Vik Muniz’s pasta marinara, all composed from an elevated point-of-view. Uptown at the newly renovated Cooper Hewitt Museum, you take a spin around the current exhibition, “Tools: Extending Our Reach,” only to find that even designer duo Charles and Ray Eames opened their iconic film Powers of Ten one meter away from Earth, hovering over a picnic spread.

    Витрина Добро Пожаловать к столу #NYC

    A photo posted by GamEl (@gama775) on

    Looking for respite at a newsstand, you can leaf through the newest issues of Bon Appétit and Lucky Peach, only to realize that their covers, too, (a squid ink pasta dish and an inventory of pastries, respectively) have been photographed from an aerial viewpoint. These glossy pages whet your appetite, and your index finger springs for the Seamless icon on your phone. The app’s interface presents you with a basket of onion rings, shot from overhead, while you wait for your food delivery to load.

    Seamless arrives, you tip generously, and go to town on that New York cheesesteak at your office desk. Between bites, you peruse your Instagram feed, only to be met with an onslaught of aerial food porn: painstakingly organized smoothie bowls from @leefromamerica and @twohandsnyc, waffles topped with oozy eggs from @infatuation, and doughnuts paired with fried chicken from @alice_gao.

    The ubiquity of the top-down “foodstagram” plants the seed for a spiral of conspiracy theories. For example, do restaurants like Cosme design their precise lighting in order to inspire a flurry of aerial Instagrams starring their signature “#huskmeringue”, which has its own hashtag? The aesthetic appeal of a bird’s eye view is apparent, but formulaic overhead shots of white plates on mahogany tables quickly become monotonous.

    Photo by the author

    The “god’s eye view” of a tablescape is old hat for a reason: employing this angle is the easiest way to get a not-half-bad iPhone snapshot. By raising your elbows to a higher altitude than usual or squatting above your seat during mealtime, you gain leverage over the food arena, create an allusion of flatness with your dominating perspective, and voilà—you’ve transformed your lunch into food porn.

    But this technique for picturing food is not a recent revelation born out of Tumblr or Instagram. In 1960, Swiss artist Daniel Spoerri constructed his first snare pictures: assemblages of objects like plates, coffee cups and ashtrays glued on to tables from restaurants and domestic spaces, recreating the exact arrangement of how the items were found. Spoerri, who identifies as a “paster of found situations,” sources these assemblages from specific and personal instances. For example, when his girlfriend Kichka left her breakfast dishes and dregs in the kitchen one morning, Spoerri attached the readymade composition of leftover eggshells, coffee pots and cigarette butts to a wood panel and titled it Kichka’s Breakfast I.

    In this process, Spoerri turns meal into memory. When Spoerri installs his work, he attaches it to the wall, facing outward. These foreshortened, wall-bound objects read as rectangles, inviting the audience to approach the pieces as two-dimensional surfaces rather than as sculptures. Spoerri’s snare pictures challenged the conventions of traditional still-lifes, notable in oeuvres ranging from Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s to Wayne Thiebaud’s, long before the advent of the Internet.

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    Daniel Spoerri, Hahn’s (Last) Supper, 1964. Photo via Flickr user Pavel Flegontov

    A visual language this ubiquitous will likely influence your own smartphone photography practice. After encountering this kind of photography in the print and digital media you consume daily, you may take the occasional aerial photograph of your morning avocado toast and relish the rewards of instant aesthetic gratification, and the flood of affirming “likes” that follow. These one-trick ponies are the dispensable images that inundate our contemporary visual culture and cloud our understanding of the nuanced difference between an aesthetically pleasing picture and a compelling photograph.

    TwoHands_photobyEdithYoung
    Photo by the author

    If this perspectival trend permeates contemporary art, department-store displays, newspapersmusic videos, and the social media channels and digital interfaces we interact with everyday, what might that suggest about our culture and its relationship to food? Consider the possibility that these images may be more psychologically revealing than they appear on the surface.

    If we, as photographers or viewers, assume the point-of-view of God (or the Cloud, whichever operates at the center of your personal belief system), we expose our own buried desire to have complete control over the food we consume. This foreshortened perspective appeals to us on a near-universal scale—perhaps because we are programmed to be enchanted by an aerial viewpoint that perceptually flatters our innermost ambition to be omnipotent.

    By employing the perspective often attributed to a monotheistic deity (i.e., God), we might be affirming our own default mode of solipsism. It embodies the inherent belief that only our own mind’s existence is certain. As David Foster Wallace once wrote, “Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence … Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of.”

    Including, say, this symmetrically composed, top-down Instagram of grapefruit you just uploaded.

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    Photo by the author

    Maybe the stakes are lower, and this cultural phenomenon of overhead “food porn’ doesn’t implicate us in our most primitive yearnings for power, but instead exposes our aesthetic inclination towards flatness, the same softening of dimensionality that drew Andy Warhol to the Polaroid and Millennials to the selfie.

    Or we may have just trained ourselves to consume visual culture from an overhead perspective, with craned necks as our eyes remain glued to our smartphones.

    Topics: art, Daniel Spoerri, food porn, Instagram, iPhones, social media