Henry Hargreaves’s Visual Feasts

Consuming food does not always involve the mouth. For food photographer Henry Hargreaves—he cringes at the word ‘artist’—the pleasure he derives from food has little to do with taste. “It’s more about the human connection for me than the actual food,” the New Zealand native says as he finishes his five-dollar takeout. Hargreaves has made a career out of food’s other dimensions: its tactility, its looks, its capacity to tell a story. His elaborate still lifes and cheeky constructions weave graphic design and photography with bananas, Jell-O, cheese, chocolate, sugar cubes, and cake (he has collaborated with 
Aftertastes’s favorite Amirah Kassem). A feast for the eye is still a feast.

We meet at Hargreaves’s photo studio to discuss the myriad ways that food can tell a story without the crutch of taste. It’s worth pointing out that the studio ‘kitchen’ consists of a coffee percolator, an unplugged electric range, and a mini-fridge that says “I love my penis”. 

Everyone has an opinion about food. It’s such a universal common denominator; I didn’t realize it had such a far outreach when I started, which was kind of stupid, of course it does! It’s something that everyone is interested in, and I think that’s because it is not an elitist genre.

I have a few different approaches to food in my work. One is to use food in ways that are totally unexpected; a lot of that moves into the parody of pop culture, where I’ll make presidents’ heads out of Jell-O, or make Rothkos out of rice. My other approach is to use food as a connection between the viewer and someone the viewer might not have much in common with, like with my Band Riders or prisoners’ Last Meals series. By knowing what a person ate, you can understand a little about them; you’ve eaten the same thing, and it helps you empathize with them. I can read all I want about Lady Gaga but I have not the faintest sense of what she’s like, but if I know that she likes her cheese on ice, suddenly it’s like ‘oh, ok!’

Power Hungry, my most recent project, is much more driven by meals. I was curious as to how conquerors and dictators ate, but where I’ve used food in the past to connect subjects with viewers, I of course didn’t want to do that with people who have committed genocide. Caitlin Levin, my collaborator, suggested that we show the disparity between rich and poor—this is what the 99% in North Korea have to eat, this is what the 1% eat—and to explore specific food stories within the meals; like Kim Jong Un with his emmental cheese addiction, or the rise of obesity in wealthy Korean children because they are addicted to Chinese candy. Another story I wanted to explore was about the food system being one of the most effective techniques in war. In the medieval era, soldiers would surround castles to prevent their enemies from accessing their own crops, which would lead to starvation. Or how governments can keep their power by making it difficult for people to access food. And in the US, there are food deserts; if you’re on food stamps, your dinner might be cereal or Wonderbread with peanut butter and jelly. The series explores all of that.

I am conscious of waste. I mean, the world is not worse off if some Jell-O doesn’t make its way into someone’s belly, but with other things—bananas, tomatoes—I try to save what I can. I’ll take the unused leftovers to dinner parties. I once brought a bag of tomatoes to a friend who then made a relish, which he gave back to me. I try not to be part of the problem that I’m trying to comment on, although I’m sure over the entirety of my career I’ll waste enough food for a pretty small wedding.

Part of the reason I use food this way comes down to the fact that I can’t cook. I’ve had to create this simpler playing field for myself, because I want to play but I don’t know the rules. I know that I could learn how to cook, and I’ve chosen not to. I’m not sure if that’s laziness or if that’s a way to separate myself from other food photographers, because almost every food photographer is a cook. I still think of food as this magical thing that is a little beyond me, that I can still look at with childlike wonder.

But food can also be contradictory. When Caitlin and I made the food maps, we received so much hate mail. The amount of people who were like ‘why is Italy made out of tomatoes when tomatoes originally come from South America?’… And the reality was that we prioritized the aesthetic over the associations. It was much more about what would look good and stay fresh after we had chopped it all up.

It’s only once I’ve worked out an idea for a project that I consider the symbolism inherent in the food I use. Not growing up here, I didn’t pick up on the additional symbolism in a lot of the foods, and often I’ll only realize those associations after the project is done. When I decided to do the Jell-O presidents, for example, I didn’t even know that Jell-O was an American company. I also don’t like giving people too much to go on; just enough for them to make their own connections.

“To keep innovating means to expose yourself to new inspiration and stimuli.”

After the presidents’ heads, Jell-O became one of my staple materials. I got commissioned to do these chair portraits out of Jell-O. I’ve made cartoons out of Jell-O and clay, typography out of Jell-O. I know how the material responds. But like any creative, you start to get into these comfort zones. I have to check myself a lot of the time, because I feel like the work can start to repeat itself. It’s a natural evolution; you’re going to get lazy, and you get asked to do things that you’ve already done. You’ve got to be aware of that, and tell yourself to keep innovating. And to keep innovating means to expose yourself to new inspiration and stimuli.

I want my work to tell a story, to be attractive to look at, and to put a smile on my face. The same goes for the art I like, artists who put humor into their art and don’t take themselves too seriously. Like Maurizio Cattelan—Toilet Paper is one of my favorite things. I like Vik Muniz a lot, he’s a guy who plays with the expectations of things. And Damien Hirst, he gets a shitload of flak but I kind of like him—I like the “if I can get away with it, I will” aspect. It’s easy to knock him, but if he wasn’t the wealthiest living artist today, if he was a struggling guy in Bushwick, I think everyone would think he’s a rockstar.

I recently bought Salvador’s Dali’s surrealist cookbook, Les Diners de Gala. There is only one edition, from the early 70s. Looking at it, the food just looks so unappetizing by today’s aesthetic, but back then, you know, it was the best food in the world. I like that aesthetic shift. I think that can be a fun story.