A Visually Delectable Graduating Project: Modernizing Food Still Life Paintings into Photographs

by Meg Jones Wall

When it came time for me to start considering my final project for the Gastronomy program, I admit that I was completely overwhelmed. I knew that I wanted to use my photography skills and my interest in food styling to create some kind of visual project. It took several months of stressing, and a lot of help from my peers and advisors, but eventually I worked it out — I would research historic food still life paintings, then turn them into modern photographs. Having little experience with art history and still learning a lot about photography and food styling, I was pretty intimidated with my project. However, the delight of being able to play with food, figure out how to recreate these stunning (and extremely specific) props, and learning to manipulate my images in the proper way was too tempting to pass up.

The ultimate purpose of the project was to help me gain a greater understanding of the use of artistic elements in the paintings, such as composition, color, light, balance, and shape, as well as to create a visual collection of the images that could be studied and compared. After a lot of agonizing I chose three still life paintings, each featuring a glass of wine and other food items, from three different artists: Pieter Claesz, Paul Cezanne, and Georg Flegel. After researching and analyzing the paintings, I then created two photographs to accompany each one — a recreation of the original image, and an interpretative photograph done in my own artistic style. The final project was a book of the images, which includes some brief explanations and analysis, and an accompanying paper that goes into more depth on art history and the artistic elements that I focused on.

Pieter Claesz, “A Still Life with a Large Roemer, a Knife Resting on a Silver Plate Bearing a Partly-Peeled Lemon, Walnuts and Hazelnuts, on a Marble Ledge”

Pieter Claesz
Meg Jones Wall, Claesz Imitation
Meg Jones Wall, Claesz Interpretation

I won’t lie – creating these photographs was no easy task. Many of the props were so period-specific that to purchase replicas would be far too expensive, especially considering the amount I was already spending on food, plates, fabric, wine…I was forced to create goblets with glasses I already had, coupled with cuff bracelets, aluminum foil, paint, and a lot of imagination. Other items were simply impossible to find, so I had to be creative and develop substitutes that wouldn’t be so different from the original as to be distracting.

Paul Cezanne, “Still Life with Bread and Eggs”

Paul Cezanne
Meg Jones Wall, Cezanne Imitation
Meg Jones Wall, Cezanne Interpretation

Taking the photographs themselves was almost as challenging as the preparations  —  I would shift all of my items a centimeter, then take 20 more shots, obsessing over the tiny details that could completely change the composition of the image. If the balance was off or the color was too dull, it was like a blaring spotlight on my error,  too wrong to be ignored. But the final photos are worth all the time and effort it took to create them. I modernized the images, using my own style, in the process, improving my photography and emphasizing my personal photographic signature.

Georg Flegel, “Snack with Fried Eggs”

Georg Flegel
Meg Jones Wall, Flegel Imitation
Meg Jones Wall, Flegel Interpretation

Meg Jones Wall graduated from the MLA Gastronomy program in January, and is currently developing the food section for an online magazine that will be launching in the fall. When she’s not writing, Meg can be found wandering farmer’s markets, developing recipes, and photographing everything in sight for her food blog, ginger-snapped.

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