5. La Rue des Lots of Greek Fast Food Places
Published: 31.03.2018
in the series Let Us Now Praise Damaged Photographs
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From Brussels Central Station I walk down to Rue du Marché aux Fromages. I have a job to do. Let's say I'm about to begin a research project on food photography in the post-digital European city. Expected duration: one day. It has to start here and no place else because Rue du Marché aux Fromages really should be named Rue des Lots of Greek Fast Food Places. There's one gyros place and then another gyros place next door and then another gyros place next door. All of them advertise their "Pitta Maïs" and "Pitta Hawaii" and "Dürüm Gyros" in excellent picture series right next to the store window and out on the street. These are photographic typologies in the spirit of Bernd & Hilla Becher. First finding of research project (though this may need more fact-checking): You will see more interesting photographs in this street than in all of MoMA's collections.

Standing in front of Plaka (or Hellas or Santorini), I open the camera app on my phone. It's raining. Raindrops hit the screen. They close the camera app. I reopen the app. The raindrops close it. I re-reopen it. Later I will be able to see this as interesting slapstick testifying to the various materialities, meteorological and electronic, informing contemporary photography. Right now it just makes me nervous. I'm unhappy with the general Western European weather pattern. I'm unhappier still with Samsung's sensitive screens. I grimace. I find some way to not have the rain hit the phone. And right away I face the next issue. Because basically I want to take pictures of these fast food places without asking for anyone's permission. I'm a flaneur, right? Did Helen Levitt need permission? Did Henri Cartier-Bresson? Well, flaneurs of the future, be warned. Because the folks at Plaka, Hellas and Santorini can see you. The big windows work both ways. Of course you can observe who's preparing your Pitta Hawaii. But they can also spot who's coming in and who may be coming in and who's standing outside awkwardly fiddling with his phone in order to take sneaky pictures of their advertising. Second finding of research project: Greek fast food place architecture complicates overly simplistic readings of Foucauldian panopticon.

So the first work displayed here doesn't seem like much of a photograph. I had to shoot while already running away. It was a way to begin, though.

All photographs taken by the author.

Note the multitude of the pineapple pieces. The shy gestures performed by corn. The generous, juicy inner life of the dürüm. And the pictures themselves framed by two different kinds of Mediterranean blue. They transport all the energy emerging from the kitchen. They want you.

Keep moving and you'll see more. A few streets away, for instance, a powerful arrangement of chicken, merguez, salad and rice, combined with prose evocations of pizza variations and sandwiches.

Other series prefer to hint at the nuances of typology.

And then, in some cases, food photography projects such intensity that it doesn't need any words at all. This may not even be advertising. A visual journal? Conceptual art?

Or the photographs interact with neutral surfaces. In this particular case, the warm cheesiness of pizza turns even warmer and cheesier in an architectural context impersonal and slightly cold.

Food photographs have this knack for effortlessly joining mysterious arrangements. This one is so hard to figure out.

Sometimes the pictures are the only survivors of a sudden economic downturn.

Sometimes, a human protagonist helps to tell the story.

Or a plant supplies ambiguous reflections on freshness.

Are all of these photographs damaged? Maybe. In many cases their colors are faded. In others their contexts make them seem so odd that the pictures, as advertising, just appear self-defeating. If you're stuck in the digital mode, their imperfections will seem crass. And if your last encounter with food photography was through coffee-table-and-superfancy-kitchen-counter-books like Fäviken or Studio Olafur Eliasson: The Kitchen, then all these sequences are going to seem like so many documents of ugliness.

And yet. Don't you just have to love these photographs? Consider how they're doing their jobs. They're as tough and hard-working as the people at the counters and in the kitchens. See them struggle to hit your eyes, your taste buds, your stomach. They're exposed and unprotected. They're courageous and heroic. Or so they seem to me when I'm done for the day (and thus done with the project) and I'm somewhere close to Sainte Catherine trying to find my way around construction sites. Walking up to Rogier, I'm trying to connect these photographs and the work they do with the earlier episodes of this blog. My pieces discussed photographs showing signs of neglect, signs of use, signs of need. A portrait whose creases make us understand an African American woman's complicated 20th century biography. A bent Holocaust memorial at a commuter train station. A survivor and the photographs she had cut up and smuggled into Bergen-Belsen. There's no neat conclusion to these stories. But I did learn a whole lot about imperfections and damaged surfaces and how they open things up. And then I'm on Boulevard Adolphe Max and to my right I see all this light flowing across Rue Malines and I move closer and there's a photo installation that transports me away from the real. Sandwiches float in space. From left to right. Pure magic. And behind them, underneath all these lights and framed by so many more photographs, a young man's busy preparing food. Real food. I want to take a decent picture of this place and this man. I could just ask for his permission, but I can't find the words. So I come back an hour later. I'm still too shy. So I come back a day later. I still can't really do it. So the only picture I have is out of focus. For one second I think the place is called La Chambre Claire. But then I learn that I'm mistaken.

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