Images to Eat: Photography and Food, From the Book, “What is the semiotics of photography”

with Dario Mangano


Looking at a photograph seems like an entirely natural experience to us. We’re used to it, we see plenty and we take lots too. Our world would not be the same without photos. We look at them to understand what a newspaper article is about, and before that to decide if we want to read it. We look at them to know what’s in fashion or to choose what car to buy, and of course to remember what we did, where we were and what we were like. Judgment is often instant and certain: we like it or we don’t like it. In short, it’s a given: Photographs communicate, and they do it in such an immediate way that the only comparison that seems to fit is with language.

In the majority of cases we are willing to content ourselves with this evidence, certain that it is enough to speak a language in order to understand it, but most of all that having identified such a principle is an end point. Then, if we are lucky enough, we come across a really good photograph (strangely photographs are not beautiful or ugly, but good, like food).

This time we look at it for a bit longer, and before realizing it we find we are travelling through it as one would travel through an unknown and fascinating land. When we finally manage to tear ourselves away, we understand that we cannot completely detach ourselves, because the photograph in some way continues to work inside us. It has shown us a fragment of the world and a fraction of a second that has now passed; we know this, and yet something doesn’t add up. The window that has opened is neither neutral nor innocent, but exercises some kind of action. It does not just show a fact, it signifies it, in other words it gives it a human and social meaning. It is to understand what this something is and how it works that we need semiotics.

This is particularly true when the image is related to food, photographed now more than ever before. We use photos not just to illustrate cookbooks and advertise food products, but even before tasting the dish we have in front of us, almost as though it is the camera that deserves the first bite.