Stuart Snelson – Tasteless

In retrospect, he was surprised that it had taken her so long to leave, that she hadn’t packed the car with bare essentials, scuttled the children into the back seat and driven off years ago.

At dinner parties, strangers were politely delighted by his response to career enquiries. A food stylist? That sounds fascinating, they would say, before allowing him a seemingly endless opportunity to prove that it was not. He could talk at length, deliver soporific lectures, upon the best methods for depicting the potato in its manifold forms. He had found, consequently, that social engagements began to dry up.

[private]He was a food fluffer, as some disparagingly referred to his work, a term borrowed from pornography which failed to imbue what he did with a great deal of dignity. Exclusively, he prepared and photographed food for refrigerated ready meals; had somehow generated his own niche.

At the start of his career, as he artfully arranged his inedible tableaux for their photographs, he felt he should have been doing other things, would lose afternoons assessing what had brought him to this juncture. To amuse himself he had played games within the strictures of his remit. Adopting Arcimboldo’s aesthetic, he concealed lascivious shapes within his photographs, smuggled suggestively phallic images onto the supermarket shelves. He awaited a product recall, some observant prude objecting to his culinary obscenities. He waited in vain. Had his peers in the trade noticed his subversions?

Eventually he tired of such childish interventions, applied himself wholeheartedly to his work, would attempt to exhaust the possibilities of his creative outlet. He wouldn’t be doing it for long, he conceded, so may as well make the most of the situation. Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg started out together as window dressers, he eventually tired of telling people by way of explanation regarding his sidelined artistic plans. He didn’t imagine that they stuck with it for ten years though.

With the arrival of children, time started to slip away. He became attached to the role out of financial imperative – it put food on the table – and dreams of leaving to pursue a purer artistic path began to pass. He attempted to take his craft upmarket. To this end he played with composition and light, let art history inform his decisions. Throughout his life he had shown alarming levels of devotion to the most innocuous work, an all-consuming diligence completely out of proportion to the task in hand. His neglected aspirations reared their head, and a misalignment of his creative drive witnessed a focused, tunnel-visioned pursuit of excellence in the field of disposable packaging. Did he really think his work would find an appreciative audience?

As the years passed, he found himself gaining a reputation within the industry and went freelance, overseeing every element of the creative process in his own studio. He would assess the product, and then elevate it to the next level, an attempt to realise the meal’s dormant potential. For him it was a transformative process, making these stodgy convenience foods look more appealing than they actually were, whilst still reflecting, plausibly, the carton’s contents. He viewed it as akin to a makeover, in a similar vein to those people who spent small fortunes on professional studio sessions generating airbrushed enhancements to hang in the hall, portraits of someone who didn’t exist. He knew that none of these meals stood a chance of looking remotely like the highly stylised images that he created. There was an increasing disparity between the packaging and its contents. These meals would struggle to achieve palatability, let alone emulate his photographs. He thought it unlikely that purchasers would analyse in depth their meal and its representation, imagined that these were meals rarely savoured, often devoured. Cooked in three minutes, eaten in two. Convenience was all. There would be no time for comparison between scalding mouthfuls.

If customers had high expectations, they were fooling only themselves. As their meal bubbled and sighed in the microwave, through what alchemy would they anticipate banquets? Why would two piercable compartments provide them with something approaching a desirable meal? He was never told how many complaints were received, how many missives were sent bearing accusations of false advertising. Where would they find the time to lodge a complaint, these people who could only spare five minutes towards the creation of their evening meal?

By turns, the work slowly swallowed him whole. In supermarkets he became entranced, an unsavoury lurker in the food aisles. Upon seeing his work in situ, he would swell with pride as he noted how markedly better it was than those of his contemporaries. Through oblique techniques, he attained a glistening succulence his rivals failed to muster.

He could spend hours in the aisles assessing packaging, would lose himself in these images in the way others lost themselves in galleries. In silent contemplation he searched for nuances and idiosyncrasies in the style of others. How many other fine arts degrees were concealed behind these images of cheap cuisine? Outperforming his brief by some degree, his was a madness tolerated for the desirability of his results. Transfixed by these images, he despaired of the low-level artistry displayed by some of his peers, the point-and-shoot perfunctoriness of their images. Did they take no pride in their work?

He observed not only the packaging but people’s interaction with it; became fascinated by how choices were made. His ultimate goal was to entice the indecisive. He would often have to prevent himself from canvassing for opinion, to mingle with his public, the buyers of his work, approaching bored browsers with a series of questions, an attempt to get them to justify their purchase. His creeping presence found him on disagreeable terms with several local security staff. Was this how he would end his days, lost in rapture in the ready meal aisle, lead away by kindly medical staff as he refused to snap from his reverie?

Whilst his artistic ambitions went unfulfilled, he consoled himself with his mass audience, an exhibition of his work in every supermarket. He was perhaps the only one to look upon these boxed meals with a curatorial sensibility.

In his studio he created a small laboratory testing out different finishes and sheens. He sourced substitutes for the real ingredients, unusual replacements that photographed more convincingly, that would present them, falsely, in a more flattering light. These were not meals for human consumption. Even the ravenous would have little joy with his set-ups.

At the supermarket he graduated from obsessive browser to obsessive purchaser. He would prowl with his trolley, picking up any new additions. He bought food he never ate simply for the packaging, a car boot full of ready meals he would never consume. In the process he would throw away the unpalatable meals and preserve the cardboard sleeve they came enveloped in. Slowly he built up the dullest depository, amassed complete groupings of packaging, every supermarket given its own shelf space.

Surprising him one night at his studio, it was his wife who had, ultimately, been surprised. She had not witnessed the extent of his endeavours. As he flipped through his anodyne archive she felt sanity slipping away from him.

If he had started an ironic packaging blog perhaps his mania would have been tolerable, viewed as just another eccentric enclave of the net. Once shared and uploaded, his collection would have become interactive. Through inviting comment, his acts would seem less like madness and more part of an ongoing debate. The same endeavour, undertaken in unmonitored silence, however, seemed somehow more troubling.

What to do, upon his death, with such an amassment? Leave it perhaps to the Design Museum, an unwelcome bequest, a donation, he imagined, they would politely decline.

He was aware of the other options open to him but chose to stay within his unloved field. He would not succumb, as many had, to the lure of recipe book photography. Not for him their airbrushed concoctions, unattainable glories for the amateur’s sloppy efforts to feel inadequate beside.

Was he working towards some ineffable goal? A dream, perhaps, of some eureka moment, the pièce de résistance of food photography, customers powerless in the presence of its ravishing beauty, unknown meals dutifully deposited in baskets. To his wife, to his friends, his work seemed a waste of aesthetics.

He suspected, in the future, that all this work would be created digitally, entirely synthetic, images of ethereal food without substance. He envisaged a bank of hunched conjurors summoning pixellated platefuls.

His wife had watched as he became lost in his singular pursuit, the search for perfection in a world of transient forms. Certainly, he had had his interests, his peculiarities, when they had first met but they had not been so all-consuming. Initially she had admired his integrity, but by the time his obsession had advanced, as he began to talk, at length, of capturing the personality of carrots, the essence of broccoli, she began to question his sanity. Did others go to these lengths? She imagined not.

Is this not enough for you? she had slowly intoned, at which point an expansive fan of her hand attempted to take in all that his world encompassed. But he was already lost. Like his children, he spent mealtimes playing with, rather than eating, his food.

One night as, yet again, he worked late in his studio, she shepherded the children from the house, ushered them away from their monomaniacal father.

You need help, she had said shortly before she left. And he conceded that he might. If he was going to explore international markets, global variations, was to undertake expeditions overseas to accumulate food packaging, then he may well need help.[/private]

Stuart Snelson is a writer and former bookseller, having worked as fiction buyer at both The Pan Bookshop and Crockatt & Powell. He is currently working on his second novel whilst trying to find a home for his debut, Drinking Up Time. He lives in London.

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