Emma Ressel is a photographer based in NYC who creates surreal still life photographs of food. She draws from the natural world and utilizes texts on gastronomy, mythology, and food science, reimagining stories and ideas to create fictional worlds. Ressel graduated from the Photography Program at Bard College in 2016 and was the recipient of the Bard Lugoland Residency Prize that same year. Her first monograph “Olives in the street” was published by Edizioni del bradipo in 2017. Her work has been shown in galleries in NYC, the Hudson Valley, Washington DC, and Maine, and her work is in the permanent collection of The Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Olives in the street
In my inability to fully understand Lugo, the small Italian town I had flown over the Atlantic to photograph, I created my own town. As much as I would’ve liked to park myself in the local library and absorb all the literature I could find on the culinary history of the Emilia Romagna region, my lack of Italian language skills made the texts I would normally seek shelter in largely unavailable to me. I chose to leave the truths of this town packed away on bookshelves and mumbled amongst the flocks of elderly men perched around the pavaglione on Sundays. Instead, I imagined up a culinary world I superimposed on the town of Lugo, flecked with elements of real, Romagna foods, then generously transformed. I collected the unusual, beautiful and confusing things I tasted and noticed, constructing them into my own imagined scenes.
I wanted this body of work, Olives in the Street, to remain as closely tied to a sense of place as possible, so I relied on the town’s iconography to provide a backdrop for the still life tableaus. I slip in the occasional homage to ancient Roman traditions of cooking and dining, though the content of each photograph is mostly plucked from the sensory stimuli of moving about Lugo. These photographs hold the tension of a human just having left the scene or someone about to arrive. A door might creak open any minute now, and perhaps a gust of wind will coax a glass off the table so that it spills and shatters. The photographs leave the viewer with questions like why is that plate there? Someone must have just set it down. Or maybe it has been laying still for days? They are alive and vibrant with generous helpings of luxurious compositions, yet ghostly and absent of sensical narrative.
At the core of my work, I am fascinated with how people experience food in all manners aside from eating it. I tend to think food is the most interesting thing about being alive. Beyond its utilitarian necessity, food is bursting with potent symbolic value. With this in mind, my work experiments with how representing food visually in photographs can catalyze a strong emotional and visceral response from viewers. It is important to me that my photographs glimmer with motifs pulled from the broad history of food in art. I utilize texts on gastronomy, mythology, and food science to gather together seeds of ideas, which allows me complete freedom and abandon in loosely transforming the literature into my own visual vocabulary. The images I make exist within a fictional world of decadence, beauty, and decay. Each is a pastiche of multiple visual and literary ingredients.
As I made this work, it often occurred to me how strange it was that the residents of Lugo had no idea there was an unassuming American girl weaving her way throughout the narrow streets, in and out of the grocery store and butcher shop, marching her camera around late at night and as the sun rose, creating tiny little worlds and stories that no one would see. There isn’t much evidence of her being there, really, save for a few smears of oil and honey on the occasional cement slab, and maybe a few olives that rolled down the street.
To view more of Emma Ressel’s work please visit her website.