Dirty Dishes and other Delicacies

by Matthias Harder

Only a few baked potatoes were left over from the Schmerberg’s Christmas dinner, and the son captured these remains of the holiday festivities with his camera. The ritual feed is documented with a shot of sauceboats and empty bowls of red cabbage. Ralf Schmerberg not only photographs dirty dishes and leftover food at home in Korntal and Berlin. Most of his images stem from his numerous trips to Asia and America. His photo series becomes a visual journal of life as he lives it, and his autobiographical leavings are woven into a complex visual concept. Individual photos, always quick shots, are weighted equally when assembled in a sequence, and together Ralf Schmerberg’s images tell the story of the ordinary and elite environments of world cuisines—and their leftover remains. The first photograph, which was effectively the initial spark of the project, was taken in the exclusive China Club in Hong Kong. At the end of a seemingly endless meal with a countless number of courses, crispy duck was served and then left untouched by the guests. As the photographer recalls, he simply had to document this senseless abundance, and the occasion served as a meaningful beginning of a new and unusual project—an anti-advertisement against the international ubiquity of cuisine. From then on, the idea grew and grew as more views of the photographer’s plate—and the world beyond—were added.

The photographer is interested in details and a look behind the scenes, whether in canteen kitchens or street stands, in the kitchens of the star cooks or at private barbecues. We see a random, picturesque conglomeration of leftovers in the garbage can, charred fish and hotdogs forgotten on the grill, white eggshells on top of overly browned broccoli, and a discarded box of popcorn outside teeming with an army of ants.

Each situation hints at the surroundings, and one’s imagination sometimes easily pans like a camera to reveal the larger context of the scene, but otherwise one must draw one’s own conclusions. The people in the images remain anonymous and removed; they are reduced to the hands in white gloves that clear away the dirty dishes or repeatedly bring in new trays of canapés.

Encompassing several thousand photographs, the project has been grouped into five chapters. The idea is to encourage a range of associations; for example, “La Grande Bouffe” (Blow Out) from 1973 by Marco Ferreri, in which excessive indulgence leads to the successive suicides of the four protagonists.

On the one hand, the chapter “Feeding the Five Thousand,” refers to the biblical analogy of an inexhaustible supply of nourishment for believers. On the other, the photographer apparently thinks more of Bertolt Brecht’s words:  Let’s eat and worry about morals later on. This is an interesting aspect of Schmerberg’s social analysis. We encounter the plethora of menu options in Asian street-side restaurants along with the ever-present American-style fast food chains that globalize and decontextualize the lower classes with their pricing strategies. Andy Warhol’s statement, that the most beautiful thing about traveling is McDonald’s, is a short, incisive description of the global village. Ralf Schmerberg’s approach is different: he immerses himself in the world of the foreign in search of hints and traces. This puts him in the position of being able to use his photography to paint a picture of society that is both subjective and critically removed. He can remember most of the situations well—the large canvases from which he framed individual segments in a chance, intuitive shot. The photographer can recall the scents and smells, the good and bad wines, the before and after. For us the images retain a personal quality; they describe something autobiographical, hunger and appetite, what the person behind the camera experienced and ate. At the same time, certain images evoke a visual déjà-vu, as if we had been sitting and eating there with Schmerberg looking over our shoulder. With these alternating perceptions, the photographer shifts away from subjective experience, and the perspective broadens to the collective.

The photo of an empty porcelain plate in a street-site restaurant in Hanoi is paradigmatic of the entire series. The floral decoration with pink roses around the rim and the painted image in the center of traditionally dressed Asian beauty offering food, serve as a tacky backdrop for the abandoned silverware. The metal fork represents Western dining customs, and the chopstick Eastern. The solitary wooden stick is robbed of its functionality, while even without a matching knife, the fork is sufficient for the simple intake of food.

At the table, Ralf Schmerberg uses a sitting or standing perspective. The immediate surroundings are clearly in view, while the foreground is often overexposed, and the background is sometimes indistinguishably dark. Over the course of the book, the point of view shifts from a look at an individual plate to a view of the whole table, from personal leavings to vestiges of a social gathering. The way the images document the behavior of a party of diners calls to mind the moral tableaux of a former era. The images for this study generally originate in the brief moment after the meal when the waiter has not immediately cleared the table and one waits for an espresso. The correlation between the superabundance and void on the table, or the neat decorations and stains on the tablecloth, are analogous to the progression of multiple courses that coalesces in the static image of the photograph.

Uninhibited feeding and leisurely dining leave their mark—as do memories and associations when we look at the pictures. Ralf Schmerberg’s photographs of exclusive restaurants and receptions usually depict a late hour towards the end of the event. When people put out their cigarettes in the remains of their dessert, or when red wine stains the white tablecloth in an idiosyncratic pattern, we become silent witnesses to a relaxing social façade.

These photographs are both timeless and contemporary. Some images are a product of chance; others—despite the spontaneous and quick way they were taken—are consciously composed to the last detail. The photographer only allows himself to intervene by removing packs of cigarettes from an aesthetic scenario that is both a given situation and a personal creation. Here, the filmmaker consistently foregoes any form of branding whatsoever.

The narrative sequence of the book roughly follows a chronology similar to the courses of a meal. In the prologue, locations and inanimate protagonists are introduced much like in a film:  stacked, clean silverware and carefully set tables—sometimes with the place card bearing the photographer’s name and identifying him as a direct participant. However, the chronology—from the meat transport to the food preparation with its associated utensils and on to the dirty dishes and piles of uneaten food—is regularly interrupted and supplemented by forays in other directions. Schmerberg is also interested in the structural analysis of surfaces, such as meat, wood, and plastic wrap. Sometimes different cultural situations meet face to face in a double-page spread, and the food they proffer, as far as the leftovers indicate, are astoundingly similar. Even what is discarded in preparing the food and the leavings of a meal itself ultimately fall into the same category. Analogous to dirty linens, dirty dishes are the underside of neat appearances, a symbol of the constantly reoccurring cycle of nourishment and waste.

As an independent genre, “food photography” has a longstanding tradition, which is carried forward across the globe in commissions for glossy magazines. It is a time-consuming endeavor to light the food properly, so that it looks mouth-watering at first glance. One master of this sensory discipline is the Hamburg photographer Hans Hansen with his series on Lufthansa menus from the early seventies. Throughout the history of photography there have always been practitioners of the medium, such as Wols, Herbert List, and Martin Parr, who have shown food in an unconventional manner, whether it was respectively surrealistic, clear and objective in accordance with Neue Sachlichkeit, or ironic. Ralf Schmerberg can be placed in this context, but there has never been anything quite like “Dirty Dishes.”  This anti-culinary journal of life on the go does not include photographs suitable for the advertising brochure of an event management firm. Instead, it portrays Schmerberg’s own food consumption in a refreshingly unspectacular way. He actively took part in ordering and eating everything we see.

The play of colors, which is initially perfectly harmonized by culinary artists and table decorators, gradually takes on increasingly odder hues and ends in a brown-gray sauce when all liquid components have mixed together on the plates. Only in a few fancy restaurants do the leftovers on the heavy porcelain look attractive, especially against a background of over-the-top table decorations. In the kitchens—usually it is unclear whether they belong to expensive or cheap restaurants–immense bowls, casserole dishes, and piles of dishes and glasses are scrubbed by fleshy, hard-working hands and prepared for the next deployment. Here the cleaning processes takes on an air of ritual.

Without any formal pretensions the project is an astutely composed sequence of food photographs, which portrays eating as a social act that spans the spectrum from the ordinary to the aberrant. Ralf Schmerberg joins the ranks of photographers, such as Nan Goldin, Nobuyoshi Araki, and William Eggleston, who traditionally view their subject matter through a profane lens and who visually record carefully selected personal experiences within different cultural contexts in a manner resembling a journal entry.

As we page through “Dirty Dishes,” Ralf Schmerberg accompanies us through the restaurants of the world. We see things from his vantage point, as he analyses and comments on social codes. Literally speaking, the book is heavy fare. In the end the drain on the last page dispatches with all the excess, and one is left with a lingering desire for a good after-dinner schnaps.