Restaurant Cell-Phone Photography

by Louis Zoellar Bickett


Restaurant cell-phone photography is so ubiquitous that the act of documenting public dining has become de rigueur. Photography in our lives and public places is everywhere and everyone is a photographer—and seemingly the quality of the photograph is becoming more and more insignificant with the production of cameras and phones with higher and higher megapixels—phones that can instantly send the proof of the party to anyone lucky enough to be ‘connected’.



Flickr and Facebook, to name two popular social media sites, display thousands of members’ restaurant cell-phone images everyday. Pictures of food, before, during and after consumption are a constant aspect of postings. The people at table are either posed or caught at a candid moment. Nothing is left out. Presents are opened, toasts are made, tongues are stuck out, meaningless gang symbols are casually gestured, rabbit ears are flashed behind unsuspecting heads, ‘birds’ are given—everything is recorded—nothing is sacred. Public posing is proffered as easily as the reciting of the nightly specials by a polished and professional waiter maneuvering through another nightly shift. “Do you mind taking our picture when you have the time?”



Everything I Ate: A Year in the Life of My Mouth by Tucker Shaw would not have been practical to produce, and maybe not even possible without digital photography. Certainly the expense of film, processing and printing would have been significant. Shaw photographed everything he ate for 365 days—including what he ate in restaurants. At the time he lived in NYC so the food documented, in what amounts to a conceptual art project, is quite varied. Being from the south one gets a different picture of the food when he traveled home for the holidays.

Tucker Shaw ate well, Tucker Shaw ate badly. Tucker Shaw ate often. These digital snaps tell us what, other than what Tucker Shaw ate? Based on at least one highly negative charged (if not hate filled) on-line posting in response to a review of the book, evidently one person did not get it. It is elementary that we require food to survive. Tucker Shaw enjoys variety. Tucker Shaw’s eating habits are an open book. His restaurant consumptions are not intimate. Everyone is invited to know them. There is something a bit funny about his project. Something a bit sad. America as ‘consumer’ is at the forefront of a very clever book. It is a highly confessional project—one where the images are well composed, the images are sharp  and colorful and the images are many. It is not photography linked to the classics. Cunningham and Weston do not come to mind. But one gets the feeling of the new. The modern—and a feeling, too, of “why didn’t I think of that?” I have no idea if Tucker Shaw thought of, or thinks now of his project as art. I do.



I remember well the large and vocal resistance twenty years ago to digital photography. It was thought that digital was unable to achieve the level of nuance of film. It was said that one could tell the difference—one could tell it was digital. However, the instant nature of digital, along with the ‘no cost’ of production (other than the cost of the camera and accessories), and the high quality of the equipment have pushed digital, in a rather short time, squarely into our lives. Who does not own one—either actual, or cell phone camera?

But is the work being produced any good? I’m not sure that is even the question. The last Czar’s children were all avid photographers (film of course). They photographed from yacht and land constantly. The surviving work is a documentation of a life lived—of a time that would not last—of an era that was slipping away (and in their case one that slipped away with a tragic and violent end). Are the photographs any good? Who even thinks of that? There is a charm about them. They pose. They clown about. They strut. They knowingly or not supplied subsequent generations with a glimpse of their private lives. Perhaps they would have benefited from private photography lessons—but their output is extremely historic and informational. Restaurant cell-phone photography is in the same category as that produced by the doomed Romanov children, and ‘how good’ the photography is, is not the point either. We share our lives. We prove we are social. We prove we have friends. We are communal. ‘We eat’—therefore we live (and can afford it). And importantly, it is done with ease. That the product is photography or can even be called that is of no concern to most of the people engaged in restaurant cell-phone photography. Most not only don’t care, most don’t even think about it, or, get it. They are just involved in something that has become a social norm. We only presume they enjoy it.


When I’ve commented to people about how interesting cell-phone photography is and how it has started to be viewed as a valid form of photography I’ve never met a person that didn’t seem perplexed by my statement. It is something most don’t think about. “Oh, this is a great one!” Keep it. “Oh, I look terrible” (usually translated as “Oh, I look old!”) Delete it. But maybe the most important and compelling reason for restaurant cell-phone photography is the instant gratification that comes with it. I have a friend, that once when a roll of 36 frames of film was completed, and after she picked up the developed prints at the Corner Drug Store, she discovered that the roll contained not only pictures of her son’s recent high school graduation, but also his First Communion and his confirmation as well! That conservative film attitude is alien to the digital world, for better or worse. Indeed, the last time I went to Europe I took a little over 10,000 digital images, and, I got a few really good ones. Instantly, and, I felt, it did not cost me a dime! Instant gratification—the American Way!


Louis Zoellar Bickett

Lexington, KY


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