If the voluptuous jewel-toned contours of a beetroot have never suggested to you a svelte female form (or vice versa) you may want to examine Julie Pochron’s composite self portraits and look again. In her series “Umami” she photographs isolated parts of her own body and juxtaposes the images with commonly eaten foods such as a strawberry or chicken breast. Careful composition evokes a common sensuality to both forms, and an emphasis on strikingly vivid color and texture against a deep black background evinces a sense of mystery and fantasy that heightens the tension between them.
While the premise of Pochron’s compositions is simple—two incongruous figures mirroring each other; for example, a spindly crab leg and a smooth red-shoed woman’s leg, the demure curve of a peapod and a woman’s spine—the resulting combinations arouse, rather unsettlingly, feelings of attraction verging on disgust. We are on a very uncertain boundary here—the beautiful against the grotesque, the mundane against the uncanny. Suddenly these familiar physical landscapes and kitchen ingredients have turned bizarre and unfamiliar.
Pochron’s photographs hold a certain punch, I think, because they are kinky in the truest sense of the word—not because they are obscene, vulgar, or “extreme” (far from it), but because they combine familiar desires with unconventional ones. Although very sophisticated, the images of Pochron’s body are routine sexual fare. Mixed in with images that we don’t usually associate with sex (food) and yet which provoke feelings very similar to desire and attraction (hunger, cravings), a weird, uncomfortable relationship is produced. After all, there is nothing weirder or more uncomfortable than our complicated relationship to sex itself: the excitement depends on being simultaneously attracted and repulsed; we both desire the object and revile it.
The relationship between food and sex (and especially the female sex) is not a strictly arbitrary one. As a culture, we fetishize both the female body and food. We derive immense pleasure from viewing and consuming these products, literally and psychologically. On TV, one of the most common selling strategies for food products is to sexualize it, Arby’s thickburgers being an infamous example (in a confounding move for the Food Network’s Padma Lakshmi), or POM’s recent ad featuring Eve tempting Adam with her hourglass-shaped POM bottle and a bare smattering of leaves. On one of the classic episodes of Seinfeld, George tries to combine his two greatest pleasures in life: sex and a pastrami sandwich. Think of all the euphemisms for sex and sexual organs: weiner, sausage fest, nuts, cream, melons, cherry, piece of meat, etc. and so forth. If we did not want to look at and consume food items as much as we do, there wouldn’t be entire websites devoted to “food porn,” a kind of Martha Stewart response to every other kind of porn.
On her website, Pochron has written a brief statement to effect that her images seek to redeem the feminine form (supposedly from abuses like Thickburger commercials) in “visions” that speak to desire and attraction without presenting a woman who is readily consumable. Her work, she writes, “digests these apparitions and reforms them, leaving icons of solid strength and beauty in their place.”
Ultimately Pochron’s photographs are weird in a wonderful, beautiful way, re-establishing that the female body is a very strange place indeed—still inscrutable, and still in control of its own secrets.