Eric Futran’s Visual Feast

Among the 40 images in “Soul Food: A Photographic Exhibition With Recipes,” there’s hardly a straight-on portrait or posed shot. Rather, it’s full of images that capture the texture of everyday life in the kitchen–a fuzzed shot of a woman in the gleeful act of dropping chicken wings into a deep fryer; an assistant chef standing in a ray of light, hands behind his back; a young boy grinning at his plate full of Sunday supper. “I was taken by the idea of photographing not just the food but the aura,” says Eric Futran. “I’ve always been hung up on capturing the culinary arts as a craft.”

Futran fell into food photography almost by accident. He’d studied photography at Columbia College on the GI bill after a three-year stint in the navy, and from 1973 through the mid-1980s he paid the bills working as a photojournalist for the Reader and other publications, as well as whatever industrial or corporate work came his way. By the early 80s he was almost exclusively shooting for the food industry–portraits of chefs for trade magazines like Restaurants and Institutions and tabletop shots of food for a variety of clients in food manufacturing, distribution, and service.

He tackled his assignments with a small Arca view camera that took two-and-a-quarter-inch film, which gave him all the swings and tilts of a larger view camera but the convenience of a handheld one. While most of his corporate assignments involved stills of plated food, he was most interested in what was happening elsewhere in the kitchen. He’d finish a shoot only to turn around and find his real subject–a bag of dry onions with peeling skin in a mesh bag, or a drawer full of tarnishing forks that, through his lens, becomes a study in line, form, and shadow. “These subjects, especially the silver drawer shot in the kitchen at Lutece, do what images can do–they transcend what it is,” Futran says. “I was taken by the gestalt of the kitchen and the whole art form.”

In 1984, he met John Shoup, one of the masterminds behind the “Great Chefs” series (initially on PBS, and now on the Discovery Channel). For the next 13 years, he traveled the world with Shoup’s video crew, shooting stills for the cookbooks that accompanied the series and continuing to hone his skills.

He put together his first exhibit, “Art of the Palate: Photographs of the Food Chain,” in 1996–a collection of side shots from his stint in France, along with shots taken at Chicago’s South Water Market, small roadside restaurants and grills in rural Wisconsin, and other places. The exhibit opened in Chicago at the end of the year, then traveled to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, Johnson and Wales College of Culinary Arts in Rhode Island, and finally to Evanston’s Kendall College, where it still hangs in the culinary school hallways.

In September of 1999, he was approached by the Chicago Cultural Center to create an exhibit to coincide with this weekend’s Culinary Historians of Chicago conference, “Grits, Greens, and Everything In Between: The Foods of the African Diaspora and American Transformations,” a celebration of Chicago’s African-American food, heritage, and culture. He jumped at the chance to get back to his roots as a Chicago documentary photographer, and spent the next eight months on the south and west sides shooting soul food and the people who create and consume it. His journeys took him from city institutions like Army & Lou’s, Heaven on Seven, and Wishbone to lesser-known spots like Edna’s on West Madison, Gladys’ Luncheonette on South Indiana, and the Apostolic Church of God at 63rd and Dorchester, which serves meals to Sunday churchgoers.

The photos in “Soul Food” give gravity to their subjects, from an elderly Miss Fay cutting biscuit dough with an aluminum can at Army & Lou’s to a blurry chef James Mitchell (a Kendall College graduate) sweating over the hot line in the kitchen at the Apostolic Church of God, a handwritten list of specials–“smothered chicken, grilled pork chops, blackened red snapper”–clearly focused in the foreground. But it’s not all food and chefs. One shot–“Derriere and Cake Pans”–depicts a large customer sitting on a stool at Edna’s with floral wallpaper in the background and plates of food scattered across the counter; another, a somewhat distorted wide-angle shot, shows Wishbone’s Joel Nickson surrounded by five west-side kids with whom he’s working to develop a commercially viable neighborhood garden.

“Soul Food” runs through June 29 in the Daley Civic Center lobby, 50 W. Washington; call 312-744-6630 for more information. “Grits, Greens, and Everything In Between” takes place June 24 and 25, with panel discussions Saturday from 8:30 to 4:30 at the Chicago Historical Society, Clark at North; a food festival from 6 to 10 Saturday evening at Roosevelt University, 430 S. Michigan; and bus tours Sunday of south- and west-side churches, landmarks, and soul food restaurants. Call 815-254-9483 for more.

The Dish

Gil Langlois, former chef at Technicolor Kitchen, is now cooking at both of Sean Herron’s restaurants, Echo and Meritage.

Phil Stefani’s empire continues to grow with the June 15 opening of 437 Rush in the space (at 437 N. Rush) long ago vacated by Riccardo’s.

Scott Helm, formerly of Adobo Grill, is the new executive chef at Chicago Firehouse; he’s retooling the contemporary American cuisine and plans a two-stage launch of his new menu over the summer. –Laura Levy Shatkin

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Eric Futran.