These 17th Century–Style Still Lifes Find the Beauty in Unwanted Food

A photographer combats food waste by cultivating old-fashioned respect for what’s on our dinner plates.

Food rescued from curbside garbage in front of Caputo Bakery and Union Market on Court Street in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn

Credit: Aliza Eliazarov

Aliza Eliazarov makes trash look good enough to eat—because all too often it is. The photographer’s series “Waste Not” captures the value of the perfectly good food we toss in the garbage. She features spotty bananas, wilted herbs, day-old bread loaves, and bruised apples in artfully arranged still lifes that are a feast for the eyes.

Eliazarov first confronted the rotten problem of food waste while on assignment for AM New York in 2011. Asked to document a freegan—someone who eschews purchasing food, often by dumpster diving—she saw firsthand how much potential nourishment gets the can. (New York City, the bagel capital of the world, is also the bagel-wasting capital of the world.) The eye-opening experience led Eliazarov to do more research. She learned that about 40 percent of the food produced in the United States never gets eaten, and that losses happen at every step of the journey from farm to store to table. Meanwhile, one in eight Americans struggles to get enough to eat, and food rotting in landfills spews methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into our ever-warming atmosphere.

Eliazarov was moved to dedicate an entire photo series to the issue and drew inspiration from 17th-century still lifes of tables overflowing with victuals. “In these paintings, the level of appreciation and respect for food is so high that it has been elevated to art,” she says. “My goal was to elevate food that was considered waste to works of art.”

The photographer gathered supplies by using a New York City freegan directory to rescue food and by featuring fare from organizations that combat food waste, like City Harvest and chef Dan Barber’s wastED popup.

Although “Waste Not” has already been exhibited at Fovea Exhibitions, Eliazarov is ready for seconds. She now plans to photograph some of the new and creative efforts emerging to curb food waste, such as apps that connect surplus food to hungry people and community fridges that let anyone take a bite out of waste.

And what happened to all this grub, her muse, after the photo shoot? “I ate it!” she says.

Cantaloupe rescued by City Harvest and distributed to hungry New Yorkers at a mobile market in Queens, New York
Credit: Aliza Eliazarov
Produce and flowers rescued from curbside trash outside of Union Market in Park Slope, Brooklyn
Credit: Aliza Eliazarov
Sorbet rescued from Key Foods in Greenpoint, Brooklyn
Credit: Aliza Eliazarov
Tomatoes rescued from curbside garbage in front of Garden of Eden Market in New York City
Credit: Aliza Eliazarov
Composting organic matter and keeping it out of landfills reduces harmful methane gas emissions that contribute to climate change
Credit: Aliza Eliazarov

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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