Perhaps you are wondering why Edible Baja Arizona has a cover photo with moldy fruit, bones, and ashes. I am wondering why as well, and I took the photograph. Like much of my work, it was strange to me at first, evolving on its own accord. Edible Baja Arizona’s publisher, Doug Biggers, called me in mid-November, wondering if I might want to take a photo of citrus fruit for the cover of this issue. I was in free-fall at the time; I was in recovery from back surgery a month before, and the direction our country chose on Nov. 8 had me reeling. Doug’s call was like a lifeline, work I could throw myself into, and I did.
The place of artists in a world such as the one I saw coming haunted my dreams. If ever there was a time art was needed, this was it. Resistance was going to take everyone pulling together, doing what they do best, and what I do best is make pictures. I best get off my ass.
Food photography is not a genre I work in often, but there were still-life paintings with food from my art history education that immediately jumped to mind. I am not sure where I first saw a work done in the Vanitas style, but I recalled the force of it quite clearly, sending chills up my spine, like all work that speaks truth. I didn’t even know the name of the specific style or artists; I just knew I had seen several of them over the years, and it was a style that had struck a chord. So I researched it.
The art genre known as vanitas developed in 16th century Europe, mainly in the Netherlands. It sprang up during the Baroque, a time of great change in Europe, as the supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church was slipping away. The word “vanitas” derives from a passage in Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity … a generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.”
Vanitas paintings were still lifes, often including citrus, flowers, and other symbols of life contrasted with objects symbolic of death and transience, such as skulls and rotting food. The paintings were meant to remind viewers of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death.
In a world where borders and divisions between people are gaining ground, it seemed that something with more teeth than glowing citrus was required. Sparkling fresh didn’t make sense, just as a wall across an ecosystem like the Sonoran Desert makes no sense. You can’t wall off a watershed, just as you can’t breathe only your air. Everything affects everything else; life and death, water and ashes, flesh and bones are different sides of the same coin. To think we can consume riches while our neighbors starve just over the wall is insanity, and will lead us all to ashes.
Perhaps art can act as catharsis, allowing us to flush the toxic thoughts around us, after which we can begin to build on the ruins. Growing our own food, communicating about ways to care for the land, best grazing practices, best nurturing of the soil: these are some of the ways we build and will lead us to the ways we heal. Good work will see us through. Let’s get on with it.
William Lesch is a Tucson-based photographer. He has worked in the Sonoran desert since 1974, and has lived with his family in downtown Tucson since 1980.