TEXT OF INTERVIEW
Kai Ryssdal: We learned this week there’s still essentially no inflation in the American economy. Food prices in particular are flat or even falling.
Photographer Jonathan Blaustein captures the value of what we eat, economically and to some degree nutritionally, in a collection called The Value of a Dollar. So today on our series The Art of Money, what artists and others see when they look at the economy: portraits, you could say, of a dollar’s worth of any given food.
Jonathan, good to have you with us.
Jonathan Blaustein: Thank you Kai, it’s a real pleasure to be here.
RYSSDAL: Why these pictures of food? It is, we should say for those who haven’t seen it yet, it’s food in its natural state. It’s just a pile of flour, some blueberries — they’re very straight ahead shots.
BLAUSTEIN: I’m very passionate about food; I’ve been cooking in my home and professionally once for 15 years. There’s an old writer’s adage — I studied writing as well — that says write what you know, and so I felt like food as a symbol set, as a sort of visual language, was a great way to talk about ideas.
RYSSDAL: Was there something that kicked you off — did you see something and said, “I wonder how much a dollar of that costs and what it would look like”?
BLAUSTEIN: Absolutely. I started shooting in the spring of 2008, but in the fall of 2007, the ideas started percolating about fast food, actually. And the way, my medium, my method of expression — photography — is used by advertising, the industry and by corporations to sort of sell an image that doesn’t exist. So I was thinking primarily about fast food hamburgers, Big Macs, and the images that we see on billboards. Everybody in America knows that the burger doesn’t look like that. So the thought I had as an artist and a thinker was, wouldn’t it be interesting to see what it actually looks like? To just go to the store, buy it, set it down on my table — which happens to be white — in my studio — which happens to be white — and just look at it. And then photograph it.
RYSSDAL: You did more than just meat and flour and all those. You did some price-point comparison; you got, I think there’s one shot of 10 blueberries — 10 organic blueberries — which I read some place in a comment that you had made that the resonance of a dime for every blueberry kind of struck you.
BLAUSTEIN: Yeah, well a lot of this project was really about shopping. It was about consuming. Shopping is the American way. So six weeks before I bought these California, early-season, first-of-the-year June blueberries for $1, I bought 17 organic blueberries from Chile for $1. Chile’s 6,000 miles away. So the blueberries, they’re a super food — anyone will tell you that there are few things you can eat that are better for you than a perfect blueberry. But they’re not affordable for so many people. It’s like a luxury item. The fact that healthy food has become the luxury item in many ways, I think is something I’m trying to draw people’s attention to.
RYSSDAL: You know, it’s funny because a couple of clicks down from those blueberries, you’ve got a stack of ramen noodles. There’s seven of them, sitting there in a pile, and it’s there. It’s a dollar worth of ramen noodles, which is a lot of ramen noodles.
BLAUSTEIN: It is. And you know, ramen noodles are about as calorie-dense a food as there is. When I showed those pictures, everyone laughs and said, “Oh man, I got through college on that.” And I met somebody recently that told me that she — a single mom who raised four kids by herself — and she told me that was how she did it. Because ramen noodles had that much energy in them, per price, she just fed her kids ramen all the time, because that’s all she could afford. And ironically, I went back to Super Save the other day to buy a pack of ramen noodles — I brought ’em back to New York with me, just because I thought we’d end up talking about it — and they were five for $1. The same story in 2010. So even ramen had become more expensive in just a couple of years. People can’t get a break, right?
BLAUSTEIN: Thank you Kai, I really appreciate your time.
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