Community Stories: Susan Feniger

Recently, we inaugurated a series called Community Stories, featuring interviews with Angelenos about their favorite works in our permanent collection. Top chef Susan Feniger chose a work by Helen Levitt from our photography collection—it may be viewed by appointment in our Wallis Annenberg Photography Study Room.

Helen Levitt, "New York," c. 1940, Ralph M. Parsons Fund

Feniger talked about why Levitt’s work appeals to her so much, and about the connection between art and cooking.

I totally love photography.

This is the typical street corner, an afternoon in New York City. I really connect to that time period, and Helen Levitt does the most incredible job of capturing it. I think it’s the expressions on people’s faces and the emotions that her photographs show.

This is a totally classic Helen Levitt photograph. It really shows the feeling on the street in that period, and a lifestyle. Nothing fancy. It is about the relationship of these little kids and this street taxi, drawn by a horse. And you can see that it shows the grittiness and realness of the street. She’s got the Coca-Cola sign and this Heinz 57 Sauce sign and the Reid’s Ice Cream store. This is great for me because of all the food-related stuff!

I’m aware of the street here, and the curb. She makes you very aware of where you’re standing.

It’s not surprising that the chef whose most recent restaurant is called Street would be drawn to a photograph of a New York City corner.

I love big cities. I’m just drawn to urban landscape. Everything starts from the street. That’s what so many people are inspired by—that’s what I’m inspired by. The art world, fashion, food.

I’m drawn to the food someone eats on the street, or that they cook on the street. To me, that’s the most inspired food.

Feniger collects photography herself, and lives with two favorite works by Levitt. I asked her about what draws her to a picture.

Pictures take me to a place inside. My life is so much about being out in public or in the kitchen, talking and talking! Helen Levitt’s stuff, it brings me inside. She captures the human soul.

We also talked about how photography and cooking have a few things in common—a mix of creative intuition and technical skill, for example.

There are a lot of technical parts of cooking that aren’t critical but important. I worked in a fish market for a year, just learning how to fillet fish.

I think that’s what an artist does, constantly remaking something, improving it. I taste something and I think, “I’ve never tasted anything like that!” or I think, “That’s a great idea and I think we could do it better.” I can taste a dish, tweak it, and make it stronger.

I don’t think anyone tastes enough. They’re busy. But I find myself tasting and tasting. Does it have enough acid? Enough salt? Enough strong flavors? Is it good but not fantastic? You have to make it, taste it, remake it, and do that every day. It can always get better.

I think we can open people’s hearts and their minds to be more open about other cultures through art, or food. Food and art are great ways to equalize people.

Amy Heibel

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