The Crime of Dining
'Evidence': The Magnificent Photographs of Mateo Zapata Zachai
Like Weegee (a famous crime photographer), Mateo Zapata Zachai arrives just seconds after the event, beating out unseen busers and waiters to document the raw collision of hands, food, and tableware. Under the glare of his on-camera Pentax 35mm flash, Zachai captures in graphic detail the uncapped ketchup, the bloody fries, the grains of salt scattered like gunpowder across tabletops. We sense warmth leaving chairs, condiments congealing. And gradually, through detailed examinations of these exhausted meals, we come to imagine an array of absent diners escaped into the night. We feel their poverty, their indifference, their colossal disappointment. In Zachai's photos, pleasure is rarely evident. Satisfaction is found only in fiercely wadded napkins or comatose soup bowls.
Zachai, a graduate of the Yale Masters of Photography program and faculty member for Seattle's Photographic Center Northwest, devoted three years to Evidence. The result: over 3,000 images of unbused tables and attendant questions of class, consumption, and American culture. Untitled (Portrait #263), for instance, presents a lonely white plate containing a cornhusk and solitary fork. Could this possibly constitute a meal? We can almost hear the bell tinkling as a migrant diner exits somberly, thanking no one in particular. In Untitled (Portrait #2707), the ephemera of a senior lunch contrasts sharply with the Henry Miller–esque chairs surrounding the table. What has happened to the future? Adventure and invention are gone. Only a stubborn present of bread and butter and cream and coffee remains.
Another image, Untitled (Portrait #1019), captures the violent aftermath of a party of 10. One round table and two square ones are crushed awkwardly together, in the shape of an oversized guitar. Serving platters lay collapsed in a heap, mid-table. The garbage of fortunes, chopsticks, and orange rinds litters the tablecloth. Fencing it in, like tape from a crime scene, are the backs of 10 wicker chairs pushed away from the table.
This is not to say that Zachai's portraits are cold or joyless. His found arrangements of hexagonal ashtrays, parabolic plates, and empty condiment skiffs are delightfully abstract and modern. Saucers, spoons, saltshakers, and bottle caps arrange themselves in lively hierarchies. Large boundaries of gleaming leather or immaculate Formica sensuously frame his subjects. And the tonal range of his prints is nothing short of magnificent—jet-black plastics, flawless white porcelains, dish-watered silvery steel so sharply rendered that fingerprints are visible.
Other images reveal unexpected elegance or geometrical complexity. Untitled (Portrait #226) presents the napkin as origami; it rests like a paper crane on a black lacquer table alongside a plate of shredded vegetable stalks. Untitled (Portrait #5034) shows us a labyrinth of dirty plates and side plates interconnected by knives and forks. One wrong path leads down into a packet of jelly. At the center of the maze is a $2 tip.
Many of Zachai's best portraits contain elements of surrealistic mystery. Untitled (Portrait #1022) captures a fish carcass resting grotesquely on a bed of oiled garden greens. Mysteriously, it has been cleaned to the bone—not by a fork or knife but by a spoon. A more sinister dinner could hardly be imagined. Another image, Untitled (Portrait #3829), depicts two single tables side by side in an ocean-side cafe. Between the two tables, a mysterious white substance has been smeared into the skin of the shared banquette. On one table rests a gaping container of Old Gold cigarettes. On the other rests a to-go cup of coffee, hastily abandoned. Untitled (Portrait #127) is perhaps the show's most pleasurable mystery. Consider the evidence left behind on the table: a half-full pretzel bag, a half-eaten singed chimichanga, two saltshakers, swollen ketchup packets, and a bundle of architectural drawings. A person of such rough, indelicate taste was probably right in abandoning his meal, as well as his career.
Ultimately, Zachai's photos do more than capture the specters of a public dining experience. Instead, he allows us to revisit our own forgotten lunches and dinners, alone or in the company of those for which we feel little or nothing. He forces us to recognize the rarity of camaraderie and celebration, of power lunches, romantic dinners, and feasts. Our legacy is one of saltshakers, napkin dispensers, and half-filled water glasses. We order, we eat, we depart.