Must see photos: Sacramento Farmers and Chefs

This Saturday from 6-8 p.m. at Sunh Fish Co. is the hotly anticipated — and occasionally disparaged — exhibit for an ambitious series of photos featuring farmers and chefs from throughout the region.

Tickets are still available at an event that will feature food from several chefs, wine and live music. Admission is $25 and can be purchased here. Sunh Fish is at 1900 V St., Sacramento. It’s a great place for sourcing fish (though it could really use a bike rack!).

“60 Faces of Our Food Culture” is the ongoing project of Brazilian-born photographer and foodie Janine Mapurunga. The works will be oversized and, when shown for the first time as a collection Saturday, should make a powerful statement about a time in Sacramento’s evolution as a culinary force to be reckoned with.

Indeed, sometimes people in Sacramento, foodies included, tend to think that our greatness is limited, our options for dining and shopping for good food relatively minuscule. As someone who visits restaurants four to five times a week and farmers markets regularly, I know otherwise. But Mapurunga’s project leaves no doubt.

These oversized portraits, printed on sheet of metal measuring 42 inches high and 28 inches wide, should be an amazing site when all 60 are in one location.

There’s a lot of power here. And once viewers come to grips with the images themselves — chefs and farmers alike wear a simple white T-shirt and are asked not to smile — they may just allow themselves to see what the photographer wants us to see. There is an intimacy here, and maybe some vulnerability, too.

Look at the photo of Patrick Mulvaney, whose food has brought joy to so many. You’ll never see another image like this of Mulvaney. And yet, the absence of a smile or props allows us to see him differently, as the chef and restaurateur who not only dreams up flavor combinations but labors to make them come to fruition in the kitchen, a chef who puts in long hours, who worries about all the little details about his business. This may well be the face Mulvaney himself sees when he looks in the mirror after a 16-hour day.

Mulvaney is synonymous with farm to fork, and over the years he has put farmers like John Bledsoe on a pedestal and, in certain circles, made them household names. Look at Bledsoe’s face. He’s a farmer who stands for something and he believes in what he’s doing — how he raises his animals, how he respects tradition, how his pork tastes so very good. Then there’s Suzanne Ashworth, the seed collector extraordinaire and guru whose produce allows chefs to present tastes and textures in new and exciting ways. On a regular basis, this farmer will host chefs at Del Rio Botanical in West Sacramento and put on cooking demonstrations.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Billy Ngo, the great talent at Kru, without his ball cap and thick-framed glasses. That’s his look. But even in this state, with his hair down and relatively somber, there is a sense of youthful joy practically brimming on his face. This is the enthusiasm that shines through on plate after plate at Kru. Why doesn’t Mapurunga get Ngo to smile? In this context, it might seem superfluous and unnecessary.

When we see photos, especially posed amateur family snapshots, we expect to see smiling faces, and when we don’t, it is jarring, if not unsettling. What is wrong? Why are you so solemn? we may ask.

I am curious about the smile in general, and it seems this photographer is, too. The smile may express joy, but it can also be a mask, and smiles create a sameness, a uniformity, that can add up to blandness. On a hunch, I looked at Mapurunga’s Facebook page and noticed that every photo of her includes a big and appealing smile. It’s her look. But surely, she could not always be this happy. Maybe this is her mask, too, a way of keeping us comfortable and at arms length.

If you’re unfamiliar with her name, you may still know her work. Several years ago, Munlvaney enlisted Mapurunga to make a series of pictures for his restaurant. The photo of Bledsoe carrying a slaughtered pig into the restaurant on his shoulder, is perhaps the iconic image of the contemporary Sacramento food scene.

Sacramento Farmers and Chefs is an entirely different thing. The project is very much about food, yet there are no pretty pictures of food, no pastoral backdrops, no cliched poses in well-appointed kitchens. It takes a bit of nerve to pursue a project that will inevitably unsettle the status quo. I’ve already heard the photographs compared to FBI “most wanted” photos. When you’re looking at a single image, it’s easy to react like that.

But I’m willing to bet that if you visit the exhibit during “Second Saturday,” you’ll not only see Mapurunga’s work in a new and meaningful way, you’ll have a vivid sense of the people whose passion and commitment allow us to enjoy such a rich, vast and ever-evolving food culture.