Beginning this month at the Tate in London is a retrospective of the work of celebrated Italian photographer Enricho Ravioli, whose accomplishments in the field of takeaway menu boards has elevated the photography of kebabs to the status of an art form. Born in Naples when no one was looking, Enricho was the third of two children. His mother - part Spanish, part German, and occasionally Russian at the weekends - scraped a living by gluing fake plastic ears onto injured donkeys that had been damaged in road traffic incidents. His father was the latest in a long line of Sicilian trouser upholsterers, but supplemented his meagre earnings by sleeping with other men for money.
Enricho Ravioli - Kebab Photographer
One of the greatest proponents of takeaway menu photography announces his latest exhibition.
All of which meant that Enricho and his older brother Luigi saw very little of their parents. The only chance they really got to bond with their father was at weekends, when he would enlist the boys' help in doing little jobs around the house - using them mostly to prop open doors, hold up shelves and hammer in nails. Most of the time, however, Enricho and Luigi were left to their own devices.
It was around this time that Enricho began to take an interest in photography. His usual subject was Mussolini, their pet beagle, which he would stake out in their back yard and photograph using a number of different lenses and filters. It was through such experimentation that he came to perfect his art, and it soon became apparent that he had a real flair for capturing mood and feeling.
When the brothers came of age it seemed obvious what each would do. Luigi went to study pasta design at the University of Milan, specialising in studies of the relative stress values of tagliatelle and spaghetti. Meanwhile, Enricho set his sights on the catwalks of Europe, hoping to make a name for himself as a fashion photographer. However, competition was fierce and although Enricho was both technically and artistically accomplished, his work lacked that vital 'something' that would make him stand out for the crowd.
Nevertheless, he doggedly pursued his aim for eight years, travelling around the continent in the wake of the big fashion extravaganzas, beauty pageants and dog shows. And whenever work became thin on the ground he was able to fall back on the family trade, earning a few coppers here and there upholstering the trousers of the rich, the famous and the influential. And it was while he was re-covering the particularly threadbare gusset of a pair of nylon sports casuals for a London businessman that his big break came - although he didn't recognise it as such at the time.
The gentleman in question, an Australian entrepreneur by the name of Kerry Taylor, had just bought a rundown kebab takeaway in Tooting. The premises were undergoing extensive renovation and, hearing that Ravioli was trying to carve a career as a photographer, he asked him to provide the photographs for his new illuminated menu board.
It would prove to be the job that would turn Enricho's career around. Lacking enthusiasm at first, he quickly found he had a strange affinity with the limp strands of processed meat. Somehow, he could breathe life into it, make it sizzle, make it sparkle. The pictures he produced for Taylor were a sensation. Somehow he had made the humble kebab a thing of almost divine beauty. The pitta bread was fresh, white and pure, like the alabaster skin of a Greek Goddess. The tomatoes were rich and plump and juicy, the crisp shreds of cabbage like the feathery down of some mythical bird. It was breath-taking.
Word of the pictures spread and Taylor's shop found itself inundated with people who had come from all over the country just to see Ravioli's work. From that moment on he was in constant demand. Kebab shop owners from across the breadth of Europe all wanted their menu boards to look as good, and they were prepared to pay to get it. Over the next few years Ravioli worked solidly, continually pushing forward the boundaries of kebab photography, constantly amazing the critics as he repeatedly surpassed his previous triumphs.
Along the way he has spawned some true masterpieces, works which will be remembered long after he has passed from this world. 'The Fallen Donner' in the Emperor of Istanbul in Cambridge ranks alongside the renaissance masters in its depiction of melancholy reflection. 'The Shish of Baghdad' proudly displayed in Tony's Kebabs in Market Harborough is steeped in Eastern mystery. And 'Lamb Kofte at Bay' in The Market Street Takeaway in Portsmouth has been known to bring a tear to the eye of many a pissed-up office worker desperately trying to find a cab home at two o'clock on a Sunday morning.
Nowadays, an original Ravioli can fetch upwards of twenty thousand pounds and there are plenty of serious collectors who are prepared to pay much more if it means adding another masterpiece to their collections. At a recent auction in Amsterdam, the classic "Moonlit Tikka and Donner Mix" went for a staggering half a million to an unknown bidder. This is the highest recorded sum ever for an artwork based on a popular foodstuff - with the obvious exception of Henry Moore's seminal "Hamburger at Eventide".
The exhibition begins on the 12th and will run for the next six months, so if you're a connoisseur of takeaway art, or just a keen student of the kebab, get yourself along to the Tate gallery after the pub shuts for what promises to be an excellent experience.
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