Apertures and Aperitifs: On “The Photographer’s Cookbook”

The greatest food photography ever.

Apertures and Aperitifs: On “The Photographer’s Cookbook”

The Photographer’s Cookbook by Lisa Hostetler. Aperture/George Eastman Museum. 160 pages.

IF YOU MANAGE to get a reservation at Sukiyabashi Jiro, the three Michelin star sushi restaurant in Tokyo — the best in the world by many accounts — you’re expected to obey quite a list of rules, including: “Please refrain from taking photos of the sushi. The only sure way of enjoying Jiro’s sushi is to concentrate on dining. When you leave, we would be pleased to take a commemorative photograph for you at the doorway if you wish.”

This sounds reasonable in a good restaurant, doesn’t it? The chef wants you to focus on what you’re eating. On the other hand, the Japanese have the expression me de taberu (we eat with our eyes). Admittedly this isn’t exactly the same as posting pictures of your dinner on Instagram, but both impulses acknowledge how important the visual element is to food and eating.

When I was, briefly, the relief chef at a fairly dismal steak restaurant in Cambridge, England, my boss — an unhappy man who hated his job and his customers even more than he hated me — dispensed a piece of what he thought was profound wisdom: “If it looks good and they’ve got a full plate, you can get away with murder.”

Let’s leave aside the question of why you’d want to “get away with murder” when it comes to serving food, but let’s also acknowledge that he wasn’t completely wrong. We want our food to look good, even if our notions of what constitutes “good-looking” may change over time. These days a full plate is more likely to seem unsophisticated, and you could argue that photographing your food is pretty unsophisticated too, but the ship seems to have sailed on that one. Even Anthony Bourdain now thinks it’s okay.

As far as I know, nobody ever took a picture of anything I cooked in that Cambridge restaurant, but I wouldn’t have minded. And for what it’s worth, a quick look at Yelp suggests that a lot of people don’t obey the no-photography rule at Sukiyabashi Jiro.

But why take photographs of food anyway? As a souvenir, no doubt — photography is in the business of fixing transient moments, and meals are always just passing through. No doubt it’s also sometimes a way of showing off to friends about all the cool places you’ve been to eat. Of course many “amateur” photographs of food are downright banal, but sometimes amateurishness can be interesting in itself. I have various Facebook friends around the world, most of whom, naturally, I scarcely know at all, and I’m always intrigued to see the pictures they put online, showing what they eat at home or in restaurants or at family gatherings. It tells me a lot about the kind of lives they lead.

There is the Brillat-Savarin model of eating: “tell me (for our purposes here, ‘show me’) what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.” For serious photographers a similar model applies: show me what you think is worth photographing and that’ll tell me just as much. And if you show me that food is an important part of your worldview and your aesthetic, then we’re deep inside your psyche.

Once upon a time, very few photographers got through art college without shooting pictures of red cabbages or green peppers as a way of demonstrating their skills with lighting, exposure, and printing. There are even some extant Robert Mapplethorpe images, taken well post-college (he dropped out of the Pratt Institute in 1969), of a pineapple and an aubergine, and one of a watermelon with a knife stuck in it.

The Photographer’s Cookbook — a project originally conceived by Deborah Barsel and now completed by Lisa Hostetler — contains no Mapplethorpes, which may be considered a shame, or it may not. If you believe Patricia Morrisroe’s biography, Mapplethorpe was in with the “coprophagia is the final sacrament” crowd at the time this volume was first conceived.

The book was a very long time in the making. Back in 1977, Deborah Barsel was working as an assistant registrar at George Eastman House (now the George Eastman Museum), which was not the world’s most exciting job apparently. To make her life more interesting she decided to compile a book of photographers’ recipes and food-related photographs, and she placed an ad in the museum’s magazine Image asking for contributions.

Somewhat to her surprise, within two years she’d received 120 replies, but then Barsel left her job, and the majority of the submissions sat in the archives in a box labeled “Photocookbook.” There they stayed for the better part of 40 years until Lisa Hostetler, the current curator of photography at the Eastman, opened up the box and edited the contents into the book we now have: 150 pages of photographs and recipes by high-art photographers, some of them still very famous names, others who are less familiar now than they were in 1977. There’s also been a little slippage over the years — some of the material was returned to the photographers — and some new pieces have been added, but even so we have a kind of time capsule here.

This is not the place to chart all the many changes that have taken place in the worlds of both food and photography in the four intervening decades; suffice it to say that the two processes had a lot more in common before photography went digital, when photographers mixed chemicals to their own or extant “recipes,” when it was all about temperatures, timing, gelatins, and emulsions, when photographs could be “dodged” and “burned.”

Some of the images here do look as though they come from a completely different age. For instance, Ansel Adams’s perfectly composed and beautifully lit Still Life, San Francisco, California, ca. 1932 — two eggs, an egg slicer, a bottle of milk, another bottle of Marie Brizard liqueur — looks like a historical artifact, the kind of picture nobody takes anymore, and not very many people want to look at.

Hans Namuth’s American Housewife, ca. 1952, certainly looks like a period piece, set up to look as though it’s taken from inside a fridge, peering out through shelves of cake and macaroni salad at a wholesomely attractive woman, who may or may not be a professional model, an image that now contains ironies that wouldn’t have been so apparent in the early ’50s.

Other works seem amazingly current. Neil Slavin’s Nylen’s Frankfurters in Full Dress shows a grid of 12 hotdogs, garnished with various fruits, vegetables, pickles, and what not. The image’s colors are lurid, and the overall effect is engagingly satirical, as the photographer applies a conceptualist rigor to what is, after all, just a bunch of wieners.

One photograph by Arthur Taussig, from 1979, is downright “meta.” It shows a table strewn with books and magazines, all of them opened at pages that show reproductions of Edward Weston’s famous photographs of peppers.

When it comes to the recipes, some of the photographers have taken the task far more seriously than others. Burt Glinn’s recipe for borscht, actually his grandmother’s, is meticulously detailed and runs to three pages. But it’s there side by side with Imogen Cunningham’s borscht recipe, which is a very different thing altogether. First she denounces salt, and then she denounces Alice B. Toklas’s kitchen skills — “likely her cooking contributed to the death of Gertrude and herself” — and then she gives her recipe: “I make it half mine and half Manischewitz (commercial bottle of borscht).” Julia Child might be horrified, although there’s a wonderful, very “straight,” portrait of her here by Arnold Newman, in which she looks so benign and happy that you imagine she’d forgive even the worst culinary sins and shortcuts.

Some seem to be trying a bit too hard: Minor White’s recipe for steamed and sautéed vegetable with its talk of “heightened awareness” seems a lot of trouble for a plate of carrots and celery. Barbara Morgan gives a recipe for “Global Bread Cake,” “hoping that we will all someday become ‘World Citizens.’” You will not be surprised to learn that brown rice and buckwheat are involved. Others seem not to be trying very hard at all. Do we really need Horst P. Horst to tell us how to marinate a cucumber?

Just occasionally the photographers seem to be simultaneously overreaching and undercooking. Les Krims’s recipe for “Formalist Stew” “has 185 ingredients and takes 31 days to prepare. The only problem is, you die of hunger and boredom before it’s ever finished.” It’s accompanied by a 1974 Polaroid of his mother, topless, pouring milk out of a dead chicken — I guess the world worried less about salmonella back then.

Here, as in most cases, the images don’t directly illustrate the recipes, though at their best image and text interact and inform each other. A Robert Heinecken collage, actually from 1991, which uses magazine ads for Bombay Sapphire and tooth whitener, accompanies a recipe for Heinecken’s “Serious Martini” — gin kept in the freezer, no vermouth, no ice, not stirred or shaken, but poured into a glass that’s been in the freezer, along with the juice of one eighth of a California lemon — “This drink is not recommended before 11 a.m.” Ed Ruscha’s “Cactus Omelette” — a more or less serviceable recipe — “have a friend bring a jar (of napolitos) on a plane if necessary” — is accompanied by one of the cactus photographs from his 1972 series Colored People.

Two of the more successfully enduring presences in the book — young Turks in 1977, grand old men today — are William Eggleston and Stephen Shore (born 1939 and 1947, respectively), two men who from the beginning created pictures that could all too easily be accused of banality, or of looking like “snapshots,” whatever the hell that means. Now their aesthetic is widely regarded as the gold standard of both high and low photographic art.

William Eggleston’s photograph from the 1976 series Election Eve shows the interior of a diner where the walls, table tops, and some of the upholstery are all the same alarming yellow hue. It’s a great photograph, it’s pure William Eggleston, and it captures the bleak emptiness of a certain kind of eating experience: the fact that there’s no food in sight only adds to the misery. Eggleston provides a recipe for “Cheese Grits Casserole” — heavy on the Velveeta.

Stephen Shore’s own photographic contribution shows a restaurant table, post-meal, after the food and dishes have been cleared away from the stained tablecloth, a cup of coffee and a cigar remain, and an American Express Card sits waiting to be picked up by the server. You could find something similar on Instagram, of course, but it wouldn’t be a Stephen Shore.

In fact Shore has embraced the online world in a way that few photographers of his generation have. Between 2003 and 2008 he made 83 volumes of his work available in print-on-demand book form, the contents of each book shot on a single day. That project’s over now, but he continues to be active on Instagram, where the audience is inevitably a mixed bunch: some in the know, some not, though all free to comment. Occasionally someone will declare that the work is banal and in one case complains, “This does not feel like Shore.” Where to start with that one? But if you want to see the arugula and rugelach salad, or the mutton chop with escarole that Shore ate and thought worth photographing, well, look no further. Thanks to Instagram you could even ask him for the recipe.

The Photographer’s Cookbook is a fascinating curiosity, and although it’s essentially a small, fun project, it’s rather more serious and subversive than it first appears. It raises all kinds of questions about consumption, desire, pleasure, and domesticity, and it whets the appetite for a very much larger work about food and photography, one that might include advertising photography and fashion — why is food so often used as a prop in fashion shoots while the models look like they’ve never had a good meal in their lives? It might address the politics of hunger with Salgado and Dorothea Lange, the nature of mortality with Nobuyoshi Araki’s The Banquet and the heartbreaking record of what his wife ate during her terminal illness, Martin Parr’s pictures of food, particularly British food, dealing with class, status, and in the broadest sense, taste. The possibilities are vast. As you see, I’ve been left hungry for more.


Geoff Nicholson is a novelist and nonfiction writer and a contributing editor at LARB.

LARB Contributor

Geoff Nicholson is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books. His books include the novels Bleeding London and The Hollywood Dodo. His latest, The Miranda, is published in October.


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