What We Do
Photography changes the foods we crave
Lauren Shakely, a cookbook publisher, describes how food styling and evocative photography attract attention and stimulate the senses.
You come to it as if climbing over a rise, or perhaps more aptly, as a child approaching the forbidden table. The chocolate cake is not perfect; in fact the heavy icing appears to be melting. A glint of sunshine strikes its brow and touches the overhanging pink roses. The linens underneath are a bit rumpled, the strawberries and whipped cream await, the background is lush and green. It is outdoors in summer, and the moment you see the photograph, Joshua Greene's cover for Lee Bailey's Country Desserts, you want to be there, instantly and forever. Or at least I did, in 1988, when I had just joined its publisher, Clarkson Potter, after 20 years editing art and photography books.
The earliest cookbooks were for simple palates, records of cooks’ favorites, or the king's favorites, writ down so that they could successfully be repeated by those who could imagine how they should look and taste when finished. Like any kind of book, the evolution of cookbooks paralleled the progress of printing technology. The classic Joy of Cooking, bible for nearly every American household with a stove, was illustrated with charming and simple line drawings. The first cookbook with color photographs I ever recall seeing was Better Homes and Gardens Junior Cook Book (for the Hostess and Host of Tomorrow) in 1955. The step-by-step instructions were line drawings, the lesser shots were black and white, but there were beauty shots clearly meant to inspire the young chef—burgers, shakes, french toast. But the printing was poor and I don't remember being inspired enough to, as the editors suggested, "fill up the family cookie jar."
By the mid-1960s, Julia Child compelled us with serious French recipes that she truly believed, and made us believe, we could re-create at home. But in her color cookbooks, with her husband Paul as the self-trained photographer on the set of her TV show, the results were wonderful memories of the shows we loved, but far from "food porn".
The way photographs looked, and how they were used in cookbooks, changed radically in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the Japanese transformed color printing as they had cars and electronics, with better technology and cheaper prices. The Asian attention to detail—using much finer separation screens (creating more dots, thus more detail), better registration of the four colors used to make the printing plates, and reduced black ink in comparison to magenta, cyan, and yellow, which pumped up the clarity of color—changed the possibilities of reproducing images of food.
In 1982, Martha Stewart insisted not only on Japanese printing, but also on photographs of every dish for her first book, Entertaining, because as a caterer, she knew that the look of the food was what connected imaginations to the sense of taste, i.e., if you saw it and it was beautiful, you could feel the flavors taking synesthetic shape upon your tongue. By the late 1990s, the trend toward lavishly illustrated cookbooks had gone so far that a bookstore owner lamented to me that although she kept steering newlyweds to un-illustrated cookbooks with thousands of recipes, no one wanted them. They wanted the full-on close-ups of perfectly placed chanterelles or even french toast. They expected to be made hungry between meals.
Back to the book cover. Lee Bailey, a charming émigré to New York from New Orleans, had a strong taste for nostalgia. I remember looking at the cover, at the naturalistic food styling and at the way the printing captured the dappled sunlight, and realizing that it perfectly suited the wistful way Lee viewed the world—as one perfect petit madeleine. It also made me understand that we had entered a new era of armchair cooking.
I don't actually know how Josh Greene, Lee Bailey, and the book’s designers, worked together. Josh's photographs seem like food portraits, which makes sense since his father was Milton Greene, famous for his photographs of Marilyn Monroe. I know that Lee Bailey agonized over details and would have chosen linens and plates and flowers. The cover photograph was always an in-house joke at Clarkson Potter because it had a fly embedded in the icing. Now (and this is what makes me wistful for temps perdus) we would have Photoshopped it away. It is probably not even the best of Josh Greene's photographs; the cake is slightly out of focus. But the magic is in the subtle shift from record keeping and practical information to the blatant sensualization of food. You cannot look at the photograph without wanting to eat the cake, but even more, without wanting that day and all that it implies. You want not only the time it takes to eat the cake on a lazy summer afternoon, but the time it took to bake it, set the table, and arrange the flowers. You want friends and family who would be worthy of such a cake. You want your grandmother to exclaim that it is better than hers. You want everyone you know to say it looks just like the picture.
- Jacket cover from Lee Bailey’s Country Desserts: Cakes, Cookies, Ice Creams, Pies, Puddings & More by Lee Bailey, 1988
- Clarkson Potter/Publishers Random House