Judy Dater’s 1977 photograph of Ansel Adams’s 75th-birthday treat — a sheet cake with the typical cursive writing — makes the revered photographer seem, for a moment, like an ordinary guy. This quirky irreverence is at the heart of The Photographer’s Cookbook, a collection of recipes and food images that was released this spring by the Aperture Foundation and the George Eastman Museum. The project was conceived in the 1970s, when Deborah Barsel, a registrar at the museum, solicited recipes and photos in hopes of putting together such a book. But Barsel abandoned the undertaking, and her files sat in storage for decades, until they were rediscovered a few years ago.
The recipes include William Eggleston’s Cheese Grits Casserole, Imogen Cunningham’s Borscht, Robert Heinecken’s Serious Martini (“not recommended before 11 a.m.,” he wrote) and Neal Slavin’s Frankfurters in Full Dress (accompanied by a delightfully eye-popping photo with the same title). The overall effect is of a trip back to a time when ingredients like lard were kitchen staples rather than, as now, throwback guilty pleasures. The ’70s were also when photography gained a wider cultural appreciation as an art form, and The Photographer’s Cookbook includes famous exponents of the medium (Ed Ruscha, Brassaï), then-upstarts (Eggleston, Stephen Shore) and lensmen who have since slipped under the radar (Richard Margolis, Charles Swedlund).
Lisa Hostetler, curator in charge of the department of photography at the Eastman Museum, wrote the introductory essay for the book and spoke to Introspective about the significance of food photography.
When you arrived at the museum several years ago, this project landed on your desk, and you and Denise Wolff, Aperture’s senior editor, quickly became advocates for producing a book. What moved you about the material?
There’s something compelling about looking at pictures of food. We see them all the time, everywhere, but these photos are presenting another side of food, as something we consume and absorb, something that’s not always pretty or appetizing. It’s rare to find a picture of someone eating that’s flattering.
The recipes are appetizing, but some of the photographs are a counterpoint to that. Jerry Burchard’s 1978 photograph of a platter of caviar underneath a person’s crotch just makes me think, “Oy, no thanks.” And then there’s Les Krims’s 1974 Polaroid of a topless woman pouring milk out of a raw chicken, into a bowl of cornflakes on the kitchen table. It’s hilarious but not appetizing. The inappropriateness is very seventies — it was a wild time. Going through the photographers’ correspondence, let’s just say the letters were hard to follow and very “groovy.”
I also love how knowing photographers’ favorite foods grounds them, as in Ansel Adams’s recipe for Eggs Poached in Beer. He’s this really famous person whose views and photographs have changed the world, but then you think of him pouring beer in a pan with eggs and popping it in the microwave. Food is so wonderfully human and universal.
Is this the first time the public will be seeing some of these pictures?
Definitely. Some of the images by lesser-known photographers have never before been seen. Judy Dater’s photo of Ansel Adams’s birthday cake, in which MoMA curator John Szarkowski’s hands appear to be eerily floating above the cake — many people didn’t even know that photograph existed. On the other side of things, Ralph Steiner’s Ham and Eggs is a very famous image.
You took a box of about a hundred and fifty recipes and images and whittled it down to roughly fifty. How did you choose?
I wanted the book to give a sense of the different types of photography that were popular, or emerging, in the seventies. There was serious fine-art photography, fashion photography and commercial photography. At this museum, we’ve never valued one over the other. So the book includes big names like Edward Weston and Minor White, as well as photographers who were just starting their careers then and those who were never household names.
There’s Richard Avedon — who contributed the Royal Pot Roast recipe, courtesy of his mother, along with a 1948 photo of model Elise Daniels in Paris holding a wine glass. And there’s also fashion photography by Horst P. Horst, a 1986 portrait of Yves Saint Laurent in his garden.
Do you think there’s a nostalgia right now for food from bygone decades?
Absolutely. I cannot believe Velveeta is in this book, because that’s something I remember so vividly from my childhood. These recipes are comfort food, even though now we know that it’s bad to eat lard and that kind of stuff. The seventies were an innocent time — we didn’t know much about cholesterol, carbs and the like. There’s a pining for those days of food innocence, I think. It’s so pleasurable to look at dishes with lots of no-nos in them and have them anyway, in the spirit of that freewheeling era.
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