Food, beautiful food!

I don't think I'm imagining it - food photography is on the ascendant in our cookbooks, for better or for worse.  A couple of authors have reported that their publisher's budgets could accommodate either photography or testing, and these days, photography always wins.  This can be frustrating, as I wrote in a recent review.  Yet one can't deny that the books are more visually loaded with every year.

We're increasingly seeing food photography as a means of artistic expression, rather than a means of practical instruction.  Sometimes the food even seems to be secondary, as in this Christina's World - like image on the cover of The Kinfolk Table.  Who would have thought that photography would ever feel the need to pick up the mannerisms of realist painters?  You feel like if you looked close enough, you'd see tiny, tiny brush strokes trying to hide themselves.


Meanwhile, in the Gramercy Tavern Cookbook you can find spreads reminiscent of a Renaissance still life. I always felt, walking into the restaurant, as if I were walking into an oil painting, and that vision's been seamlessly translated into the book. The image at right is just a detail - I couldn't dig up the full spread - but the propping, backdrops, and lighting are typical of these opulent efforts.


And then there's the spare, meditative style - my husband thought it self-consciously referenced a Japanese aesthetic - expressed in Nigel Slater's Notes from the Larder.  The stark images stand in contrast to the book's jaunty, wine-splashed cover, like a monk in costume as Old King Cole.

I remember the last time cookbooks staked out a claim on the coffee table, in the 1980's. It feels like we're in the middle of another shift in the nature and purpose of cookbooks.  And although, as a writer, I deplore the way text is being devalued and defunded in favor of images across the publishing industry, I would be the last to suggest we shouldn't enjoy these beautiful books.  Let's just hope that publishers continue to value - or maybe return to valuing - pens and palates as they do the lens.


  • boardingace  on  12/16/2013 at 3:55 PM

    I love the photographs too, but like you, I was a little sad to realize that funding was being shifted away from testing towards the photographs. It makes sense, though, that there are finite resources for books and that decisions must be made. Most of us love the beautiful photographs and many people feel that they are necessary to being inspired to cook a particular recipe, or at least half the fun of flipping through a new cookbook. So that's important, too. On the other hand, if a recipe isn't well tested, I don't want to make it. I guess that there are still plenty of books whose budget is big enough for both photograph and good testing, and those are the ones that get really popular by word of mouth :)

  • FuzzyChef  on  12/16/2013 at 9:59 PM

    Love this post. Nice prose.

  • ellabee  on  12/18/2013 at 10:39 AM

    :: A couple of authors have reported that their publisher's budgets could accommodate either photography or testing. :: That's very sad and sobering -- and gives much more weight to non-photo-heavy books on my wishlist. My favorite and most-used cookbooks don't have photos at all, or they're not a big part of the attraction of the book: Art of Simple Food, Veg. Epicure, Joy of Cooking, Silver Palate. Veg Cooking for Everyone [photos grouped into two photo-only sections, which add very little to the book for me but extra weight]. But I'm old school (and getting just plain old), a reader who grew up in a household without a TV. Don't think I'm the "target demographic" for many publishers.

  • ellabee  on  12/18/2013 at 10:50 AM

    I'm for sure not in whatever group the producers of Kinfolk are aiming at. That's one of the most pretentious, self-involved, distancing collections I've ever seen -- crying out for parody.

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