8 Oct 2009

Retro Food Photography – You Talkin’ to Me?

Not long ago I would have flicked through my mum’s 1970s and 80s cookbooks in horror… Now I try to be more philosophical about their lack of visual appeal and see them as part of photographic heritage in their own right. They certainly embodied an era of bad taste, but seemed to meet most of the readership’s expectations at the time.


Back in the 70s colour photography as an art was still in its infancy. Colours were saturated and lighting was harsh and unforgiving. It was a pretty despondent affair with oodles of tricky shiny dark surfaces and the uninspiring colours of the day, chocolate brown, olive green, orange and oatmeal. Add to this an urban interpretation of what country living may look like, with strong emphasis on the rustic and tavern-like: think mock panelling, copper pans hanging from ceilings in a flurry of dried bouquets and macramé, and straw hats scattered around the kitchen table…

Tableware included stoneware and amber-coloured glasses. Shiny cold cuts, pâtés, multicoloured salads and blancmanges were all vying for attention, surrounded by props made up of dead game, pewter pitchers, candles, and dusty-looking corn, oats and lunaria annua arrangements, set against a draped background. You half-expected to see a beheaded pig flying through the set at any moment or Robin Hood stepping in just as the photo was taken, wearing his moonboots and a handlebar moustache.


Some cookbooks were wisely trying to keep away from the rustic trend by staying conservatively modern and ‘un-dated’ which, despite not having aged so well has nonetheless stood the test of time in better shape than our rustic mockery, although the saturated colour and lack of photographic detail then again didn’t give the displays much justice.

Like every era, the 1980s were supposed to eradicate the design mistakes of the previous decade and reconcile us with taste, but although we might have been pleased with the endeavours back then, our critical eye is now less convinced. The rules were fairly straightforward though: use any colour as long as it was white, black or red (music album sleeves are a good indicator of the trend!) Black ash was a material favourite, and the clean lines never hid the fact that the furniture looked cheap, functional and grown-up (in a masculine kind of way).

Whereas at the other end of the spectrum, cottage nostalgia was captured in soft focus with chintz, Liberty and Laura Ashley prints aplenty, and country cookbooks embraced the trend! Flowers had left fields and gardens to invade upholstery and crockery without restraint!

Source: 'Entertaining with Friends' by Janice Murfitt © 1984 Orbis Publishing Ltd.

Back in France, I have a book about table decoration which was written in the 80s. One of the table sculptures features high on the league table of décor faux-pas: take two thick pieces of polystyrene. One will be used flat, as a base, and its centre cut out to accommodate the second piece. Shape that second piece with a kitchen knife, roughly in the shape of a swan. Interlock the two pieces onto a tray, then smear them thickly in margarine and place 2 fresh truffle mushrooms where the eyes are supposed to be.

Display proudly on the buffet table, preferably between the aspic and the mortadella. I will include a scanned photograph when I get hold of the book, because indeed such a prop needs to be seen to be believed.

Meanwhile for more 1970s photo fun, why not check Comical Cookbooks or visit Flickr.

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