11 Apr 2011

Cuisine Photo Kitsch (Part 1)

Although this article is aimed at entertaining the reader as much as sharing with them some photographic evidence from 'back in the day', I need first of all to make a personal observation and give justice to our elder recipe chefs/ stylists. Today we take for granted the fact that image has become everything, thanks to the vast progress in digital arts and image manipulation. This strong visual element has permeated every array of industry and society, down to food publishing.

'Sweetness & Light Meringue', by Red Online (photo: Richard Jung)

This amazing progress has taken beauty as an artform to the mainstream, and we now expect or demand pictorial perfection. Hardback recipe books have become ever so picture-rich: when only one in so many recipes would have its own dedicated photo, nowadays most books have reached a 1:1 ratio. Food magazines have also come up in leaps and bounds in terms of layout, visual impact and appeal.

The harshness of bog-standard studio photography has been corrected by the wonders of the digital age and wizardry of Adobe Creative Suite, making vintage recipe visuals look incredibly dated and unappealing, compared to the sleek, fresh, intelligently-staged and detail-rich productions of - let's say - Donna Hay or David Loftus. The visual beauty of some of today's recipe books and the talent of their food stylist teams implies coffee table status, proudly taking the books from the kitchen into the living room as display features rather than shoving them in a cupboard. Photos sell the book more than the word content alone. Back in our vintage years, there was no visual option. You bought the recipe book for its content, not its appearance, and tough luck if you happened to despair at the lack/ sparsity of photography. It was a case of substance over style. We today have to respect those technological limitations.

'Ricotta Cheesecake & Moscato Figs', by Donna Hay

Now that I have clarified my point, and as a pictorial follow-up to my blogpost on 1970s and '80s recipe photography, I thought it resourceful to leaf through my mum's extended recipe magazine and book collection, spanning the best part of five decades, in order to unearth other little gems, purely for comparative purposes. Although I have only scratched the surface of her vast collection, I have included herewith a selection of photos that not only reflect on the photographic style of the times (its aims and limitations), but also depict the evolution of taste in its culinary, design, fashion, technological and sociological terms.

Meanwhile I invite you to dig up your own or your mum's old cookery publications in search of quirkiness and the dated like I have done; and in doing so, you are bound to find out some interesting and funny facts too. Now let's start our vintage photo pilgrimage with the peak of the Swinging Sixties, 1967, the Summer of Love, 'California Dreamin', Ossie Clark floaty dresses, Jackie O. shades and that incense stick burning all the way back from Kathmandu...

Town & Country (March 2011), photo: Albert Giordan - via On Bluepoolroad

1960s: 'Rougets Grillés Niçoise'/ 'Epaule d'Agneau aux Aromates'

Taken from La Cuisine à l'Electricité by Françoise Bernard (© Librairie Hachette 1967). Here we cosy up into the late '60s with a revolutionary cookbook written by a well-known French cookery figure of the times. The 150-recipe cookbook only contains a handful of photos, and although some were more flattering than this one, I decided to be awkward so I could prove my point. However what makes this book stand out is the fact that almost each double-page spread features a colour cartoon representation of the recipe it relates to, using naïve symbolic imagery in bonbon colours, in a similar psychedelic vein to The Beatles' 'Yellow Submarine' animation film.

Another revolution in this cookbook lies in the fact that its recipes are adapted to be made solely using an electric cooker. Understandably the book was produced and promoted by EDF (Electricité de France, the French state-owned electricity board) as a sleek and clever marketing tool. Colour-coded cooker/ oven settings are explained with each recipe.

In terms of photographic and culinary merit, the grilled fish recipe pictured here ('Rougets Grillés Niçoise') is likely to raise eyebrows: the fish-looking-at-me scenario, the look-more-fish scenario (anchovies plus anchovy butter medallions), the majority of browns and the impression that the dish is charred, dry and incredibly salted. Not a turn-on for the modern palate; was it ever back then, I wonder?

However, unless you are a vegetarian or a friend of the living lamb like I, the lamb shoulder recipe ('Epaule d'Agneau aux Aromates') looks less off-putting (that will be the cute cartoon!). Ingredients do not verge on the bizarre either: thyme, dry white wine, oil and a stuffing made of butter (or margarine), rosemary, oregano, basil, parsley thyme, garlic and egg. Actually the recipe sounds quite modern (timeless even), so much so that I could easily imagine one of our TV chefs whip it up as a Sunday roast. Therefore indeed, not all vintage recipes were the culinary equivalent of a Z movie gorefest! (to be continued)

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