Tuesday, December 27, 2011

One Page Fits All

Reading materials have always come with illustrations. At first, the pictures were made with woodblock prints inserted into black spaces left by the printer. When books were assembled, whole pages were devoted to carefully painted illustrations, and oversize letters within the text were extravagantly decorated. Once the Victorians invented leisure time, childhood, compulsory education, and spending money, young people enjoyed books made especially for them which included beautiful color illustrations interspersed throughout the story, as well as lively pen and ink prints that often showed a dramatic scene which was then happening in the text.

Cookery and household management books lagged far behind, only getting small, poor-quality black and white photographs of dishes every now and then. The purpose of such images seems not to be for instruction but to break up the acres of densely-packed print.

The idea that you could separate out the pictures from the text, or that you could or should use pictures to demonstrate technique or showcase a dish has been late in coming to fruition. Back in 1979, for example, book designers still used photographs sparingly, without much thought to the composition of the image.

Here, three non-complementary desserts are grouped together in matching glass serving bowls simply because all three recipes appear on the opposite page. They would never be served together in real life, and none makes any of the others look as appetizing as they would be if shot alone. One cannot, for example, imagine the apricot-based dish’s flavor when faced with the strident green of the Grasshopper parfaits which loom above. The small dish to the side is made from cheese and nuts.

The idea that you should aim to push as many dishes onto the table so they can appear in one shot dates a cookbook as much as any other element. Today’s food stylists and photographers would cringe at the thought of assembling and lighting such a mis-matched ensemble of colors and textures. Here, the photographer has opted for a one-size-fits-all approach with a warm filter and overhead lamp that does none of these dishes justice.

Fix It Fast Cookbook, Better Homes and Gardens, 1979
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