A Recipe for Art

Recipe – an instruction on how to make a particular dish. But it can be so much more than that! Recipe-writing is, without doubt, an art. In the spirit of the latter approach, an assistant registrar at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, Deborah Barsel, came up with a side project, which’s history… well, went down in history.

Book cover |

In 1977, Barsel published a submission call in the museum’s magazine and wrote direct letters asking for photographers’ favorite recipes and food-related photos. Couple of years passed and among 120 submissions were some impressive ones: Robert Adams, Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon, Imogen Cunningham, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Ed Ruscha, among others. But Barsel never got to finalize her cookbook project, as she left the museum to enroll in graduate school. Thankfully, it was discovered 35 years later by Lisa Hostetler, a curator at the museum, who decided to finish what Barsel started. She published the book under the title ‘Photographer’s Cookbook’ –  the name that the found box was signed with. 

Ralph Steiner, Ham and Eggs, advertisement for the Delineator, with the recipe for Steiner’s Zwei Vier Minuten Eier | George Eastman Museum

Aside from projects’ turbulent story it’s interesting how in asking the food photographers for recipes, Barsel made an assumption that they can and do, in fact, cook themselves. The narrative, anecdotal form the recipes took brought back the seemingly lost art of recipe-writing and made for a fascinating read. As practical and helpful as most recipes can be, I dare say they’re rarely a pleasure-read. Yet, that’s exactly how you could describe the ones that Deborah Barsel collected for her project. Needless to say the photos, by themselves, serve as a phenomenal memoir of the food photography of the 70s.


Imogen Cunningham, My Kitchen Sink, 1947, with the recipe for 
Cunningham’s borscht | Imogen Cunningham Trust

The story of the ‘Photographer’s Cookbook’ is one of creativity on multiple levels. In putting out a simple request, Barsel began what later became a testimony of the times the artists lived in, all dressed up in food-related content – a great inspiration for filming food now, especially when the food-narrative approach seems to be an important topic. 


The book can be found at Aperture Store

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