Almost precisely 52 years ago, one day before John F. Kennedy was shot, The Charleston Evening Post ran a very traditional recipe for roasted wild duck with orange stuffing. But it presented the recipe in a highly newfangled way. As Food Editor Charlotte Walker reminded readers, “This (is) our first experiment with local outdoor color photography in the food department.”
More than 400 million people use Instagram every month. And while it’s not known exactly how many of them come for the food photos, it’s reasonable to assume that a good number of them are regularly exposed to pictures of pizza, the most-Instagrammed food in the world. Color food photography is beyond commonplace now.
But as food photographer Matt Armendariz wrote in a how-to guide for bloggers, food photography didn’t exist until 1832, when Joseph Nicephore Niepce arranged a bowl, bread and goblet and trained his camera on the scene.
Photographers throughout the 19th century continued to capture culinary images, but the technology didn’t yet exist to cheaply and swiftly reproduce photographs in newspapers. Advertisers and food editors stuck with illustrations when trying to convey the deliciousness of pickles or the majesty of a cake.
Newspapers in Charleston started regularly printing food photographs in the 1930s, the decade that’s generally acknowledged as the beginning of the Golden Age of Photojournalism, a label that probably had more to do with the new availability of flashbulbs and high-quality inks than the picture of a sad-looking fish loaf that The News and Courier ran in 1935. Still, photographs were a fixture of local food pages by the 1950s. The Evening Post’s food section was typically anchored by a picture of a woman preparing dinner, such as Mrs. Louis Copleston of the Sergeant Jasper Apartments. Copleston, clad in a clear vinyl pinafore apron, was shown spooning Duke’s mayonnaise into a saucepan.
The pictures were always black-and-white. Food magazines were quick to appreciate the appeal of color, with McCall’s in 1935 hiring a photographer with expertise in a complicated color-layering process that resulted in deeply saturated images of fruit salad, chocolate pie and pressed duck (because color photography was still expensive, it was customary to squeeze lots of dishes into a single frame.) Newspapers, though, were seemingly allergic to color: As late as 1979, only 12 percent of newspapers permitted color on their news pages.
“It’s more of a cheerful kind of thing — it’s more like television,” The Boston Globe’s publisher told The New York Times in 1993, when the Old Gray Lady ran its first color illustration. The Globe, like many papers, then reserved color for features, such as food stories.
For its first foray into color food photography, The Evening Post chose to head into the marsh with Mrs. George E. Grimball, who was shooting ducks. She roasted them according to a recipe submitted to “Charleston Receipts” by Mrs. David Maybank, and served them with Mrs. John Simonds’ orange stuffing.
Even though he only saw a black-and-white copy of the page starring Mrs. Grimball, The Westendorff’s Blake Joyal caught the good cheer conveyed by the paper’s pioneering images.
“I felt like it was a celebration,” he says.
He reinterpreted the celebration to reflect his interest in Asian cuisine: “You know how I can’t stop with that.” In Joyal’s making, the duck is glazed with reduced orange juice and a bit of oyster sauce, then served with Chinese New Year-style sticky rice. Look for it on Instagram.