The High Cost of Photography

If you’re a music lover, you’ve probably had the experience of following an artist or a band from their early days. You go along for a few years enjoying that thing they reliably do, expecting they’ll go on doing it forever. Then one day you pick up their newest record, hit the play button and hear something totally different. You think: “What the heck is going on here?”

I vividly remember having that experience with R.E.M.. I was a big music listener in high school, and R.E.M.’s first album, Murmur, shook my little world. I followed them through Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, Life’s Rich Pageant and Document (which I hoped was just a pop aberration). Then they came out with Green.

What the…?

I bring this up because there’s a parallel here with Rose’s Heavenly Cakes, at least for me. Until its release, I’d grown accustomed to the look and feel of Rose Levy Beranbaum’s three Bible books: heavy on information and charts, light on pictures and illustrations. I was used to it, and my assumption was always that the format was Beranbaum’s ideal. Then I spoke to her, and I learned that all along she’d been aiming for something else, a book very like — in fact just like — Rose’s Heavenly Cakes.

“With the Cake Bible my original idea was to do a four-color book,” Beranbaum said. “That’s because I’ve always thought it was important to be able to see the structure of the cake as well as the outside of it, to see what the crumb looks like, but also to see the ways in which you can make it look appealing.”

The big obstacle to that approach, she said, was the expense of the production and the printing.

“When I was working on the Cake Bible I remember [my editor] telling me how expensive all that photography would be,” Beranbaum said. “I remember telling her that if I could get a picture on every page I would sacrifice my royalties for it. The reason was that I really wanted people to succeed at baking these cakes. Otherwise I thought: what was the point of doing it? I could always do something else for a living.

“If all I was interested in was making a living from writing cookbooks it would have been much easier to just make my recipes, keep my notes only in grams, and crank the book out. But that’s not what I wanted. I wanted to share all the techniques and the information. A lot of people keep secrets when they write their recipes, they never quite tell the whole story about what they’re doing. My attitude has always been: please, follow what I say, there’s a reason for doing it this way. I was never afraid of people stealing the technical things from me, that’s actually what I wanted them to do. I wanted to spread the discoveries I’d made.”

When R.E.M. was out touring in support of Green way back when, they stopped by the MTV studios in New York to do an interview. During that interview I remember them saying “this is the sound we’ve been going for since the day we started.” Since every rock band always says that, I didn’t really believe them. In the case of Rose’s Heavenly Cakes, I confess that Rose convinced me.

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