I drooled when I first saw Amy Stevens‘ sumptuous cakes photographed in front of wildly patterned retro fabrics. The crispness and decadence of her images are reminiscent of Dutch still lifes from the 16th an 17th centuries as well as cook books from the 1950s. She first began the series using a Martha Stewart cake decorating kit, but soon came to realize that her creations would never look as good as those in glossy magazines. Stevens’ images celebrate imperfection with seemingly haphazard and bright clashing colors. Their grotesque appearance are a marvelous treat for the eyes!
When I first saw your work I instantly thought of Dutch still lifes, is there any relationship here?
I don’t think any artist who creates still life in any medium can not help but be influenced by the Dutch Still life painters. One photographer who was a huge influence on my work actually did a series of Dutch and American still life recreations. The work I was most interested in when I started this series was photographer Sharon Core’s “Thiebauds.” Unlike me, she was a trained pastry chef and large format photographer. She perfectly recreated a series of Wayne Thiebaud’s paintings. Her latest series is actually of recreated still lives.
Speaking of Dutch still lifes, many were memento mori with rotting fruit and flies. Are there metaphors in your work to death and/or decadence?
Definitely there are metaphors for decadence, but not so much death– as I think I’m too much of an optimist. I do enjoy trying to top myself with each shoot. By making things as ridiculous as possible, it’s my way of commenting on my utter inability to make anything perfect. Ridiculous decadence in the images and ridiculous notions of domestic perfection. I love Martha Stewart, but am more like Amy Sedaris when it comes to making things. But speaking of a photographer who really uses the memento mori, check out Justine Reye’s Vanitas series.
The bright colors remind me of cook books or ads from Good House Keeping in the 1950s.
I have a substantial collection of old cookbooks and magazines from the 50’s and earlier and the food layouts are a huge influence. Aesthetically, I’ve always been drawn to that era. The colors, the plastic, the pyrex! The era fascinates me in so many ways, not just for the look, but as a feminist. I grew up in the 70’s as an only child with a bunch of collies and a stay at home mom. I pretty much entertained myself by watching a lot of tv, and my favorite shows were from the 50’s. The food layouts in the old magazines and cookbooks look so unappetizing, especially when the color starts to change over time. These images are simply amazing in a really over the top, grotesque way. I sometimes get criticized by photographers for my images not being “photographic” enough, (ie: shot digitally, and in a really flat way.) This is my intent– my vision for the perfect image is with almost no shadows. Nice, flat light, so it almost looks like a print from an old cookbook.
Okay last interpretation I promise: cakes and baking are all part of entertaining – which is traditionally linked to womanhood and domesticity – are the photographs somehow feminist commentary?
Definitely. As stated before, I love Martha Stewart. I love that everything her company creates is perfect and lovely and I love to hate her for it too. I try to make these things: crafts, food dishes, gifts, cakes– but they never look like the photos! Not even close. Sometimes I can’t even follow the instructions properly. One woman cannot be expected to do what a team of experts do– and I think it makes us a little crazy with our own personal expectations we put on ourselves. I am a big supporter of DIY (almost) everything. It always takes more time and costs more in the end, but is special and handmade. I love how feminists are now OK with cooking from scratch, making things and having successful careers. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to do all of it perfectly. This is what I have to make fun of. Ridiculous expectations that we put on ourselves.
What comes first: the cake or the fabric?
I figured out early on, that it is much easier to start with the backgrounds first. Decorating the cakes are always the very last thing I do. Sometimes I will work on building a background for weeks or months before the cake comes into play.
Where do you find these fabrics? They are fantastic!
Locally in Philadelphia, my favorite source for designer quilting fabric is Spool. My mother, a quilter, turned me on to Hancocks of Paducah, where I order fabric online from time to time. Weekends in the summer I frequent Philly’s outdoor flea markets where I find hankies, cake stands and sometimes fabric. And my most favorite place for collecting props and fabric is Adamstown, PA (antiques capital of the US!) On my limited adjunct salary, this can get to be an expensive habit.
What happens to the cake?
When the shoot is over and the images are acceptable, the cake goes in the trash. While I don’t usually promote the waste of food, I don’t consider Crisco, powdered sugar and flour to be part of a major food group. Also, because these are made to be shot and not eaten, I don’t make them to taste good. I make them to be over the top with tons of icing, so I don’t feel bad tossing them in the trash. Usually they are a bit stale by the time I have photographed and edited my images too!
Do you have a favorite cake flavor?
Almond pound cake with raspberry buttercream. I made this one year for a birthday from a Cake Bible recipe. This I did not photograph!
If you were to be reincarnated as a cake, what kind would it be?
I would hope it would be something like those amazing Victorian cakes that were made for royalty, but it will probably be more like a lopsided Betty Crocker from the 80’s.
Do baked goods make a good aphrodisiac?
Yes, anything with chocolate!