Every photograph tells a story, but there’s also a story behind every photograph: the equipment, the techniques, the location, and the time that went into composing the shot. There are over 5,600 photos in Modernist Bread and nearly half a million more were taken—that’s a lot of stories to tell.
Visual imagery is a huge part of what we do, but we faced new challenges with Modernist Bread. The bright, bold color palette from our previous books shifted to shades of brown and off-white when our focus turned to bread. That meant that Nathan and the photography team had to be even more creative with the visuals, which makes for a lot of great stories. While we can’t share them all, the story behind our all-bread Giuseppe Arcimboldo tribute (internally known as Bread Pitt) is one that we’ve been looking forward to revealing.
In addition to historical texts, Nathan and the team looked to historical artwork to learn how bread was shaped, served, sold, and eaten over the centuries. Visiting museums like the Louvre and archeological sites like Pompeii, they found clues in art: ancient frescos of markets, mosaics of bakeries, depictions of the last supper, still-life paintings of food and meals. Along the way, some of those works also became the inspiration for photographs in the book.
The 16th-century Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo is best known for painting chimerical portraits and caricatures composed entirely of objects. Some of his “composite faces” were made up of household items, such as books, gilded vases, silverware, tools—even a spinning wheel. But like many artists of his time, the natural world and its curiosities was a source of inspiration for Arcimboldo. He captured the likeness of subjects from a wide variety of flora, fauna, and foods. From a distance, Arcimboldo’s paintings appear to be ordinary portraits. Luckily, they can’t be taken at face value. As you get closer to the paintings, the objects reveal themselves and his subjects transform into surreal faces carefully made up of tree branches, flowers, roots, grains, vegetables, fruits, sea creatures, snails, birds—not to mention roasts.
Building Bread Pitt
Bread Pitt began as a sketch. In addition to being an inspiration, Arcimboldo’s work helped us figure out we could arrange different breads to create our own composite face. After studying the paintings, head chef Migoya began to map out the breads that he could use to make a face, which proved to be one of the biggest challenges of the project. Making the bread, instead of painting it, presented a special set of considerations. Taking shape, size, and proportion into account, he had to creatively fit different types of loaves together like puzzle pieces.
All the breads, for example, had to keep the proportions of a face. Mini-breads, which might lose their shape, were out and the scale of the face became apparent. Its nose, a full-size baguette, put into context how big all the other loaves had to be. The sketch itself had to be as true to size as possible so that he could also determine how many loaves to make.
Facial feature by facial feature, the details of our bread face started to come together. We used almost every shape of bread possible: challah as impeccably groomed hair, bushy eyebrows made of epi baguettes, pretzels for ears, miches became full cheeks. He included a number of French regional breads, thanks to their inventive shapes. A pain d’Aix, for example, resembles a bow tie and a fendu could easily double as lips.
Then the baking began. Over a couple of days he and the culinary team baked over five dozen loaves of bread. During that time, chef Migoya sculpted a base out of a large piece of Styrofoam that he reinforced with wire netting. Once all the bread was ready, he began building the sculpture, using metal rods and glue to keep the bread in place. From start to finish, construction took between six and seven hours.
When complete, the finished sculpture came in at over 3-by-4 feet. Nathan photographed the portrait of Bread Pitt in our photo studio. From the lighting to the dark painted backdrop, the set was carefully built to mimic details found in many of Arcimboldo’s works.
After the shoot, Bread Pitt was moved to our library with other mementos we accumulated while working on Modernist Bread. The sculpture stayed intact for about six months—much to our surprise and delight. But like all things, Bread Pitt couldn’t last forever. Although Bread Pitt eventually became buggy and fell apart, he is immortalized in photographs, the book, and the sketch that still hangs in our kitchen.