It's hugely successful and has lead to four publishing contracts in ten years; it is 101 Cookbooks, and its ingredients are food, photography, and a good grasp online media
“Heidi Swanson makes everything beautiful,” wrote The Washington Post’s food and dining editor Joe Yonan of her 2015 book Near & Far. “With her online boutique, blog and bestselling cookbooks, Swanson is a thinking cook’s Gwyneth Paltrow.”
Photographer, author and chef Heidi Swanson started her blog 101 Cookbooks: A Natural Foods Recipe Journal in 2003, well before the web was inundated with food blogs or even blogs in general.
“The number of food blogs I was aware of [then] could be counted on my fingers,” she says.
Swanson’s concept for the site was heavily informed by her background in visual arts and media, after working on magazines and on some early internet sites (most notably with Chris Anderson, the innovator behind TED). During this period she was pursuing her interest in cooking, cookbooks and photography in her spare time, but she soon built up enough material to start her own blog.
“I installed some early blog software on my server and thought it would be a great creative exercise to cook from – and make note of – the many the books I had in my collection,” she says. “I thought it would be good practice.
“Dovetailing with that, early on, I decided I would try to do accompanying photographs for each post. At the time I wasn’t aware of any food blogs that were using photography to illustrate each recipe or post. My hope was that I would learn a lot and gradually improve my writing, cooking and photography; it would be a personal, creative outlet.”
Swanson knew from the onset that blogging, a time-consuming venture, would have to fit into her life and not the other way around, and that influenced the look and feel of the blog.
“I wanted my aesthetic to work within the context of my everyday life, meaning I might be photographing a soup immediately after it comes off the stove and five minutes before I need to leave the house to go to a meeting,” she explains. “Spending hours setting up a shot wasn’t going to work within the context of the rest of my life.
“Correspondingly, the whole ‘practice’ would have gone out the window. I wanted to be able to post regularly – once or twice a week. It was always natural light, props were dishes I use everyday, minimal fuss and zero ‘tweezering’. More than anything I wanted people to see what I was enthusiastic about and I wanted them to consider making whatever recipe I was highlighting in their own kitchen.”
The result is beautiful to look at. The photographs of the recipes have a subdued, earthy quality and, unlike most photographs of food, you find yourself looking at them for the textures, the pops of colour and the details in the background. Swanson is able to capture a feeling that is absent from much food photography because it’s not all about the food – in her images, it’s just one of the many interesting elements in the still life scene she’s created.
There is a consistency of style that carries into Swanson’s online shop, Quitokeeto, a culinary boutique that sells a selection of kitchen goods and vintage jewellery from around the world – a mix somehow tied together by Swanson’s photography. Yet Swanson, who in 2016 won the James Beard Foundation Book Award for Photography, is wary of pinning down her photography as belonging to one style or another.
“This one is hard. No idea. My photography is really a reflection of my life and the spaces I live in, explore and work in at that moment,” she says.
“For example, things changed a bit when we got the studio for Quitokeeto a few years ago. I had a new space to explore photographically. I’ve had people describe my shots as casual, natural, rustic, personal, unfussy, neutral backgrounds, white space…”