“I arrived in the USA as an immigrant in 1948 pretty much on the eve of Thanksgiving and my first feast was such a meal. I did not understand the combination of all the elements, all were foreign to a Belgian palate and I did not really enjoy it much. Now I am addicted to the tradition of Thanksgiving.
“I do not think that the early pilgrims ever ate such a meal.”
Word from the food historians is that the very first Thanksgiving meal was based around wild venison as the Native Americans showed up to the celebration with five deer carcases, not wild turkeys.
This interview has been going since the summer and my subject just told me.”I do not envy you trying to make sense of my mixed-up photographic career going from photo-journalism on events and celebrities to photo-journalism on food.
“Whatever comes out, we tried our best.” Then came this: ”Let me just say that Food Photography was not my speciality”.
I have thought and mused long and hard on this, as we’ve exchanged mails, spoken on the ‘phone and my subject has been visited by a food writer friend and shared with me her experiences of a face-to-face rendezvous. Now I can tell my story.
Here is a photographer who began his career as assistant to none other than Irving Penn in New York in 1948 and stayed with Penn for 13 years coming to the fore with printing techniques he’d learned in Switzerland which Penn used for his iconic bleached out nudes, some now in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
Going solo in 1962, his style soon earned him commissions from Look, Esquire, Vogue and National Geographic Magazine in the USA. It was on this ticket that this photographer came back to Europe in search of work of a different nature. Mark ‘Marc’ Boxer, the genius set who up the iconic The Sunday Times Colour Supplement, hired him along with a raft of creative talent including the likes of Cartier-Bresson, Peter Blake, Don McCullin and David Hockney.
Let’s say he’d hit the ground running, sharing a studio in those early days with Anthony Armstrong-Jones – the portrait photographer who would soon become known simply as ‘Snowdon’. Work life for both criss-crossed the Atlantic with Snowdon also sharing studio space in Carnegie Hall.
If nobody’s guessed already, I am talking about Robert Freson, the photo-journalist who, in his own words, fell into food. Food and gastronomy is what I mostly write about, so I will only briefly mention Freson working with greats like Don McCullin (Freson called it war and peace, with him covering peace). Churchill’s funeral, the late Queen Mother during the 1976 Silver Jubilee and the two Royal Weddings of brother princes, Charles and Andrew.
The famously bald Alfred Hitchcock in the barber’s chair has all the chill of a Hitchcock plot – if it wasn’t for his sly look to camera softening the image.
My story begins with me loving ‘The Taste of France’, Freson’s book about the French regions published in England in 1983 and based on a long running Sunday Times series with writers, hired to share all about their chosen regions, such as Arabella Boxer, Caroline Conran, Alan Davidson, Jill Norman, Anne Willan – and, the special favourite to these pages, Richard Olney writing the chapter on, where else, Provence.
The book actually started out as an idea Freson had first sold to Marie-Claire in Paris as a celebration of the French regions through food. From the outset the man was determined to make it his own.
“Selfishly you might think, but I decided to take on a different writer for each region, as selecting a single writer for the whole book would have imposed their name on the cover, so dominating the photographer’s credit,” confided Freson.
“I wanted it to be my book with only my name on the dust jacket, such was and still is my passion for ‘The Taste of France’. I took more than six months off to bring it about, even accepting lower royalties in a trade off for the book having the best possible designers, reproduction and paper. It was to be special in every sense.
Talking with a lifelong friend about ‘The Taste of France’ over lunch deep in the countryside in Poitou-Charentes, I was stunned with a ships-in-the-night experience when told I’d missed my chance of meeting ‘Bob’ Freson as he was away just then in the US.
Unknown to me, the Freson’s had a family home in a restored XVth century water mill quite near a hameau called La Puye (pop: 588) and for all I know probably took an occasional simple village lunch in the same place we were eating that day, at Chez Gitou on the square. I was close to a food hero – but not close enough.
Talking more about Robert Freson to my copine, she said: “There were so many joyous moments around their long kitchen table, always with stimulating conversation, delicious food and so much laughter………….parties in the summer with Bob playing barman and his artist wife Jeanette as hostess…………………in their company there was never a dull moment.
Then she shared: ”In short, Robert Freson is someone everyone would like to have as a friend. ” So said Gina Boughton, writer, interpreter, editor and all round bon oeuf.
‘The Taste of France’ was a break out book. Instead of the familiar too-neat and sterile trade mark styling of home-economists with their near-white unused wooden spoons, unblemished pans and not a vegetable peeling to be seen, this man Freson was instead fascinated by patina. He’d grown up with the real, so why go a different road now, he’d say.
“I insisted on using exclusively those pots, pans, cutting boards, plates and tools that were rich with the patina of their years. At that time, this was a seminal approach to photographing food – in the 60′s and 70′s for was still mostly shot on background sets in lightless studios far divorced from farm kitchens and bistrot tables.
The stylists would source the best ingredients available in big cities, along with spotless utensils and so, for all the effort, not looking remotely like anything one would realistically find in a farmhouse, bistro kitchen or even the homes of the provincial bourgeoisie of the genre talked of by Elizabeth David – again someone known and photographed by Freson during his time working in London.
“I went in another direction. Working in natural light and, mostly, in the kitchen where the food was actually being prepared.
“I would use as plain a table cloth as possible, set with a classic plate and glass so keeping the reader’s attention always on the food. It should seem to them as if the photographer just got up and stepped back to take a picture of his own meal.
“I delighted in surprising cooks in their kitchens in the middle of preparation and, sometimes much to their despair, would stop them mid-flow so as to precisely as I might capture a most appetising moment. Photographs like this should smell of the food!”
We talked about moments during shooting ‘The Taste of France’ – what did he remember about this page and that? I did this with Anthony Blake and both men’s recall was extraordinary +30 years on – proving how a photograph holds still a moment in time, just as a painter can remember his every brush stroke, or a writer every line crafted.
“I once interrupted the kitchen brigade at the Auberge de la Croix Blanche in Chaumont-sur-Tharonne (Sologne) as they were about to have their early lunch. I’d seen a large frying pan of left-over potatoes sprinkled with parsley and garlic – and it brought water to my mouth. There it is on page 93. I love it!”
One special favourite of mine and his – and with no prompting, Freson shared the spread across pages 130/131 – “being able to record the 8 am atmosphere in a café after the early morning weekly Charolais cattle sale at St Christophe-en-Brionnais. All the farmers are celebrating - “ça s’arrose!” – with their food and drinks after their 3 am start.” This is real life and I can take you to places like this tomorrow. Freson froze it in one moment in time.
Is there a Robert Freson style? For me there is and I call it ‘cascade’. His finest shots are tall portraits where the ingredients, technique and often finished dish tumble in a holy trinity from top to bottom of the page. The colour resonates in an entirely natural way, like good food shot fast and without studio crew fuss which mostly delays the capture of the food’s natural energy. All the images chosen here, above and below, express this Freson style.
More than 30 years on, ’The Taste of France’ stays firmly in print with more than 275,00o copies already sold in six languages – available through Henry N Abrams Inc (New York) – and still paying Mr Freson royalty cheques.
Again inspired by an idea first published in The Sunday Times, Freson spent six months on the road in Italy covering some 30,000 miles from head and shoulders to toe and heel with Marilyn Costa as his interpreter, researcher and guide, and Vicki Emmett as his photographic assistant.
“They both put up patiently with the erratic and temperamental behaviour of this photographer,” acknowledged Freson in ‘Savouring Italy’.
Starting the journey in the Veneto, Alto Adige and Fruili, then Liguria, Piedmont and Lombardy through then to Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna, the book ends in Puglia, Basilicata and the two great island cultures of Sardinia and Sicily.
I know and feel much for this land and can say, as I do for ‘The Taste of France’, every precious drop of Italian soul (anima Italiana) has been caught.
Freson is more modest, saying he found Italy somewhat challenging as he didn’t speak their language like the native he is when shooting in France. For me, it’s all there as a fine collection of images – from Farinata, Pesto and a Salsa di Noci from Liguria – roast meats in Tuscany, food markets beneath Modena’s arcades, all the way south to Bari at the top of the Pugliese heel we know as Salento.
It is in Bari, he catches a mother and daughter making Orecchiette out on the street in the old town. The Rambling Epicure shot that very same street only this last summer showing fresh Orecchiette drying – and photographer/food writer Jonell Galloway assured me she had no reference point from Freson’s shot more than 20 years later. Creativity aside, knowing that Italy’s culinary traditions remain in tact should thrill us all.
All the way through Italy, Freson teases out the real. The food is as we find food in northern trattoria’s and southern masseria’s. Both books are essential in the library of all who have a genuine interest in people, their food and culture.
“We drove all those thousands of miles capturing real Italy – often not knowing where we’d be sleeping that night after a long day’s shooting. It’s fair to say I found the Italian book harder, much down to not speaking the language. As a Belgian brought up with good food, the French kitchen was a natural step – Italy was a few steps further on,” he shared.
He talks a good deal about patina – it’s an obvious passion through his work and so I was thrilled to learn that he has drawers full of ladles, wooden spoons, dishes, plates and bowls that he’s collected over years on locations.
“He’d sometimes replace an old piece with a brand new one, much to the delight of the recipient – something of Aladdin’s ‘new lamps for old’ here,” food writer Linda Collister (right) said after meeting Freson at his sea shore home on Maine’s Bailey Island this summer.
He has 62 dairies telling his own story of arriving in the USA in 1948 with his wife and $100 in his pocket. Together they had left a war torn, trampled Belgium – he comes from near Liège – to begin a new life in America.
“It’s been an incredible life. The level of knowledge and culture I had when I first started was as limited as any provincial 21 year old’s could be – but working with Irving Penn, I met the famous people of that time. You’d meet the face behind the famous name and get to know them a little with maybe spending 3-4 hours at a time with each,” recalls Freson.
Knowing the people as well as their land, food and cooking is essential to Robert Freson. Years as a photo-journalist would have given him those skills – from the enquiring mind, the good eye and a palate and nose honed since childhood in ‘Old’ Belgium (the name they give to the Eastern side of the country where old pre-WW1 values and courtesies are still in place.
“Each country has its challenges often rewarded by meeting people, cooks and mothers. My shoots have taken me from the informality of the old Bistro Benoit in Paris through to tables all over the country with the one in Roanne, at Troisgros (below), reserved for special guests and photographers (even),” he tells me – and I know he’s smiling even though it’s in an email.
Freson, like Anthony Blake, was a pioneer to use natural light and food shot in the settings where it was prepared and to be eaten. Neither men used food faked up for the camera as is so often the way with magazines and newspapers using home-economists and not real chefs and cooks. Nobody can fail to notice how real food has a genuine energy when it’s fresh from the heat and ready to go.
He was an early adopter of Kodachrome™, using that stock in +90% of his work. “The colour saturation is like no other – even early work from the 1950′s retains its depth when I scan them today.
“Maybe a little reluctantly at first, I have moved to digital. The images are superb and enable us to record situations that we couldn’t have done on Kodachrome without added light and long exposures.
“Kodachrome was a blessing, but also a delicate film to use as it required very accurate exposure and often subtle filtration. Other film stock would probably have not allowed me to capture situations as I did over the 50 years or so of using it,” admitted Freson.
We talked of his early days growing up in Belgium and it sounded as if blessed with hours being spent in the family home preparing meals.
“My job was to go to the garden to dig up the vegetables, cut salad leaves or pick ripe fruit. My grandfather had at least 14 varieties of pears. I remember climbing the cherry tree and coming back down with as many cherries in my stomach as in the basket.
“I love to cook – but mostly in the Belgian way of simple classics like meat with potatoes, fish with rice, winter-time choucroute and more – and now in Maine, lobsters, lobsters and lobsters which we never tire of. We’re even planning our Christmas meal with lobsters this year.”
Living in Maine, Freson has a well catalogued archive of 500,000 images which he wishes to give to an art or academic institution. I hope we will get to view the documentary he’s engaged in, and shot with another cameraman and narrator.
I could have covered another few pages about this great man’s work, from his iconic (never a word be used without cause) portrait of Dwight D Eisenhower shot in November 1964, three years after he’d left office (above), to shooting Sophia Loren with a real tear of despair falling down her cheek.
Photo-journalism has taken him to India where he was set upon by an angry mob, trekking perilously across the Sahara and, another time, the Rhub al Khali desert of Saudi Arabia with Quentin Crewe.
“Photo-journalism is a form of cinematography. To me it’s like a concentrated film with many of my individual photographs running along together like one long movie,” says the man who’s shot Kings and Queens, Painters and Poets, Popes and Politicians – and food.
Soon comes a Freson exhibition of Travelling People shot in Ireland.
In doing this piece Robert Freson and I have become friends despite never meeting. Shame we never got together in La Puye, but as we know, life has its own pace and we are no more than players. Even Chez Gitou is empty and up for sale.
Thank you Robert Freson for your generosity of spirit and for images like those on pages 14, 29, 42, 44, 56, 84/85, 93, 117,125, 130/131, 152, 161, 183, 192/193…………………..and now dear readers, get yourself a copy of ‘The Taste of France’ by Robert Freson – and whilst onto it, order ‘Savouring Italy’ too.
My text is rightly more visual than written about this man Robert Freson. I share more of his photographs shot in France and Italy for these two classic, as yet unbeaten books on the real French and Italian kitchens, their culture, the people and their terroir.
With Freson’s permission we lifted each of the book plates. Good as they may be, they bear no resemblance to the intensity of the originals signed off by the photographer with the printers of each title.