When North Carolina-based photographer Peter Taylor started a personal project photographing okra, he never imagined his images would end up in a cookbook. Yet two years after his project began, Peter’s photos appear in Chris Smith’s James Beard Media Award-winning cookbook “The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration.”
Peter’s personal project to photograph okra began as an ode to the Southern staple. Though the photographer is originally from the Northeastern U.S. where okra is less common, the photographer embraces authentic Southern cuisine as part of his lifestyle.
I’d go to the farmer’s market and buy a few different varieties there, only three or four. Just like any project, I’d bring them home, practice, and see if it has a visual look and if I like it.
After exhausting his options at the farmer’s market, Peter turned to his friend Jamie Swofford, who in turn introduced him to Chris Smith. Chris grows and has cross-bred over 100 field varieties of okra. The farmer explained to Peter that different varieties of the vegetable are grown until they have the desired characteristics, like tenderness, size, and heat tolerance. From there, the okras can be bred to produce more varieties with the same characteristics.
We wandered the field and picked out 25 different types of okra—the ones that looked the coolest or had the best stories. I took them home and spent three or four days photographing them. When Chris saw the results, he asked if they could be included in his book.
“The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration” details the history of okra, how to grow the vegetable, and a multitude of recipes beyond the traditional fried okra found in many Southern diners. With the aid of four chefs, Peter captured some of the dishes listed in Chris’s book, including gumbos, stews, and okra pickles. What interested Peter more was capturing the raw vegetables whole, split, and cut up, as though for a scientific journal.
I like the creative challenge of trying to come up with ways of making an okra bud or vegetable—what could be a really mundane, boring thing—look cool.
Between Peter’s photographic work and Chris’s research, “The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration” won the James Beard Media award in the Reference, History, and Scholarship category. For a project that started as a personal endeavor, Peter was stunned at how far his photos have come.
Chris managed to write a book that obviously resonated with a lot of people, and it was kind of the first cookbook that I shot.
See more of Peter’s work at ptpix.com.
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