Smithsonian: Behind The Scenes

Color Sells: Nickolas Muray's Food Photography

If you are a fencer, you might know Nickolas Muray (1892–1965) as a 1928 and 1932 Olympian. Others might know him best for his color photographs of Frida Kahlo. He brought his exacting skills and passion to photography, creating luscious portraits and saturated images that would seduce viewers.

  • Hunt's tomato catsup, circa 1952
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    Hunt's tomato catsup, circa 1952
    Nickolas Muray/Courtesy of the National Museum of American History Photographic History Collection
  • Chocolate pie, photograph for use in McCall's Magazine, circa 1944
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    Chocolate pie, photograph for use in McCall's Magazine, circa 1944
    Nickolas Muray/Courtesy of the National Museum of American History Photographic History Collection
  • Loin of pork, photograph for use in an A&P grocery advertisement, no date
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    Loin of pork, photograph for use in an A&P grocery advertisement, no date
    Nickolas Muray/Courtesy of the National Museum of American History Photographic History Collection
  • Fruit salad, photograph for use in a Mazola advertisement, circa 1940s
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    Fruit salad, photograph for use in a Mazola advertisement, circa 1940s
    Nickolas Muray/Courtesy of the National Museum of American History Photographic History Collection
  • Pressed duck, photograph for use in Holiday magazine, no date
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    Pressed duck, photograph for use in Holiday magazine, no date
    Nickolas Muray/Courtesy of the National Museum of American History Photographic History Collection
  • Chicken, mashed potatoes, and peas, photograph for use in McCall's Magazine, circa 1944
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    Chicken, mashed potatoes, and peas, photograph for use in McCall's Magazine, circa 1944
    Nickolas Muray/Courtesy of the National Museum of American History Photographic History Collection
  • Boy with raisin bread, photograph for the cover of McCall's Homemaking Magazine, circa 1944
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    Boy with raisin bread, photograph for the cover of McCall's Homemaking Magazine, circa 1944
    Nickolas Muray/Courtesy of the National Museum of American History Photographic History Collection
  • Hamburger spread, photograph for use in McCall's Magazine, circa 1944
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    Hamburger spread, photograph for use in McCall's Magazine, circa 1944
    Nickolas Muray/Courtesy of the National Museum of American History Photographic History Collection
  • Woman preparing cake roll, photograph for the cover of McCall's Homemaking Magazine, circa 1938
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    Woman preparing cake roll, photograph for the cover of McCall's Homemaking Magazine, circa 1938
    Nickolas Muray/Courtesy of the National Museum of American History Photographic History Collection
  • Doll cooking egg, photograph for use in McCall's Magazine, no date
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    Doll cooking egg, photograph for use in McCall's Magazine, no date
    Nickolas Muray/Courtesy of the National Museum of American History Photographic History Collection

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Muray was an early adapter of the three-color carbro process. Having worked in the magazine business making color separations for Vanity Fair and Vogue, it did not take long for him to become a master of the complicated process. Today, the photographs retain a vibrancy close to the way they appeared some seventy-five years ago, thanks to built-up layers of pigments and the lack of any tarnishing silver halides.

In 1935, Nickolas Muray won a contract with McCall’s to create color photographs for their homemaking and food pages. He used the color carbro process to make rich and — debatably — enticing photographs of food spreads for the magazine and for other advertisers through the 1950s. These images should be seen within the context of commercial photography, with attention to the use of color to garner the reader’s attention. Some of the images may seem to have odd compositions; that was because text would be placed on the image. The doll frying an egg, though? That one is just weird.

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