Interview: Anna Olivia Grant, photographer for “Keep Your Eye Upon the Donut”

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If you’ve seen “Keep Your Eye Upon the Donut” at the City Reliquary, you may be wondering who took the beautiful photographs of the nine present day donut shops that we highlighted in the exhibit.

The woman behind the lens is Anna Olivia Grant, a photographer, photo stylist, and souvenir maker who lives in Cobble Hill. Anna and I met in the M.A. Art History program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and we’ve been friends ever since. This is our first official collaboration. She also designed the logo for this exhibit. It was such a delight to do some initial visits to donut shops back in June with Anna, and she returned to each to take the photographs on view in the donut exhibit.

Ever wonder what it’s like to photograph hundreds of donuts? Read this interview I conducted with Anna.

What was your favorite part about photographing these donut shops?

Anna Olivia Grant: It was so much fun to meet the people who ran the donut shops. You find that all the shops have great distinctions between them, but a constant was how nice they all were. They were so excited to have something that they worked so hard on being photographed.

What was the most challenging part about taking photographs of donuts and the donut shops?

AG: People want you to eat a lot of donuts, more than I could handle, and I love donuts. You can’t turn them down, so you have to take them. They were all so amazing too. But walking to get to these donut shops burned off any that I ate.

Are there any technical details that you’d like to reveal about your process?

AG: I had a lot of luck in terms of the daylight I caught in each shop. I also used a really fast lens if I was in the back of shops. The fast lens helped catch movement, like when I photographed them making donuts and shaking the powdered sugar at Mike’s Donuts.

Do you have a favorite type of donut?

AG: I started out as a Pom Pom fan (laughs). I was an evangelist for Pom Poms, especially the ones from Peter Pan. They still hold a special place in my heart. But the diversity of the donuts that I ate made me think I no longer have allegiance to a specific donut. (laughs) Before this I didn’t like raised donuts, but then I had an amazing one, and I love them now. The Paris Time sugar from Doughnuterry was amazing, as well as the Lemon Ginger from Dough. The strawberry glazed with sprinkles from Shaikh’s was enchanting as well as anything glazed from Mike’s Donuts.

What else did you learn about donuts?

AG: Some of the most delicious donuts don’t photograph the best. But they were so delicious.

What is your background in photography?

AG: I’ve learned a lot from experimenting. I’ve taken only two photography classes. What I generated in those never used the principles being taught in class so the teachers were never happy since I couldn’t replicate what they wanted me to, but I still learned a lot. I was really lucky to take classes at F.I.T. and to get to see images there and what people were capable of doing with the equipment that they had.

There are thousands of donut photos from this project.  Sometimes if I wasn’t getting the result I wanted, I would sit with the donut for hours.

I love pictures of food too. I had a subscription to Gourmet magazine when I was 11. The aesthetic qualities of food is one of my favorite things to look at.

Is there anything from the photo styling work that you’ve assisted with, that was helpful to this project?

AG: Figuring out what people want for the photograph that you’re taking and that communication is key. Your curatorial needs had all of these things that needed to be photographed for the exhibit: the outside, the inside, the single donut, a person, so I was always trying to work to get those shots. I definitely used what I had learned about working in a set time frame, even though sometimes I could go back to get a shot I needed, and another donut.

Did anything unexpected happen while shooting these photographs?

AG: Other than getting frosting in all the buttons in my camera? (laughs). The immediate reception that I got at some shops was amazing. Being there for 3 or 4 hours I got to know the people working and I felt the camaraderie. Now when I go back to the donut shops I’m just as warmly welcomed. It’s amazing.

Did any other photographer’s work inspire your approach to this project?

AG: All of those Art History classes we took, all of the principles of composition, the color theory, patterning, color studies, that was all there playing a part. There are hundreds of artists that I thought about when I looked at the donuts, the configurations, the colors. From Pop Art to Wayne Thiebaud, even Frans Hals’s neck ruff, I saw those art historical references in donuts.

How many donuts did you eat while shooting these photographs?

AG: Most of these photos I shot over the course of two solid weeks. I think I ate 25 donuts. I was lucky to also share a lot with friends.

What did you learn from this project?

AG: That I really do love taking photographs of food and getting to interact with the people who make it.

All slideshow photographs by Anna Olivia Grant. Want to contact Anna? Reach her at anna.o.grantATgmail.com

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Even More Great Media Coverage about “Keep Your Eye Upon the Donut”

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I am delighted that “Keep Your Eye Upon the Donut” continues to inspire more great media coverage!
Remember the exhibit is on view at Brooklyn’s City Reliquary through Sunday, March 2.

WFUV Cityscape:  The Wonderful World of Donuts
30 minutes of donut talk! I’m interviewed on this program along with Buzzy Geduld, owner of Donut Pub, and Donna Siafakas, owner of Peter Pan Donut & Pastry Shop.

The Late Show with David Letterman: Donuts Top Ten
“Keep Your Eye Upon the Donut” inspired a Top Ten List on Letterman!

Thrillist: Why NYC deserves All the Credit for the Existence of the Doughnut
13 examples of historic doughnut contributions from NYC.

See the other wonderful media coverage we’ve gotten in previous blog posts here and here.

2 Weeks Left to see the Donut Exhibit at the City Reliquary & Closing Weekend Events

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There are two weeks left to see the “Keep Your Eye Upon the Donut” exhibit at the City Reliquary! I also wanted to announce some special events that we have planned for the final weekend, March 1st and 2nd. Hope to see you there!

Saturday, March 1, 3 p.m.
Talk by Sally Levitt Steinberg, author of The Donut Book

Celebrate the final weekend of our “Keep Your Eye Upon the Donut: Donut Shops Past and Present of Brooklyn and Manhattan,” exhibit with a talk by Sally Levitt Steinberg, America’s reigning donut princess, and author of The Donut Book.

In her talk, Sally will trace key moments in the history of the donut. From doughy origins in the biblical era, to the momentous invention of the “Wonderful-Almost-Human-Automatic-Donut-Machine” by her grandfather, to the gourmet turn donuts have taken in recent years, we’ll learn how these innovations have led to the sweet treat we’re so familiar with today.

Copies of “The Donut Book” will be available for purchase at the City Reliquary.
Lecture free with paid museum admission of $5 per person.

Carpe Donut NYC plans to bring their truck and have donuts for sale on this special day too. Stay tuned for updates!
Facebook invite here.

Sunday, March 2, 4 p.m.
Second (and final) meeting of the Donut Dunkers Club at the City Reliquary!

Come celebrate the last day of our “Keep Your Eye Upon the Donut” exhibit at our final Donut Dunkers Club meeting at the City Reliquary Museum! A revival of the 1930s National Dunking Association, this club will meet to practice donut dunking techniques, and will be led by the Reliquary’s own Donut Historian, Julie Thomson (that’s me!). Everyone who attends will receive an official Donut Dunkers Club membership card, and donuts and coffee will be served for dunking (and eating) purposes.

Free with paid museum admission of $5. Facebook invite here.

If you haven’t seen the donut exhibit yet, be sure to stop in before March 2nd! The City Reliquary is located at 370 Metropolitan Ave in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and is open Thursdays-Sundays 12-6 p.m. Suggested admission is $5.

Doughnuts in the Mountains, Asheville, NC

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For some time now Asheville has had a stellar reputation for food, but when it comes to doughnuts the options have been limited. Thanks to Vortex Doughnuts that’s changing. Read more about donuts in Asheville and Vortex’s South Slope shop planned to open this spring in my latest post Doughnuts in the Mountains for Our State Eats.