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

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.

My Donut Exhibit at Brooklyn’s City Reliquary this Winter

finaldonut3 jpeg (1024x732)If you’re in Brooklyn or NYC this winter, don’t miss the exhibit about donuts and donut shops that I’ve organized for Brooklyn’s City Reliquary!

Keep Your Eye Upon the Donut:
Donut Shops Past & Present of Brooklyn & Manhattan

On view: December 2013-February 2014
Opening donut party celebration:  Saturday, December 7, 6-9 p.m.

Each year billions of donuts are consumed in the United States. The exhibit Keep Your Eye Upon the Donut explores the key moments in the history of donut shops in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and the role New York City played in establishing and popularizing this delicious treat. The city’s rich donut history is surveyed and nine present-day donut shops are profiled. Keep Your Eye Upon the Donut will be on display at the City Reliquary from December 2013 to February 2014.

The city’s donut shop history starts with Mrs. Anna Joralemon’s 1673 donut shop on Broadway near Maiden Lane. The popularity of donut shops saw its biggest increase in the twentieth-century. Significant moments that will be highlighted include: the donuts served to immigrants arriving at Elllis Island, the Salvation Army’s Doughnut Hut in Union Square, the founding of the Doughnut Corporation of America, and the first donut shop chain, Mayflower Doughnuts, which had its flagship shop in Times Square. Independent donut shops flourished from the 1950s through the 1970s, and corporate chains increased in the 1980s through today. The 1990s brought a gourmet turn for donuts and innovations continue in the twenty-first century.

The nine present day donut shops highlighted are: Peter Pan Donut & Pastry Shop, Doughnut Plant, Mike’s Donuts & Coffee, The Donut Pub, Doughnuttery, Dun-Well Doughnuts, Shaikh’s Donuts, Dough, and Carpe Donut NYC. Photographs and histories of each shop will be on view alongside items from these shops.

Items from my collection of donut ephemera will also be shown. Donut events and programs will accompany this show, along with opportunities for visitors to share their own donut and donut shop memories.

As a former volunteer at the City Reliquary, New York’s donut shops are some of my favorites in the country and this is one of many projects I’m doing about donuts.

Whether you have 90 cents or $3 there’s a donut waiting for you in New York City. As the motto from the Mayflower Doughnut Shop advises: “As you ramble on thru life brother, whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the donut and not upon the hole!”

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Located at 370 Metropolitan Avenue in Williamsburgh, Brooklyn, The City Reliquary Museum & Civic Organization provides a wide array of services to the community.  As a certified 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization, we are committed to serving the people of New York City – natives, newcomers, and passersby. Originally established as a window-front display only museum in 2002 at the corner of Grand and Havemeyer Sts, it moved into its present location in 2006 and is committed to plan and host public events, which provide neighbors and visitors with a place to meet, exchange ideas, and celebrate the diversity of our community.

The City Reliquary’s hours are: Thursday through Sunday:  12pm – 6pm. Admission to the museum is $5 suggested donation. For general information, please visit the Museum’s website www.cityreliquary.org or call 718.R U CIVIC.

Donutgrrl’s Top 5 Donut Shops in the U.S.

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Whenever I read lists of top Donut Shops in the U.S. I find some that overlap with my favorites and others that I love are all too often omitted.
I thought it was time to put together my own Top 5 list.

1. Peter Pan Donut & Pastry Shop
727 Manhattan Ave, Brooklyn (Greenpoint), New York

This donut shop from the 1950s is owned by Donna and Christos Siafakas. Each day they offer an array of fresh, handmade donuts ranging from classic cake and raised donuts with frosting and sprinkles, the best marble donut I’ve found, Honey Dip, Sour Cream, cream filled, crullers, eclairs, spice donuts, toasted coconut, as well as newer varieties like red velvet and the ice cream donut sandwich. The hand-painted glass menus above the donut cases, and the Formica w-shaped counter with stools that spin makes it all that one could hope for in a classic donut shop. People who’ve lived in Greenpoint all of their life sit on stools next to hipsters. It’s a donut shop dream come true.

2. Round Rock Donuts
106 W Liberty Ave  Round Rock, Texas

The first time I had a donut here I thought there was melted cheese on my bag, but instead it was the distinctive orange-yellow glaze of their donuts. But don’t let that description scare you, these are delicious donuts. Their Texas-size donuts (think toliet-seat size) are epic and a bargain at $5.99. The chocolate frosted one can’t be beat. Soft and chewy donut with a delicious, slightly grainy frosting. The regular size ones are good too but not quite as amazing. About twenty-five minutes past Austin, it’s definitely worth the drive if you’re near. Their website says three Austin stores also sell their donuts. Open since 1926, it’s a piece of Texas history and worth landmark-status.

3. Britt’s Donuts
11 Boardwalk, Carolina Beach, North Carolina

I never thought of donuts and the beach going together but Britt’s Donuts is a tradition for so many visitors to Carolina Beach and it should become one for everyone. Glazed donuts are the only variety they make, but when you’ve hit on perfection there’s no need to experiment beyond that. In late March they open for the season with weekend hours through Memorial Day before shifting to a 7-days a week schedule through late September (I believe). In operation since 1939 this is how donuts were meant to be consumed, hot and fresh, with more being made before your eyes.

4. Sweetwater’s Donut Mill
2807 Capital Ave, Battle Creek, Michigan
2138 Sprinkle Rd, Kalamazoo, Michigan
3333 Stadium Dr, Kalamazoo, Michigan

With 24-hour drive-throughs you can get these delicious donuts whenever you want. An impressive rotating menu of flavors includes chocolate cream-filled long johns and variations on Oreo Cookies and Reese’s peanut butter cups. Fancies, yeast raised donuts, and cake, Sweetwater’s got them all. Their 1980s style donut shops pick up the mid-century donut tradition fantastically.

5. Doughnut Plant
Mark Isreal has been a leader in the newer gourmet donut trend with the innovative flavors he’s developed using fresh ingredients including fruits and nuts. But the recipe behind it all comes from his Grandfather who made donuts in Burlington and Greensboro, North Carolina. In New York Isreal first started delivering donuts by bike before opening the first Doughnut Plant shop on the Lower East Side in 2000 and a second location on the ground floor of the Chelsea Hotel in 2011. With seasonal and holiday flavors Isreal sets a wonderful example for what gourmet donuts can be. Coconut Creme and Tres Leches are two of my favorites along with the Chocolate Hazelnut-filled Doughseed.

While these are my top five donut shops, there are so many other donut purveyors out there making wonderful donuts. So try these but also seek out new shops. Who knows, the best donut shop may be one we haven’t even found yet.