Fruit has long been a favorite subject for still-life painters and photographers, usually giving the world lots of lovely pears and apples. That few have artistically investigated cranberries provided photographer Wayne Martin a unique chance to work with a subject near and dear to him.
The Wisconsin native has released a book all about the famed fruit of his childhood home, “Cranberries Revealed.” It takes a look at the beauty of the fruit, the photogenic qualities of the harvest and recipes from those who know the berries best. Martin grew up in Wisconsin Rapids, the heart of the state’s cranberry industry.
“There’s books out there on cranberries, there always has been,” said Martin, who lives in Plymouth, Minnesota. “But I didn’t see any coffee table-type books that dealt with the subject, and I think I’ve kind of covered the scope of cranberries.”
Martin’s book is a three-part look at the fruit that grows more plentifully in Wisconsin than in any other state. He begins with an artful look at the berries, follows with a photographic tour of the harvest and also provides recipes that were among the winners at the Wisconsin State Fair or the Warrens Cranberry Festival. And, there’s one from his mother, Mildred, who had a seasonal job working the cranberry harvest.
Cranberries are unique, Martin said, because they aren’t visible like cherries on trees in Door County or apples on trees throughout the state.
“You go by a cranberry marsh and a lot of people aren’t even aware it’s there,” he said. “And you don’t see the beautiful sea of red until the actual cranberry harvest. It’s kind of a hidden crop until then and then all of a sudden this beautiful splendor comes out.”
It was the thought of that splendor that led to the harvest photos. Martin had worked for the Wisconsin Rapids Tribune in the 1970s, when the newspaper ran black-and-white photographs of something he knew was colorful. And, he had never seen the harvest from up above. Doing a book gave him a second shot at that.
“I had this idea of the steam coming up from the marshes in the fall, when the water is warmer than the air,” Martin said. “I thought about a sun rising over those steaming marshes and how beautiful that would be.”
This was harvest 2010, before drones were a more practical choice than they might be now. So he went up with a pilot in a two-seat ultralight aircraft. If it was cold in the morning on the ground, which it was, it was even worse in the aircraft. Yet as his fingers and toes froze and his watering eyes made it hard to see, he knew he was capturing something special.
“This great tableau just kept unfolding as the sun came up,” he said. “We started in darkness and the light just unveiled this beautiful vision. It was everything I hoped would happen and it did.”
The book started as an experiment inspired by photos in Rangefinder magazine he’d seen shot by Ryuijie, a photographic artist. Ryuijie had taken botanical specimens, froze them, lit them from below and photographed them. Martin found that intriguing, and decided to try cranberries since they were just coming to the market.
“The closer I got in with my lens, it was just this journey of beauty that I wasn’t expecting,” he said. “It was really fun to see the results.”
From there he expanded on his cranberry idea to include the harvest and recipes. Along the way, he debunks a few notions about the berries and their harvest.
“Everybody thinks cranberries grow under water in these swamps, and that’s not true,” he said. “They grow on vines and that water thing is because they flood the marshes to harvest the berries and prevent frost from damaging the berries.”
Smaller producers harvest them a different way, and Martin’s book shows that, as well.
Martin admits to not having been a fan of the gelatinous version of cranberries that ends up on many Thanksgiving tables, but says he indeed has a sweet tooth for many of the desserts made from them. His mother’s recipe for cranberry cake with caramel sauce is included in the book.
The book has its audience in the state, Martin said, mostly in the areas where cranberries are grown and the areas where tourists visit and want a souvenir of something that is quintessentially Wisconsin.
“Cranberries are an iconic image of Wisconsin,” he said, “like cheese and the Packers.”