Artist David Robinson has more than a penchant for mushrooms. A co-founder of Sporeboys, the acclaimed mushroom street-food kitchen, his latest venture, The Mushroom Picker, is a beautiful and extraordinarily innovative children’s book illustrated with luminograms (camera-less photographs) made solely from fungi. Written in rhyming verses, the book tells the captivating story of Penny Bun, a rare delicacy among the porcini family, and her escape from the formidable Mushroom Picker, out on his annual autumn harvest.
Robinson has a background in advertising photography, which he conducted successfully alongside a printing and production business for other photographers, based in a darkroom in east london. But he found the commercial world somewhat disenchanting, and in 2005 set up Sporeboys and produced Wonderland, a series of landscapes documenting international destinations and theme parks, in search of a change of direction. The same year, however, he became a father and, with a desire to remain in one place, turned back to the darkroom once more: "I wanted to be creative without having to leave London and in my darkroom I had a huge fridge full of mushrooms and all this amazing analog equipment that wasn’t being used as much as it should have been and suddenly my interest in mushrooms and all the facilities that I had available just melded together."
"It made sense that Penny Bun would be the heroic character, being the most delicious, as porcinis are the most sought after edible mushroom"
To create each of the the brilliantly coloured illustrations, Robinson painstakingly arranged hand-cut mushrooms on the plate of an enlarger, exposing them to varying degrees of light intensity to create the mushroom's mesmerising night-time world, from the forest floor to a sky punctuated with stars and planets. Here, we talk to him about his practice and his favourite mushroom recipes and facts...
How did the idea come about?
I started off inspired by a few pictures that I’d already created and thought were interesting, quite naïve looking and sort of childlike, and then thought it might be interesting to start writing a story. So I started writing and wasn’t really making any imagery to go with the story until I felt confident that I could finish it. Once I had, it became very much about illustrating a book rather than creating individual pieces of artwork. I also read lots of books. I have a six-year-old child and I’ve read more picture books than I’ve read adult fiction over the last few years, like Dr Seuss and all these amazing books that I used to read when I was a kid. There are some absolutely amazing kids books out there, some beautifully rhymed, timeless ones and hopefully mine will kind of sit in there.
How long do the luminograms take you on average?
I don’t have too much time because some of the mushrooms are quite delicate and some of them, like the little golden enoki that are used to create the stars in the constellation spread, I can’t really spend much longer than a day using because they tend to dry up. You have to be quick and confident and just do it.
Each of the characters in the book is based on a real mushroom, did that help create the story?
There are so many amazing colloquial English mushroom names. That was probably the first thing I did: lots of research, and I went through lots and lots of books and made lists of amazing mushroom names. I only really touched the surface in terms of potential character names I think. But, it made sense that Penny Bun would be the heroic character, being the most delicious, as porcinis are the most sought after edible mushroom.
You mentioned a number of mushroom recipes in the book like the puffball stew and the fried blewitt. Do you have a favourite mushroom recipe?
I think the best mushrooms are probably girolles, like chanterelles, and the simplest recipes are best: very simple things that focus on the mushroom flavour rather than swamping it. So, probably a mushroom omelette – basically fried girolles with garlic and an egg dropped on top and a little bit of sage. It’s just the most amazing thing.
What's your best mushroom fact?
I love that they are more nutritious than people think. A lot of people think they are useless, that they are just fungi and can't really do you any good but mushrooms have a lot of Vitamin D in them, they are really good for your eyes. Then Shitake and certain other mushrooms have lots of antioxidants in and Portobello mushrooms contain more potassium than bananas. Runners eat bananas to stop cramp, don’t they? They should be eating massive Portobello mushrooms.
Text by Daisy Woodward