The photographer William Mullan estimates that his obsession with apples began when he was a high schooler in Esher, a small town outside of London. An Egremont apple caught his eye at the local Waitrose, a British chain of upscale grocery stores. “I was really curious as to why such a highly selective supermarket would carry an apple that most people would agree looks like a potato and not at all what we demand an apple look like as consumers,” he recalls. But when he tried it, the apple was, in his words, mind-blowing. “It’s a really delicious, complex apple that has all these wonderfully nutty and cidery notes — like chestnuts and hot apple cider,” he says. “It tastes like the Instagram filter you’d pick for a photo of autumn leaves.” From then on, he was hooked, spending hours, and eventually years, researching apple varieties and the history of the fruit.
After suffering through a veritable dearth of apples while attending college in California, Mullan moved to New York City in 2014, where they abounded at farmers’ markets from late August to mid-November. It was while eating the rosy-fleshed Pink Pearl in 2017 that he had another apple-induced epiphany. “I would eat it and see like, the font from Sofia Coppola’s ‘Marie Antoinette’ and lots of pink and some Gang of Four music,” Mullan says.
The experience of tasting the Pink Pearl was such a visual one, “I was pretty much compelled to shoot it,” he says. “I just had to have this photo exist in the real world so I could look at it forever.” As the brand manager for the Brooklyn-based chocolatier Raaka, Mullan was already in the habit of shooting products against pastel-colored backdrops, and he applied the same treatment to his rare and beloved apples over the next year or so. The project eventually caught the eye of the designer Andrea A. Trabucco-Campos, who had worked with Mullan on branding for Raaka — and who loved his work. So together, they created “Odd Apples,” a large-format book of Mullan’s photographs including each apple’s cultivar name, the location where it was first farmed and tasting notes. The self-published book was printed as a limited edition of 200, released last month.
Mullan meticulously researched and sought out all 29 apples featured in the book. His favorite is the Niedzwetzkyana, a rare varietal originally from Kyrgyzstan in central Asia that, as he puts it, is “the mother of most apples that have a pigmented flesh.” He had read about the “Niedz,” but didn’t see it in person until he visited the Union Square Greenmarket during cider week last year, where the heirloom orchardist and cider maker Gidon Coll had one on display. “I kind of went nuts, but didn’t want to make a fool of myself, so I just took his card and didn’t talk to him about the photo project for a good nine or so months,” Mullan says. He finally worked up the courage to reach out to Coll, who graciously invited Mullan to his test orchard in Ancaram, N.Y., to sample the Niedzwetzkyana apple. At first bite, Mullan says, “I immediately understood why, despite its really cool look, it wasn’t such a popular apple — it’s very, very dry and tannic. I don’t see the Honey Crisp crowd going crazy for it. That said, I liked it. But there are few apples I don’t like.”