When you think about apples, you probably imagine the shiny green and red spheres found in piles at your local grocery store. Maybe your mind goes to a more specific place; conjuring up a Pink Lady or a Fuji. Ask artist William Mullan what appears in his head and he'll describe a piece of fruit with neon pink flesh and bright berry overtones, or one with a black, gnarled exterior and snow white, subacid interior. Mullan wouldn't be making it up either. After five years spent living the life of a botanical explorer, researching, discovering, and documenting rare varietals, he knows better than anyone of that there's a whole world of unique, beautiful, and one-of-a-kind apples out there. And with his new hardcover photo book, aptly named "Odd Apples," you can see for yourself.
The first step in Mullan's journey into the world of apples began while shopping at Waitrose, a supermarket chain in the United Kingdom, where he grew up. There, Mullan stumbled upon a "crusty potato looking thing" called an Egremont Russet, which wasn't something he typically gravitated towards when it came to fruit. Taking a bite, he was "completely blown away," Mullan recalls. He describes the taste as nutty and representing the epitome of fall. "It tasted like it had been slow baked in the sun."
That first unusual piece of produce led Mullan down a rabbit hole of forums and online databases like Orange Pippin, a website for people who are tapped into the niche apple market. Apples, he discovered, are particularly suited to this type of obsession. Every time a new apple seed is planted, Mullan explains, it will become a new cultivar of apple. With over 7,000 known cultivars, they have a unique ability to express themselves from flavor profile to visual appearance. Everything—outside environment, soil, disease, climate change—affects how they look and taste. All these apple cultivars are an expression of the terroir and the natural world around them. Some are shaped like candles, some like stars; the flesh can be pink or red, some are black, some are ghostly white.
Mullan would find out about a new apple and go down a spiral of learning its idiosyncrasies and traits. One of his favorites, the Pink Pearl, was an apple developed by Albert Etter, a plant breeder who experimented with a variety of fruit cultivars back in the 1940s. Mullan describes the Pink Pearl as tasting like strawberry champagne. "It tastes like a neon sign," he says. "It is a weird liminal fruit that is part summer and part fall but does not keep."
Then the cycle would start over. "I'd learn about one apple and become obsessed and then try to track it down, like a Wickson apple, which tastes like a salty kiss from the ocean. Another striking apple is the Knobbed Russet, which looks like a toad with skin like tree bark. It tastes like a nice nutty citrus apple." Mullan goes on: "The Frostbite apple tastes like olives and bell peppers and is truly savory. I wish more people would grow it. It is also fabulous on an oyster." Sometimes Mullan cooks the apples, and he has been making cider from red flesh apples. "They originated in Kyrgyzstan and are considered to be the mother of all red flesh apples, like foamy sour cherry cola."
Oddly, this passion for apples led him to still life photography by way of an unlikely conduit: chocolate. When Mullan graduated from college, he knew he wanted to work in the food industry but he didn't know to what capacity. He had always been health conscious and loved chocolate because it was a simple healthy dessert, so he emailed Raaka, a small Brooklyn-based chocolate company, and asked to apprentice to a chocolatier. Instead, Raaka offered him work in their marketing department, where ended up pitching a wholesale rebrand and doing a lot of product development.
For Mullan, chocolate's draw is the same as apples—both fruits connect humans to the natural world in a very deep way. "We breed them and perfect them to have qualities we like. Malus Domestica [apples] have benefited from this." Once existing only in Central Asia—they now grow all over the world because humans carried them on the Silk Road and propagated them around the globe. In a similar vein, the cocoa tree's current state is due to how humans interacted with it. "Someone figured out you could ferment the seeds in the pulp and roast those beans, grind them, mix them with sugar, and temper them into a solid confection bar that we now call chocolate," Mullan explains. "We figured out how to bring out the flavors and a lot of that is genetic to the plant and has to do with the terroir and the region. It is a crazy, crazy food–no other animal is going to figure that out."
Mullan began to bridge the gap between his role as a brand manager with his passion for apples when photographing a product for Raaka one day. He had a Pink Pearl apple from the market and was admiring its pop-pink coloring, which he thought was reminiscent of Marie Antoinette. "[It has] this anachronistic style that has this period, time, place, and music and colors that are modern. The pink peel felt like that. Apples are seen as boring and wholesome and this is looking like a neon sign on the inside and so I was like why don't I just go take that photo?"
Photography, Mullan realized, was a way to include people in his multi-dimensional experience of apples. His 128 page book contains 90 apple still life portraits and he shares his photos with nearly 22k followers through his instagram pomme_queen. Still, he doesn't consider himself a photographer (though all evidence refutes the claim) and says he's only beginning to think of photography as a medium. Photography is a reality-based medium, he explains, but like painting, you can play with color, light, and shadow to craft a desired mood.
Mullan shoots his still lifes on a Canon 5D Mark III and says the process often draws on his personal experiences—any apple might spark a connection or reference. "Sometimes I see an apple on the tree and it immediately inspires a photo and has a vibe," he says. "Apples express themselves on the tree. They are fleshy sculptures and are meant to be striking so animals can find them. Sometimes I see fruit and I think of a scene in a movie or a piece of music." And at other times, he has no idea to start with and will work with the apple until the final photo comes into fruition.
Exploring something so niche that's also tied and knotted to the agriculture industry comes with challenges. Due to industrial farming, many of the beautiful and unique apple varieties never make it to store shelves. Farmers and orchardists tend to choose specific cultivars that cater to the average pallet of sweetness and stray away from varieties with fragile skins and types that are prone to disease. As a result, sourcing is Mullan's biggest challenge.
"Sourcing apples has been a mixture of insanity, poor financial decisions, and a willingness to travel and invest in fruit shipments. I have been able to search the Plant Genetic Resource Unit in Geneva, New York. I was really lucky to go there in 2019 and 2021 and got a lot of fruit for my book. When I couldn't travel to the orchard in person, I would get a bunch of apple foam cutouts and mail them to the growers who had interesting or striking apples."
Many of these apples are bred by orchardists, but many exist by chance. Wild apples are constantly propagating themselves and growing and falling in the wild on their own. Sometimes people find wild apples and submit them to seedling exhibits to be recorded, but many go undiscovered and unknown. And with climate change, cultivars that once thrived in specific regions might give way to new and more resilient breeds.
"I would love for people to keep growing and for certain cultivars to be preserved," says Mullan. "It is up to us to find places for them to grow and celebrate them but also be able to move on and create things that will be able to survive in the future with those climates." The evolution of apples, after all, has already been guided by how humans interact with the fruit.
For his part, Mullan has continued to research and photograph apples even after the release of Odd Apples. "I thought I would be done with it, but I keep getting amazed by more apples every year," he says. His process is evolving too—he's begun experimenting with analog photography, and is documenting orchard life and harvesting as well as the apples themselves. Whether a follow-up book is in the works or not, Mullan ensures that we haven't seen the last of all the strange and odd apples that the world has to offer.