Is there really a better summertime treat than a delicious scoop of ice cream and a lazy afternoon with a book? For book cover designer Ben Denzer, the answer is both, with one strategically placed on top of the other.
For the past year, Denzer has been pairing great literature with frozen desserts on Instagram @ice_cream_books, a handle he started as a cheeky commentary on #bookstagram culture—you know, the social media influencers who flood your feed with carefully composed (usually overhead) shots of coffee cups (bonus likes for latte art or anything matcha) and plates of avocado toast, interesting plants, cool countertops (wood, marble, or patterned tile will do), and the latest book from a hot author. The hashtag game gets really specific here, too; there are hashtags for pictures of books stacked on top of other books; of just the book spines; of books with animals. There are even whole Etsy stores set up to sell bookstagram accessories—because it’s not officially a hobby until it involves feathers and confetti. Who knew there was so much more to do with books than just read them? And while it’s exciting for a designer to see their work out in the world and in the hands of readers, it can be a little off-putting to watch it become a prop in someone’s social media strategy. 1
So last summer Denzer decided to up the ante with an even more ridiculous visual prop: melting ice cream. Putting ice cream (and ice cream sandwiches, sundaes, popsicles, etc.) on top of books makes zero sense, even if it looks great from an art direction point of view—which is precisely the point. The real irony, however, is that Denzer’s handle is now so popular that he’s become a book influencer himself, with a growing fanbase that includes Christoph Niemann and Bella Hadid. In true influencer fashion, he’s working on special collaborations with cool authors and ice cream makers.3 This summer alone he’ll unveil a mystery gelato flavor created in partnership with New York’s Superiority Burger for Tamara Shopsin’s Arbitrary Stupid Goal; then he and cult ice cream shop Oddfellows will offer a special saffron and fig flavor for Barbara Lynch’s A Life of Playing with Fire; and finally a complicated-sounding “Neo-Politan” by Blue Marble (lemon-charcoal, butterfly pea flower-lavender, açai berry-raspberry) for Courtney Maum’s Touch.
One thing that’s not complicated, though, is Denzer’s process. After all, he’s got to manage this on top of his work at Penguin imprints Riverhead Books, Blue Rider Press, and Plume. To keep things simple and low-budget, he stages shoots outdoors on sunny days, using just a white seamless and adding the color background later on in Photoshop. When the shot requires a specific flavor or type of ice cream, he’ll bring his kit to the ice cream shop and quickly snap the image right outside on the street before it melts away completely. And in case you’re wondering, no books are harmed in the process; he wipes the ice cream off and adds the titles to his shelf.
So what’s it like to be the guy pulling a book from his bag, plopping ice cream cones and sprinkles on top it, and taking its picture in full public view? We asked Denzer to share a few of his favorite images as well as the stories behind how he got the shot.
6The Road Not Taken
“This was the first image I made and I still think it’s one of the best. It was a hot day, so I got the perfect combination of a good melt while retaining the swirl shape. I photographed it on the sidewalk right next to the Mister Softee truck.”
8Field Guide to American Houses
“I got lots of odd looks and comments while I was photographing this one. A kid walked by towards the end of my shoot and asked if he could have a cone. His mom seemed to approve, so I gave him one.”