Do the Work: the Art and Soul of Craft
We think it should come easily.
If we have a talent or gift, somewhere along the way, we become convinced that that, in and of itself, is enough. We think that wanting to write is the same thing as the act itself. Somewhere we forget how the craft and the art are swallowed up by the full life we dive into with an ultimately overly optimistic sense of expectations.
We think we don’t need to practice – that perfection comes in the first pass. We look at the face in the mirror and as we walk away forget how that face looked.
It’s too easy to slough off the imperative to create. It’s too easy to walk away from doing the work because the first pass didn’t work, neither did the second nor the third. Perhaps the 11th draft of a poem sucks the spirit dry with the minutiae of refinement.
We think it should come easily. We want a second and third life to accomplish the things that we think might make this life complete.
When I started taking photos of food, I harbored an intent and desire to capture the color of blanched carrots, the snap of spring green asparagus. I found myself smitten with the expression of ingredients mingling together on the plate, prepared with the deft skill of a painter’s palette or the subtle intricacies of a perfumer making its way into the flavor pairings. My snap-happy finger started from wanting to capture the moment untouched before the moment was devoured. It grew into a passion for the interplay and conversation between shadows and light. Walking through my kitchen, that long shadowy glance cast on my countertop could stop me in my steps as heartbreaking appreciation of my San Francisco light swelled and came into focus.
How it still makes my heart skip a beat!
How it still makes me look for my camera and a willing subject!
Poetry and food have cast their spell on me and so often I have little to feed my muses. Their mottled forms straggle out of the frame waiting for me to stop all the other things that wile away my time and pay homage. Poetry and food coalesced unexpectedly in conversation with New York Times photographer Andrew Scrivani late last year when we first met and became friends in New Orleans. We played the game, “who is my favorite poet based on my photographic work” and somehow I guessed rightly.
Which is to say, I cheated. All men like Bukowski.
Last month, a mutual friend posted that Andrew would be leading a food photography workshop in San Francisco and without skipping a beat and later fessing up to flaking out on prior plans, I signed up. He described food photography as “mastering the daylight as best you can.” He described the rote food photography style evidenced in so much of the media we consume. This referenced something Alexandra Peters of the Wall Street Journal said – if we were to define the contemporary art movement or style it could easily be called “commercialism.” In the same article reviewing the book “The Value of Art” by Michael Findlay, Peters shares a quote from Findlay that “[o]ne of the signs of a decaying culture is a reverence for form over content.”
It’s too easy to create for sheer consumption. It’s too easy to let current trends and styles inform the direction your work might take. It’s easy to qualify and compare your craft to what sells. And this makes me wonder about creating for consumption, creating to conform, creating for cash as king.
In the food photography workshop, Scrivani described his appreciation for the Dutch painters as informing his sensibility of how he tries to capture light. That chiaroscuro moodiness made me smile remembering my multiple trips to see Rembrandt’s “Bathsheba” and how her luminous skin glowed amidst the darkening colors pooling around her and the darkening expression on her face from the letter she held.
His comment pushed me right out of photography into studio art and in its way, back into poetry. It made me think of Michael Waters‘ admonitions to keep a journal to keep notes and quotes from scouring articles on art to see how what’s being done in that medium might work its way into ours. This happened often during those five hours, whether he incited us to consider using negative space as a painter would or to use diptychs to convey the whole story through subtle details.
In the unlit back room of Noe Valley restaurant, Contigo, he urged us on.
“Learn your frame.”
“You should be taking photos with your eyes all day.”
When all is right with the world, I dwell fixed in what I call poetry mind. Instead of birds on the sidewalk, I see pigeons nervously loitering and pecking for an honest day’s wage. Instead of moving on to the next thing, I capture the possibility of the moment. When all is as it ought, I stop.
I smell the air and find it to be redolent of eucalyptus.
We think it should come so easily.
I emerged from Andrew’s workshop intent to work on form, knowing the content will come like a maddening vixen of a game of tag between light and food. I am day five into immersing myself in the poetry calisthenics of a Week of Villanelles, a poetry form that is keeping me on my toes and making my pulse quicken.
A wise person once said, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” The art and soul of craft comes of conspiring and commiserating in community and then venturing off alone to go do the work.
As for me, I have so much still to learn. But isn’t that exhilarating in its possibility?
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