Chasing the Light at California Food Photography Workshop
Michael Waters pulled out a small notebook during workshop one day. He pointed to it as the repository for ideas, quotes, scraps of life that he might need a lifeline to find later on in his poetry. I still remember him talking about reading articles about art in the New York Times, how one form of creativity informs another. And it makes sense.
In poetry there is such a thing as ekphrasis. It’s one of my favorite poetic forms when done well because it’s a type of call and response. Have you ever encountered that kind of experience? You’re at a museum, looking from one painting to the next and then, gobsmacked. Riveted. Nothing can pluck your attention away. That kind of visceral emotional response doesn’t always elicit a response in the form of the written word, but when it does, oh, baby!
I always liked photography, but perhaps unsurprisingly? it really caught me in its craw during poetry school. We read books, each other’s work all day long that it made sense to then read the sky, the light dappling through the tree branches, the smile on a classmate’s face or the wry expression on another’s. The administrator of the program liked my photos enough she used them for a time in printed pamphlets for the program and on the program website. For my graduation gift, my mom proudly toted along a DSLR camera for me to continue pursuing photography.
Going into 2017, I knew it would be unlike anything we’d been through in 2016. I needed it to be. It’s not that 2016 was a bad year– it taught me valuable lessons, offered great opportunities, but I needed to move on from it. Who knew what 2017 would hold? And yet, it became the year of pushing myself creatively, going deeper and saying yes to the people and chances that could take me there.
I started the year with a question posed by a food photographer and writer whose work resonates with me: What is your visual voice? I continued asking myself this question and trying to answer it on my own to little avail. I plied friends (poor things!) with the question and didn’t even pretend to offer pretense. I came away always with the question in one hand, the other hand empty.
I guess you could liken visual voice in photography to drinking wine. In the beginning, you don’t have words for what you like and don’t like. You just know it when you taste it. Over time, with repetition, breadth, and a bit of bravado, you begin to find the language. A wine becomes “earthy, barnyard.” “Hint of green apple. Smacking of blackberry jam and pepper.” The appreciation takes on poetry. And this is where I found myself, amassing a collection of appreciation for so many different styles of food photography that over time a through line emerged from my favorite food photo artists.
This past June made all the difference in girding me with what I needed to go deeper as I attended the California Food Photography Workshop in Northern California. The three day intensive workshop was exactly what I had been looking for– generous hosts / teachers in Sarah of Snixy Kitchen, Alanna of the Bojon Gourmet, and Gerry of Foodness Gracious. As part of my “Say Yes” year to creative endeavors, I snagged a spot once I learned about the workshop.
Unlike a one-day photo workshop I attended, loved, and that helped me begin thinking about light and composition in making pictures of food, one thing that resonated with me in the California Food Photography Workshop was its length. Getting away for a few days immersed in photography with likeminded photographers passionate about food made it a creative bootcamp. The schedule stayed full with us shooting and styling breakfast and lunch before eating what was on-set. Our intimate group gelled pretty quickly (what a gift!) and that created this safe space to try things out. Finding the photo in the editing process reminded me of Jeff Friedman’s poetry advice to “find the poem within the poem.”
At night, we lingered around the table, wine glasses tinkling and laughter punctuating our conversation. It’s not understating it to say that the workshop left an indelible impression on me. I thank Sarah for her quick wit, Lightroom savvy and the way she deftly zhuzhes food, giving it that final tweak. I thank Alanna for the artistry of her hand shots and the light she seeks after that feels painterly. I thank Gerry for his good nature and his secret to shaping the perfect scoop of ice cream for a photo. I thank Carla for sharing a simple detail that unlocked an insight for my photography.
But, I also thank each person who attended the retreat. Fawni, for her elegant way of placing her food and making it look whimsical. Jenna, for her perspective and making the drive to Sebastapol fun. Denisse, for how we hit it off in the parking lot, camaraderie carried on throughout the next few days and going for it on set, styling the prettiest salad that inspires me still. Kim, for trying out a messy food style and also for the great conversation on the drive up. Alisa, for her friendship and a conversation that helped me define a blind spot in my food photography that allowed it to be unfettered. Annette, for her styling that reminded me of the beauty of including a pretty element of edible flowers. Renee, for her clean compositions and sass. Judy, for her fun-loving spirit reflected in her food photos. Reah, for her partnership on set pouring chocolate tahini sauce on cue and her sweet warmth. Lisa, for her keen eye as she took photos of guest Chef Green and friendly demeanor. There isn’t enough space here to encapsulate the wonderfulness of Alysha, who shared her rock star photography skills on set and kept us laughing late into the night. The days passed too quickly!
To talk too much about the time would be to dispel the magic of it. If you were to ask me now what my style is, I discovered it with a little help from my friends, up at the California Food Photography Workshop.
As a final exploration of visual voice, a yogurt bowl will tell the story. I kept moving it, getting a different emotional pull from each background. The time to play on set added a crucial element to photography. Chasing the light and considering the possibilities–these are two of my favorite ingredients of food photography. Does one speak more strongly to you?