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Art Conversations on Art

Chasing the Light at California Food Photography Workshop

At the California Food Photography Workshop, you will be nourished by the food and people.

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.

During the California Food Photography Workshop, you have many opportunities to style and shoot food with helpful critiques if desired.

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. 

California Food Photography Workshop is an open place to take your food photography to the next level.

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.”

What color story do you want your food to tell? At the California Food Photography Workshop, we took our time bringing our style to our food.

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.

Working with different lighting scenarios at the California Food Photography Workshop helped us figure out the right settings.

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. 

Practicing pouring (before devouring!) at 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?

Playing with textures at the California Food Photography Workshop

When in doubt for backgrounds, look down. Having fun at California Food Photography Workshop.

I didn't style the flowers, but strategically positioned the bowl at California Food Photography Workshop.

The grass was impossibly green at California Food Photography Workshop so it had to be a background.

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Art Conversations on Art

Do the Work: the Art and Soul of Craft

We think it should come easily.

kumquats_anneliesz

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.

asparagus_eggs_anneliesz

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!

rhubarb_cake_anneliesz

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.

pepper_calamari_anneliesz

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.

radishes_anneliesz

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.

meatballs_anneliesz

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.

chocolate_chip_cookies_anneliesz

As for me, I have so much still to learn. But isn’t that exhilarating in its possibility?

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Art Conversations on Art

Word as Art

In college, I discovered that many things in life are free. Then again came the reality that a whole heck of a lot of things aren’t. Sometime during my sophomore year, I stumbled upon a delicious secret. It kept my weekend evenings regularly packed. It kept me well versed and amused at the theater. I volunteered as an usher. By signing up in advance, taking tickets and pointing paid ticketholders to their seats, I received free entry. As the lights would go down, I would find a nook at the back of the auditorium to watch the play or musical performance. Many good nights were spent in the three theaters on campus.

One evening in particular, I remember ushering with a girl we’ll call Jessica. We’re going to call her Jessica because I don’t actually remember her name. Anyways, she was studying dance at the art school on campus and in between spurts of tearing ticket stubs, we began talking philosophically about what art is. A seemingly innocuous question, ” what are you majoring in?” had taken an unexpected turn. I replied I was studying journalism and poetry. She practically snorted as she quickly responded, “that’s not art.”

For 10 minutes we discussed the fine points of writing as an art form.  Her comment had jostled me to the core. I remember it gestating in my head, distracting me during the performance. Many years later it sits there on the shelf of memories. What could have been one artist talking to another about how their art forms might inform one another ended up being a conundrum of she said, she said. Even after cited attempts of Shakespeare, Woodward and Bernstein, she was unmoved.

Right now we live in interesting times.

The visual form holds our attention so completely that many Americans don’t read. Why read a book when you can see the movie? I have enjoyed my chats with film protagonists and buffs including Sandra and Xavier. I see the visual form as visual storytelling and when done well, what’s not to love. An image can transfix the viewer with such powerful appeal. It tells the viewer what to see when. Some directors show such skill with this medium that you can’t help but be wooed and thusly changed after encountering their work. I love that.

Then again, I live in a city well known for its books and authors. I remember once hearing a statistic that San Franciscans pay per capita more on booze and books than anywhere else in the country. Many people here tout themselves writers “with a book inside, waiting to get out.” And if this is the case, who will read those books?

Cue blogging. Sometimes people stumble upon a person’s blog and find themselves inexorably drawn into the story being told, whether it’s food recipes with photographs that make readers want to lick the screen or whatever appeals to their personal tastes and whims. We live in an age where newspapers are increasingly going from print to online and where books can be printed by the author for a price without having to shop them around to mainstream publishers as the only avenue.

Interesting times indeed.

Several years ago, I developed a fun ritual with my then-roommate Mindy of Tuesday nights as poetry night. See, I knew if she got a taste of it, she might be interested in bigger bites. It didn’t hurt that I scratched her back as we read Billy Corgan, Coleridge and Strand. Night after night, I could count on the television being on, but Tuesday nights, we set aside time for reading poetry aloud. She still mentions how much she loved poetry night.

The need for people to tell their stories is intrinsic and really one of the primary reasons I pursued journalism in the first place. We want details, an insider’s perspective, the close-up shot. If a picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps that says more about the quality of the words used. I for one, am a fan of film, but as with that conversation with Jessica so many years ago, am interested in how film can inspire or inform writing. I love the idea of conversation between art forms. And I believe in the power of the word.

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Art Conversations on Art

Images a la Sauvette

Last Sunday, the sound of rain pelting the window pane woke me up. Plans to lead a walk along the Golden Gate bridge were definitely off. One of my favorite past times and excuses to love rainy weather is the opportunity to ensconce myself in a museum. Two photography exhibits proved to entice me to visit the MOMA. New friends, Elina and Carolyn accompanied.

Henri Cartier-Bresson first got my attention in graduate school, his photo En Brie hung over my roommate Yoo Mee’s bed. I called her a woman-child, she called me “Chick”. Her mother sometimes called in the middle of the night, not speaking any English and sounding frantic to speak to her daughter. I learned a few select words in Korean to help our phone communication along. The evening I said chamkamanyo in response to the repetitive litany of her daughter’s name, it was met with a brief pause and then a giggle. When Yoo Mee graduated, she left me a bit of herself in the form of Henri C-B.

I arrived at the MOMA expectant and anticipating. Henri Cartier-Bresson photographed Colette and other French literary dignitaries. A room away, a historical photo of Nehru and Lord Mountbatten was framed to the left of a close-up of Gandhi’s funeral pyre. His way with the 35 mm camera set the stage for modern photojournalism and point-and-shoot photography. He called his style “images a la sauvette” which translates to being “caught red-handed.” This also fit the end of the photography exhibit upstairs: “Exposed: voyeurism, surveillance and the camera since 1870.”

The photos in this exhibit really created topics of conversation and brought the museum visitor into the same voyeur stance as the photographer. There is something compelling about watching other people. Babies can sit in front of a television watching video of other baby faces roll by for hours. People watching is infinitely fun, but when does the fun act cross a line of inappropriate. I think we’d all agree that watching people stroll by a window of a coffee house is innocuous. Watching the lit window of a person in a dark evening, not so much. What does privacy look like in today’s world and what should it look like? Do you take the photo if you’re about to catch a murder in progress or try to stop it? A whole room devoted to catching murder and suffering in action turned my stomach and included images of suicides in progress, prisoners of war being put to death. Thankfully only the one room existed and one photographer communicated he took the photo of a POW being killed so the killer could never be lost in obscurity.

One particular project of note involved photographer Nicholas Nixon shooting his wife and her three sisters over the course of 24 years. Along one wall hung the 24 pictures with the sisters standing in the same order, but with time and age marking them. Sometimes the photo showed arms wrapped around each other, other times stoic and not touching. This left an indelible impression because of the thoughtfulness and length of time necessary to finish it. I wondered what this might look like in my own life. If translated into poetry?

Another artist took a job as a housekeeper at a small pensione in Venezia for the express purpose of  snooping through the guests’ staying in the rooms she cleaned. She described her findings with alacrity. This “research” took place over the course of several days. She read one man’s journal and his movements to Venice from France. She watched the orange on his desk become orange peels in his wastebasket a few days later. She photographed his room and along with her writings, it was on display at this museum. Were her actions sanctioned in the name of art? It definitely gave me pause.

Another photographer, Emily Jacir, positioned herself at a square overseas for a series called In Linz and using time lapse photography, placed herself in different spots of the square each day, describing in her cutline, her location in the pre-timed photo. This prescribed breach of privacy may have shown her physical location but did not break into her interior landscape.

Surveillance, voyeurism sees to an extent what it is shown, what it wants to see.  Often, I wonder if we are seeing, rather than just zooming through our lives. Do we see what others might be seeing in our direction? One of the concepts I took away from both exhibits and notably, a favorite reason for loving photography is the act of looking, which is exactly the name of the overall exhibit at the MOMA. If we look around us, what might we see that’s innately there if looked for?