Penny De Los Santos, a phenomenal photographer for magazines such as Saveur and National Geographic, sent me into engrossed contemplation about my photography these past couple of weeks since the International Food Bloggers Conference. And I’m not alone.
Her presentation on food photography moved us to tears, shouts of laughter, and a standing ovation at IFBC. When I sat there, inundated with her stunning images and her passionate wisdom, I felt helpless with a heart swelling out of its shell—enough to break that shell. The tips and gems of her philosophy about photography were simple, perfect, and true, and they hit me at just the right time. It was food for the soul.
I would like to share another batch of pictures from the conference, imagining what Penny might think or say.
First, I loved her reminder about a picture telling a story. Surely I have heard this tip before, but Penny’s pictures illustrated this storytelling in a deep way, further helping me to get inside this idea. Even if my story is simple, it helps to involve the viewer in what she’s seeing. For this reason, although I made several compositions of the gemlike beer glasses below, my favorite is the one that has a hand in it. I am really in love with that hand.
Penny also suggested that photographers give food some space—some room to read what is happening. Here, I did it:
Here, I didn’t:
In this picture above I made a shot of something that you, the viewer, may or may not even understand, but I couldn’t help myself. This grapefruit peel, striped with light and riddled with texture, called to me. I don’t know how I could have given it space while still being inside the pitcher, unless it was in a series of photos showing the final Sherry cocktail, the “Fino Sling,” being poured here:
I think it turns out that I love hands. And stuff being poured.
Anyway, Penny says to find the light, and then make a picture. I'm all over that. I found some light in that pitcher of grapefruit peels, and if I hadn’t been ravenously hungry after a long afternoon of panel discussions, I might have taken more time with this picture story.
In her presentation, Penny also encouraged us to stretch ourselves by concentrating on different compositions. You know you are in a rut if you keep taking the same kinds of pictures over and over again, at the same angle, at the same distance.
She also encouraged us to give ourselves assignments and take at least one picture (such as a “journal” picture) every day. I love this—it’s so true that the more we produce, the more we grow. I like how she told us to trust our instincts. To listen. To make pictures (not take them). And to be open. This one is really hitting me right now. Being open. Speaking of an artist being open, check this guy out.
Is he open? Is he serene or is he distant? From my perspective I felt like a giant wall thicker than those bricks between me and him when I took this picture. What do you see? When I first saw him, he seemed to be ignoring all of us, his audience, when he played. Maybe it was a soulful thing. For some reason, I find this picture compelling in its closed-off quality. He’s a handsome dude, but it just adds to the discomfort. What do you think?
Look at this guy, now.
He’s also looking off into the distance, doing his creating thing, like the guitarist. But he looks more serene and open to me. He has spaciousness in his demeanor, but the other guy doesn’t. Was it the shot I took? Was it their own spirits at that moment or even all the time? Hard to say because photos are so elusive. They are simultaneously a single moment and forever. Beautiful photographs me feel happy and lonely all at once for this reason.
It just occurred to me that I find (m)aking pictures of people and food to be weirdly similar. Once I get into working on a shot with, say, an apple, it doesn’t take long before that piece of fruit becomes like a person for me—complete with a personality and a presence and a history. The big difference is time: many foods—but not all foods—are more patient than people. So I have time with an apple, to find its side that says the most about its soul. We don’t always get that chance with a person on the street. All the more reason why I admire Penny’s work. She really seems to be plugged into the world with gusto, and you can tell by her pictures.
Anyway, I feel so grateful to Penny de los Santos for bringing me into a new place of openness with myself and others as I create pictures right now. It seems like I’m getting back to making pictures of people again, after a fairly long hiatus from portraits, and I think this change will actually help my food photography. And I think it means that my heart is growing and my eyes are opening. After her talk I even had the courage to find a candid laughing moment of Penny in all her vibrant power.
Thank you, Penny.