Weekend Meditation: Finding the Light

Spring Vernal Equinox: March 20th 2010 1:32 PM EDT

The great thing about life is that we are constantly being taught, or given the opportunity to be taught, even when the lesson is not necessarily what we signed up for. Volunteering to plant trees, for example, can teach us as much about neighborhood politics and working in a group as it does about digging holes and watering methods. Last weekend, I got some lessons on how to cook, and live my life, from a photography workshop.

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Penny de los Santos is an award winning photographer, known for her food photography in Saveur magazine, as well as other publications like National Geographic. I'm not enough of a photography geek to have heard of her, but The Kitchn's founding editor Sara Kate had and she sent me an email, urging me to take a workshop with Penny that was being offered here in SF. Long story short, I ended up being Penny's roadie for the day, a role for which I was all thumbs and she was endlessly patient.

The workshop did have useful lessons on light meters and exposure and f-stops, which left my mind in a whirl and at the same time completely intrigued. As an accidental photographer addicted to her auto settings, I vowed to find, and then read, my camera's manual when I got home.

But in teaching us how to make pictures, Penny's most important words were about the internal creative process that also serves as a good, a basic attitude towards life. Here's what she taught:

  • notice
  • use your instincts
  • keep it simple
  • evoke a sense of place, landscape, people
  • find the light
  • try a new angle
  • time and patience: find/wait for the right moment and then don't hesitate
  • tell the story
  • don't get distracted by a lot of equipment
  • relax

Penny's list could also help with raising a child, or starting a garden. It reminded me, too, of cooking and being in the kitchen. Even the reference to light works: all food is born from light--that crazy, miraculous event where sunshine is transformed into food via photosynthesis. Just as light is fundamental for a photograph, flavor is the essential element in cooking. Searching for it is an engaging activity that involves being deeply aware and connected, an absolutely essential activity for doing anything well.

Like we make love, or a cake, or friends, Penny urged us to make, not take, pictures. To be in relationship to, in collaboration with, our subject. To capture the moment by being intimate with the moment. To be courageous, available and as much a part of what we're shooting as we possibly could be.

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In the end, I didn't walk away from that workshop with a lot of f-stop numbers or a list lenses to buy. Instead, I left with a sense of wonder and the encouragement to pay attention to, and to respect, the world around me.

I suspect that this way of being will put the flavor and deliciousness in my soup as much as any spice combo or recipe trick. I suspect it will help me no matter what I'm doing. Now every time I walk into a room, or meet a new person or an old friend, or walk by an open doorway, or thinly slice a lemon, I'm looking for, paying attention to, the light. What an amazing way to be in the world. Thank you, Penny.

(Image: Dana Velden)

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Weekend Meditation

Dana Velden is a freelance food writer. She lives, eats, plays, and gets lost in Oakland, California where she is in the throes of raising her first tomato plant.