Saturday, January 13, 2007


A passion for something usually translates into matter what the passion is for. I've just read Heat by Bill Buford. The book is about how Bill's interest in cooking led him into working in a famous New York City kitchen and going on to seek out the best chefs and butchers in the food world to learn more about food. As I read about some of his "ah ha" moments, I found myself equating them to some of my "ah ha" moments in photography.

When he first started working in the NYC kitchen it seemed like a mass of confusion was happening around him and he felt uncertain and awkward with the food prep. But after he had cut bushels of carrots into julienne strips or boned hundreds of quail, the knife was sure, an extension of his hand. He writes about cooking polenta day after day and suddenly he understood what was happening inside the bubbling cauldron. He writes about suddenly realizing that he understood where something was in the cooking process without looking at it just by hearing the noise it was making on the grill or in the pan.

I can remember reading Ansel Adam's book on the negative and trying to comprehend the "Zone System." On a surface level, I got it but on a deeper level, I didn't have it. It was a constant concern for exposure. At some point, I found my way to expose roll film to get what I needed. Soon all that reading and re-reading, testing and re-testing was in the past, I didn't just know the mechanics of what I needed to do, I looked at what I was photographing and my fingers just moved to make the adjustments to the camera. Yes, the brain processed the information but it could now do it in the background while I worked on finding the best image.

Another thing he wrote about was how the great chefs are obsessive about their ingredients and process. Only a certain steel for sharpening knives, a certain rolling pin for pasta dough because the grain of the wood makes a difference, only meat raised in a certain way. Because all of these tiny choices makes the difference between a four-star restaurant and a one-star restaurant.

Photographers are like that about their materials, equipment and process. We worry about whether to process images in the ProPhoto or Adobe RGB working space, perceptual or realistic rendering, whether a profile blocks any of the shadows or highlights, about "sparkles" on a paper surface, do we have enough pixels, darkroom chemistry, and on and on. When we talk with another photographer, we may discuss how the ink sits on a new paper or the process another photographer is using or the size of a sensor in a new camera, the characteristics of a lens. We have voracious appetites for seeing and evaluating images in books and in galleries. We know that all these obsessive details make a difference in the final print. It makes a difference between a one-star print and a four-star print................PROVIDED, that is, that the image is worth all this obsession and passion to begin with. Hopefully our passion will also translate into images worth all this obsessive behavior.

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