watching the light

I have been taking photographs of food all my life. I remember pointing the Polaroid camera at popsicles or a roast turkey in November, the resolution blurry, the light murky. My dear friend Sharon and I used to sit at Le Pain Quotidien in New York City on a regular basis. And I would make photographs of the coffee cups filled with milky coffee and the sandwiches on thick bread. I must have stood above a table with a film camera or a disposable camera or a point and shoot hundreds of times before I started a space where people would see my photos. It’s this weird habit I have always maintained — taking photos of my meals.

I never considered myself a good photographer. In fact, I never put any value judgment on the photographs I made at all. It was just something I did, a way of documenting moments that meant something to me, like the notes I took in little books I carried in my purse. They were a way of noticing.

When I was first diagnosed with celiac in 2005, after long months of being terribly ill, I was thrilled. Finally, an answer. And being a writer, I started a space online to start collecting the moments I had noticed. There were moments of rage — why had I been sick for so long without anyone catching it? — moments of joy — I feel well for the first time! — and moments of discovery — what are amaranth leaves and how do I cook them?. So, since taking notes and making photos have always been a two-step process for me, I picked up the dinky point and shoot I had at the time. I took photos of the meals I was eating that could make me well. I could not believe that the only cure for celiac was to eat great foods. No chemotherapy, no surgery, no powerful medications. I only had to eat foods that didn’t contain gluten. So I leaned over to capture the flecks of Maldon salt on the egg I was frying, the bubbling edge of the apricot-blueberry crisp I made, the flank steak I had learned how to sear.

Discovery for me meant taking photos of the process.

Things changed, of course. Everything does.

When the online space I used to write to my friends started finding an audience, I was happy to have the community. People gathered. It felt like a table I had set for a few, then others were invited, and I just put another pot of soup on the stove and lay out the chipped plates. We all talked and laughed and felt at home. That was enough.

And then it turns out I had started a blog. I met some of the most incredible people through gluten-free girl, including my husband. I discovered and romped and laughed through it all. We started writing cookbooks. Our daughter arrived.

After a few years, people started paying attention to blogs as a thing. When some of us started getting book deals, because we began as writers and photographers first, other people wanted to start blogs to get book deals. When bloggers began getting tv shows and ad networks and fame, many other people wanted to start blogs. And somehow, this blog thing needed a professional look. People began buying $2000 cameras and silver bounces and set up that nook in their kitchen like a professional photo studio. I know people whose careers changed for the better because of this. They had eyes, a hunger to learn, and true raw talent. Others imitated. Suddenly, that look became ubiquitous — the wooden plank painted white, dishes placed just so, a sprig of herbs next to a blue Dutch oven, even light, mostly white.

I tried too. By this time, our blog was our sole source of income. That’s when it went south for me. I was no longer noticing. I was no longer discovering. I was trying to imitate a look I thought I had to achieve in order to earn money for our family.

Because of this — or maybe I’m not good at commercial photography — I wasn’t very good at it. My photos always looked like imitations. I couldn’t find the light.

Then I bought a phone with a camera. Now, there are plenty of ways that my life is more complicated, and sometimes my senses more dulled, for having a smart phone. But for my photography, however, this was the start of a resurgence, a return to discovery.

I took photos for years on my phone, spontaneously. I stopped worrying about them going anywhere. (This was before Instagram became a thing.) I snapped shots of my kid, the dishes in the sink, the light coming through the window. That’s when I realized I needed to let go of trying to look like anyone’s else’s style.

I went back to noticing the moment. I started looking at the light again. And then I started learning to take photos of light instead of the things.

I started hungering after light.

I shot all these photos on my phone, some of them with a Moment wide-angle lens, most of them through portrait mode on my iPhone 7plus. I edited them with the VSCO app, with very few changes, just the necessary ones to attempt to make the photos look like the moment looked to me in the moment.

I was lucky enough to attend an extraordinary photography workshop with Jim Henkens, one of my favorite food photographers in the world, at Kurt Timmermeister’s farm. (If you don’t know Kurt’s farm, know that it is one of my favorite places in the world. Heaven.) We watched Jim work. We asked questions. We took photographs ourselves. I took all these photographs on my phone at the workshop.

I loved Jim’s laconic style, his desire to see the light in food, and the way he talked only a bit about editing and lighting equipment. It’s clear that Jim is always noticing, that his skill has grown from making photos, over and over, and that his greatest strength is that he is still awake to this. He seemed genuinely interested in every shot he made that day. He has an eye. But he also, always, looks for the light.

I truly believe now that is the point: to notice the light.

It was an incredible day, one I’m still processing. (Ha, there’s an unintentional old-school photo joke.) All I know is that I’m going to sell my big DSLR, the one I saved money for before. A decent phone camera and a good lens (that costs about $120) helps me to watch spontaneously, in the moment, instead of waiting for the right setup. I want to notice, not produce the “right” shot. I want to be in the light.

Vanilla salt.

We ate so well that day, so simply. Chanterelles and spring onions, with corn roasted in the husk — all cooked in the wood oven — served on top of fresh burrata. Aperol spritzes. Wild salmon with green coriander and wild fennel, also cooked in the wood oven. And a polenta cake made with almond flour, topped with fresh blackberries. This is exactly how I like to eat.

The most memorable bite might have been these tomatoes with vanilla salt. The tomatoes were wonderfully ripe, of course. But it was the vanilla salt that left the most mystery on my tongue. Jim told us he learned to make it from Renee Erickson, one of my favorite chefs. “She takes a couple of vanilla beans, splits them open, and sticks them in a bunch of sea salt. Stir them around a bit every week or so, and let them sit for a few months.”

I’m starting a bowl of it this week.