In photography, it’s important to push your boundaries, challenge yourself. Look at things differently; think about lighting, angle, composition. Adjust your focus.
In general, my photos tend to be light and airy, bright and colorful for the most part. So it was quite a challenge to attempt the first photo assignment given by our gifted instructor, Ilva Beretta, at the Plated Stories workshop. I drew from the pile of folded slips of paper on the table. Mine was marked with the word Spring. Perfect, I thought. Easy. I can do this. Spring is bright and cheerful.
But no! We were tasked with breaking out of our comfort zones. How can we reconsider our chosen theme? How can we see it anew-look at it from a different angle, adjust how we light the set, create tension in the composition? We were to use a style completely different than the one we had become accustomed to.
Spring. Dark and moody. Complete opposites. Unless there are thunderstorms. But then it’s all rainbows and sunshine afterward. This is going to be tough.
There were many props to choose from. There were plates, bowls, platters, boards, linens and flatware of all sizes and colors. Many items were kindly brought by several of the participants of the workshop for others to share. There was also much food- various fruits, vegetables, cheeses, sausages, eggs and breads-lots of colors and textures to use. The kitchen could hardly contain the abundance of the bounty that was provided for our use.
We each took items that inspired us and went off to shoot our photos. I chose a Spring favorite, green peas in their pods. I cracked a few of the pods open and sampled the sweet new peas, then I created my set. I chose a grey linen cloth and draped it over a board with a beautiful dark wood hand carved bowl to hold my peas.
Some used the lush gardens that surrounded the beautiful Hotel Diderot, others chose windows they felt gave them the best light. Still others, like myself, would choose a small space in the kitchen that would serve our needs.
Ilva spent quite a bit of time with each of us- watching us, suggesting different angles and additions or deletions of composition elements, guiding us through our assignment and helping us create the best possible photos.
Once the time was up and we were finished shooting, we gathered back at the table where we edited our photos and narrowed them down to just one photo each. This was the hardest part, the cutting back of a hundred photos to just one shot that you considered the best of the lot. We passed around a thumb drive for Ilva to display the chosen ones on a large projector screen for all to see.
There were beautiful, stunning images shown. Everyone really worked hard to create the best shot for their given theme. We each critiqued and were critiqued. Every instance was very constructive, thoughtful, and helpful. It was also very supportive. There is a fine line between critique and criticize, yet the warmth and honesty of the other women in the group never tipped the scale towards being critical. Each lesson we gleaned from one another can be considered and implemented into our own individual methods. There was an overwhelming sense of sharing and camaraderie.
Another exercise was to create a narrative with photos- a series of two or three images- used to convey a story. It’s far easier to narrow a hundred photos to three than to just one. I will get the hang of this condensing and curtailing thing at some point. But I still find that to be hard to do.
I really liked the simplicity of creating a series based solely on one ingredient. I could easily add a recipe that calls for sliced carrots and tell a story about the trip to the market where we picked them up from. Or maybe even tell a story about the knife or the peeler. There could be many tales to tell all revolving around a simple carrot. It’s a way to think of things in a different light.
The most difficult assignment was a location shoot, where we would have to find something that inspired us, shoot it and write a piece sparked from that imagery. (I’ll tell you about that magical place in my next post!)
The photography part of the workshop was easy for me. The writing part was hard work. Aside from the valuable lessons about my own creative process, as a visual person, learning how to describe what you see without the benefit of a lens was the ultimate challenge that required even deeper concentration and more acute awareness. Not to mention a notepad and a pen. But Jamie Schler, the talented and inspiring writer behind Life’s a Feast and Plated Stories patiently and generously led our every step. She coached and coaxed words from each of us and provided immeasurable feedback and valuable insights to help us craft our stories.
While certain nuances are easy to pick up with a camera, smells, sounds and movement are much harder traits to capture. To see something verbally and have the ability to conjure a sense of place requires a mix of skill and endurance. Writing, editing, rewriting, editing some more, and rewriting yet again. You need to have patience and stamina.
Interestingly, as I spent more time with my pen in hand, each time I went out into the streets of Chinon, the more I wrote and tried to paint with words the scenes I was viewing. It’s been a long time since I wrote in this fashion instead of the dry, journalistic version of who, what, when, where and why.
All of these exercises were meant to elicit creativity in and from us.
I left Chinon with several short writing pieces and a thousand photos.
She’s always been a bit of a radical, while everyone ventured down the hill to the center of town for their assignments, she turned and went straight up the hill. To the top was her goal. Past the old church with its modern stained-glass windows fitting, just barely, into ancient sills, up a steep narrow path surrounded by sweet-scented purple lilacs and an old hand railing. It was a steep climb that slowed her down after the first few yards.
Pausing midway to take in the view and to even out her breathing, she set the alarm on her watch, so she would know when to turn back, estimating the time it would take. It was in sight but distance can be decieving.
On the right were homes built directly into the side of the crumbling hill. It looked as though several had disintegrated under the weight of rocks and golden clay mud that had tumbled down the sides and all that remained were some stone steps leading into dark, shallow caves.
Others homes were well maintained and very modern, half hidden behind tall gates draped in purple wisteria.
To her left, a small vineyard had been fashioned into a few terraced steps below the path. Pale yellow blossoms framed the view overlooking the River Vienne and fields of bright yellow colza spread across the far horizon. It was a good place to pause.
At a fork in the path was a bench, where many others may have stopped and rested a while before continuing on, but there was no time for that now.
The path continued winding upwards, a good ten minutes walk before flattening out near the top. There were views of the entire town, the peaked rooftops and the backyard gardens below. You could even see the monument of Francois Rabelais, the French Renaissance writer, doctor and humanist that had been erected by the river.
At the end of the path lies a great 10th century fortress, built by the Count of Blois, Thibaut I, commanding a strategic vantage point to survey the valley below. It was here that a historic meeting took place between Joan of Arc and the future king Charles VII.
Sadly, just as she arrived to the gates of the fortress, her alarm buzzed.There was not enough time to wander the grounds of the castle or enter into the chateau. She had just one hour to explore, write her visual study and get back to the hotel. She snapped a few photos, turned, and catching her breath, started on the path back down the hill. It would soon be time for dinner.
Being the radical that I am, I, of course, took photos of some of the things I described in my story. On the way back down the hill.
Oh Renee, your blog post is wonderful, and I am so so happy that your got so very much out of the workshop, that you worked, thought, embraced what we offered. Your story at the end is wonderful! Beautifully descriptive and evocative while holding onto the simplicity that you are comfortable with. You have so much talent as a writer (and photographer) and I am thrilled that I could help you understand your weaknesses and reach towards your strengths and talents in order to become what you can become, find the writer inside of you. Perfect. Now I want you back.
Great post. You especially captured how Jamie & Ilva challenged and pushed us out of our comfort zones. P.S. I still like that blue peeler!