Saturday, January 28, 2012

How Photography is Like Cooking

I enjoy cooking and adapting recipes to my peculiar dietary preferences, but I don't collect cookbooks or curate an extensive card catalog of culinary ideas. However, I recently finished reading a book about cooking that reads more like a travelogue than a recipe book.  I liked it so much I immediately read it again.

What endeared the book to me is that it takes an approach to cooking that's a lot like my approach to photography.  Equipment is less important than outcome; prescription is less important than intuition; simplicity is almost always better than complexity. Most importantly, the book is about making do and being satisfied with whatever one can find at the moment in the cupboard and the refrigerator.  It's not about discovering new tastes through exotic ingredients.  It's about making a tasty meal with whatever might be at hand.

The book is An Everlasting Meal ... Cooking with Economy and Grace, by Tamar Adler. The author knows how to reflect with insight upon the process of preparing a meal at home. To begin with, she advises that we start cooking before we've even decided what to cook. She says on page 5, "... [I]nstead of trying to figure out what to do about dinner, you put a big pot of water on the stove, light the burner under it, and only when it's on its way to getting good and hot start looking for things to put in it." The first step is to take the first step.

This sounds just like photography. If we don't pick up the camera and take off the lens cap, there's no way we'll get a picture. Thinking about it doesn't get us any closer to making it happen.

In chapter 5, titled How to Paint Without Brushes, Adler says something as true for photography as it is for cooking, "that being good at it relies on something deeply rooted, akin to walking, to get good at which we need only guidance, senses, and a little faith [p.63]."  It's not really about the tools or the list of ingredients. Nor is it about the equipment or the software.  It's really about cultivating an instinct, and trusting enough what's in oneself  to follow its path.

In that same chapter, Adler gives some advice that's worth the entire purchase price of the book. "A meal is cooked by the mind, heart, and hands of the cook, not by her pots and pans. So it is on the former that I recommend focusing your investments [p. 64]."  And finally, in the penultimate paragraph of that chapter: "As long as you taste curiously, and watch and feel and listen, and prick your way toward food you like, you will find that you become someone about whom people will say that cooking seems to come naturally, like walking [pp. 66-67]."

Welcome the unexpected. In cooking, failures can be turned into successes. "Something that happens unintentionally is not necessarily bad [p. 187]." Thus also in photography, what we have no control over might be what benefits the image most.

It's possible to integrate the way we move through life with the way we approach cooking.  We can also do that with the way we photograph.

Here are the core points I've taken away from the book.
  • Approach the enterprise with a relaxed attentiveness
  • Craft is a means, not an end in itself
  • Expect unintended outcomes
  • Most things can be fixed
  • Sometimes you just have to throw something out
I've become a more relaxed, accepting and spontaneous cook as a result of reading this book.  And reflecting upon it is also helping me to become a better photographer.

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