Part I: Food Photography Workshop with Penny De Los Santos
It all started with one tweet. Granted it was a tweet from Penny de los Santos, the doyen of the DSLR, and it was announcing that she was holding a photography workshop in San Francisco in March, but it was just that one little tweet that introduced me to 22 new people, including a side of myself that I never knew existed.
The original plan was to spend the weekend up in SF and do some wandering. But the schedules didn’t quite work out on the homefront. So I buckled down and decided to do a day trip – 6AM flight up and a 10:30PM flight back. I’d get there in time to try the famous pastries of Tartine and then hoof it over to Contigo, where our workshop would begin at 10AM.
Tartine has this vaguely mythic hold on me. I’m generally wary of liking any one place or food item simply because so many clamor for it. The flip side of that is that where there is fuss there is usually fire. That fuss said Tartine was the pinnacle of the pastriarchy in California, and they had an acclaimed cookbook to back it up. But I had to know for myself. Science demanded it. This required getting out of bed at 4AM to make my flight, board BART, and hoof the rest to get to their doorstep 15 minutes before they opened.
Tartine has no recognizable signage that identifies it as the place for pastry. It sits quietly on the corner of 18th and Guerrero, sporting a glossy black Victorian façade with big picture windows on both the café side and kitchen side. The way you know its Tartine is the line that forms at the door before they open. Fifteen minutes before 9AM the line was 12 people deep. And right at 9AM? The line kept building out the door and down the block. Cars were dropping off passengers on the corner to save a place in the queue. Already the Tartine experience was unmatched by any other bakery experience and I hadn’t even ordered yet. Even what I consider to be the best bakery in Pasadena, Euro Pane, only forms lines out the door when they are understaffed and almost never before they open.
Inside Tartine’s shelves. What IS that round mound of sweet tart on the bottom shelf? I never asked. I was too shy.
I kept it simple – chocolate croissant and a cappuccino, though they had mountains of other delectables that I wanted but couldn’t cart home. The deep brown color of the croissant (they bake them deep at Tartine) gave me a little pause. It was so dark that it almost looked burnt . A quick inspection showed that none of it actually was baked to charcoal black. But it had a very consistent deep brown coffee color, glossy but not greasy. One flakey, mess-creating bite told me my concern was unfounded. The croissants I’ve had up until now have been over-buttered, doughy pretenders to the throne. The crispy, caramelized outer shell protected a perfectly baked middle and a thick vein of melted dark Vahlrona chocolate. I tried to savor it. I really did. One minute it was sitting there on a plate at the communal table by the window, catching the light in a way no other croissant can. The next, the remains were scattered like coffee-colored snowflakes on the table and my shirt. It was a decadent start to my sojourn in SF, but not nearly the last.
Google Maps won’t tell you much about how hilly a particular route might be, but they do let you know what local transit is available. I had planned to take the light rail, affectionately called the J Church, down to 24th St. to get to Contigo for the workshop. The funny part was that I had briefly considered hoofing it all the way. I had never been to this part of SF before. So when I saw the trademark SF hilly streets between me and the southern side of Castro Street, I nearly choked. I was more than happy to put up with the grumpy J Church operator. The creaky little train ambled up through its curvy right-of-way behind old Victorians and nasturtium-covered walls. I love BART. I wish LA had a BART-like connection to LAX. But the J Church is now my favorite piece of public transportation in SF. It dropped me off about four quirky blocks from Contigo, and I took my sweet time getting there.
I arrived at Contigo with time to spare. The workshop was coordinated by Tara “Tea” Austen Weaver of Tea and Cookies fame. A brief round of meet-and-greet and we were underway.
Penny’s advice to photographers isn’t revolutionary or groundbreaking. Its simplicity is its power. It’s demystifying the sometimes exoticized world of photography and breaking it down into its essential components – storytelling, composition, and light. There are no hip-banging bags full of heavy and expensive lenses carted around to every location. And you can kiss multiple camera bodies goodbye, thank God. She reminded me of one of the first lessons I learned when I picked up the photo bug – f8 and be there. Your presence and ability to shoot a moment are more important than all the camera equipment in the world. After her presentation, it was time to put some of that advice to work. The Contigo crew had plated up a bunch of their signature menu items, all camera and close up ready. Time to dive in. I took more pictures than I thought I would, nearly filling what I thought would be a more than ample SD card. Here are just a few, and I’m going to let them do the talking.
Many many many thanks to Brett and his crew at Contigo for their generosity and time. Their food and friendliness made a good morning into an even greater one. Go there and eat well. You will NOT be disappointed.
To be continued…Next up: Part II of Penny in SF – street photography in the Mission District…