Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Julie reads, and then some rant-y stuff about bad photography

Julie Powell, blog-cum-memoir writer, read tonight at a local bookstore and your correspondent was in the front row taking in the action. The crowd of about 30 was generally older than I am and mostly women. They laughed at the funny parts--not heartily, but not just politely either--and were very engaged during the Q&A. If I were Julie Powell I would be quite happy with my Milwaukee reception.

She read three passages from the book: one about beginning the blog, one about a disastrous effort to make eggs poached in red wine, and one very brief bit about Julia Child. She smiled a lot and pronounced French words with a charming hint of Texas twang. Her remarks were prefaced with the observation that the product of her project--cooking every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a single year--was not so much mastery of that art as it was a new way of looking at the world and at her life. (Or something to that effect; I wasn't taking notes or taping the reading.)

During the Q&A I asked about the process of turning a blog into a book and the author answered, very thoughtfully, about the difficulties it entailed. She said that reading a blog as though it were a book would be a total bore and that the book needed a narrative through-line that a blog wouldn't naturally have. Thus the "new way of looking at the world" idea. She also remarked that if it weren't for the blog she never would have become a professional writer.

In the course of answering questions, Powell brought up the importance of the personal angle--her story, including the charming details of her marriage, the dingy apartment, the nightly cocktails, the desire to escape the 9-to-5 grind--to both the blog and the book. She clearly doesn't see herself as a food writer, but as a writer whose topic at the moment happens to be cooking. Food blogs are often boring, she said, when they're all about food and not much about the writer, leaving out his or her story. If she wants to read about food she said she would just as soon read Bon Appetit or Food & Wine, which have better photographs anyway. At this point I clutched my camera and decided not to try to take her picture during the signing portion of the evening.

I agree of course that food blogs are interesting when they're personal. I'm always pleased to read about a blogger's parents or boyfriend, about the hopes and fears that they bring with them to the kitchen and computer. I also find it dull when food blogs are all food and no personality. But the thing about the bad photographs pissed me off, as this is something I've been wondering whether to discuss in public. So here goes.

Blogs, and in particular food blogs, shouldn't aspire to the standards of the MSM and shouldn't be judged according to them. Some of them have lovely photographs, some (like this one) have crappy, amateurish ones. But the point is not the quality or lack of quality. It's the passion with which they are presented. The "I did this" quality, the first-personness of the presentation of stories and images. I would much rather show you a technically crude image of what I saw and did than show you no image at all. And the point, unlike the MSM food porn we all love (and that some of us also hate), is not to create an ideal of the dish being described, it's not to traffic in fantasy. It's quite the opposite, actually. The prose and pictures in blogs work best when they seem to capture a slice of life. It's the raw immediacy, the unedited, unfiltered, uncensored, undisciplined quality of blogs that gives them verve and substance and that makes them a distinct and compelling form of expression. This gets back to Julie Powell's point about a book needing more shape and structure than a blog. The kind of photography I like best in food blogs is the kind that doesn't look look too professional, that doesn't seem to have been shot using fancy equipment and food that isn't going to be eaten. My favorite blog images are the ones that make you feel like you're with the blogger, right there at the table. But I think I would sooner die than see any of the images on this blog published in a book. Julie Powell is right: a book demands more polish.

Of course, this whole analysis might also be an alibi for my own lack of skill and knowledge. I'll grant that there's a kernel of truth in that.

UPDATE: In an interview in Salon, Julie Powell says some of the same things she offered up at last evening's reading:
I actually find most food blogs really boring. I try to look at other people's blogs and they have pretty pictures and they're so proud -- but really, I just don't care. I don't know anything about that person, and I don't know why it's important to them.


Blogger Pim said...

Hooray to bad photographers everywhere.

I cannot agree with you more. I love gorgeous food photos just as much as the next girl, but you are absolutely right. What is compelling about blogs to me is that immediacy, that intensely personal, unedited, unrehearsed quality that distinguishes blogging from other forms of expression.

We should perhaps aspire to be better photographers, as should we better writers -or better human beings for that matter- but to pooh pooh unpolished writing or photos as having no reason for existence altogether is just a form of blog bullying in my opinion.

Hooray to amateurish photographers everywhere. Myself included, if I may.


2:58 AM  
Blogger Pyewacket said...

Another amatuer here. I actually don't care much about food photography in general. I prefer books with drawings or no images at all. Fancy food photos tend to raise expectations unnecessarily, making home cooks feel like failures if their presentation doesn't match that of a 4 star restaurant. But I do use photos in my blog, just to give a sens of what I'm doing and to break things up a bit, and that's what I enjoy in other people's blogs.

9:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you hit the nail on the head when you wrote that Julie Powell doesn't see herself as a food blogger. In fact, she's not one, nor was she ever, really. Her blog was not even really about the food as much as it was about the challenge she set up for herself. Anyway, I agree with your philosophy on pictures. Sometimes it's a bit intimidating to see perfectly styled and shot photos on other people's blogs, but it doesn't get me to cook their recipes any sooner... so hooray for the amateurs!

4:18 PM  

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