My dad, a recently-retired college English teacher, used to have a quote tacked up to the bulletin board in his office. It’s from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and it said:
“There’s nothing up ahead that’s any better than it is right here.”
As the mother of two young children, trying to manage part-time work and therefore driven to be efficient and productive much of the time, I tend to forget. My children, on the other hand, know this instinctively. If I’m holding my 2-year-old son on my lap, I start to pluck dog fur off the back of his shirt or scrape a bit of dried yogurt from his cheek. He brushes my hand away, as if to say, “Can we just sit and be still?” Or you know when you’re reading a book, and as soon as you’ve turned a page, you slide your finger beneath the next page so you’re already poised to turn another one? My 4-year-old daughter will sometimes ease my finger out from beneath the next page as if to say, “Let’s just enjoy the page we’re on, shall we?”
They have an appropriate disdain for multi-tasking, hyper-efficiency, rushing, or preoccupation, and we’re wise to pay attention. I learned this (again) while trying to photograph these espresso cheesecake brownies.
I had it in my mind that I would photograph this brownie with hot fudge sauce drizzling on top. For me, these brownies had a lot of potential, but they didn’t quite come through. The cheesecake part was very good, but the brownies on the bottom were thin and dry. Also, my brownie batter was thick and heavy, while the cheesecake batter was light and soupy, so I couldn’t create pretty marbling on top. When I added hot fudge sauce, it radically improved the flavor, masked the dryness, and hid the poor marbling.
Five small problems with my action photo: two young children, a full-grown dog, a 9-week-old puppy, and lots of wind. We needed to shoot outdoors, so I brought the kids and the dogs out to the shore. My husband set up his camera while I ran inside to heat up the hot fudge to just the right drizzling temperature. When I walked back out, my son was crooning “hold yoooou” (he hasn’t quite mastered pronouns yet). My daughter wanted someone to swim with her. And the two dogs wanted the brownie, very badly.
We soldiered on. With my son under one arm, my daughter momentarily transfixed by a hermit crab, and the two dogs held at bay with carefully aligned beach chairs, I set the brownie on a rock and poured a rapidly-cooling spoonful of chocolate sauce. A big gust of wind came along and blew the chocolate sauce in little wisps onto the rocks, creating spindly marks on the brownie and the plate, followed by one big glop.
My husband, to his eternal credit, is an optimist. And a problem-solver. And nothing if not earnest. As the dogs began to nose their way under and around the beach chairs, I announced, “This is not working.” To any sane passerby, that would have been abundantly evident.
“Let’s try it again,” he said. “Reheat the sauce.”
I stared at the brownie, then picked up the plate and started back toward the house. “Plan B.”
He shouted after me, “When you come back, bring a plate covered with aluminum foil! I have an idea!”
I shouted back over my shoulder, “I’ll be right back.” Inside the house, I warmed the chocolate sauce and drizzled it side to side over the brownie, plunked it onto a plate, and brought it back out. For the next 20 minutes, my husband shot dozens of photos in total peace. I held my son on my lap, my daughter played with her pail and shovel next to us, the dogs settled down in the grass, and we were still.
I half wonder what the ambitious plate-covered-in-aluminum-foil photo shoot might have resulted in, but sometimes it’s best to just let it go. Cut the overblown action shot. Find the still life.