Bringing Creativity back to the Local Camera Club

About 4 years ago I became seriously involved in my local camera club. I joined for the camaraderie and exposure to the local professional photographers that the club would bring in for our monthly critiques. I surely learned a lot from these sessions but as I became bolder in my own personal expression, I also became increasingly discontented with small-world views surrounding our critique and competition.

Photography clubs are notorious for their preoccupation with competition. Anonymous competition, often thinly veiled as critique, is attractive to clubs because it provides a quantitative method to evaluate, and therefore rank, a large set of images across disparate genres in a very short amount of time. Members feel good when validated with a high score and no harm done for those nameless photographers whose images don’t fare so well. Consistently, photographers who play it safe with eye-pleasing landscapes, horizons aligned to the rule of thirds, or perfect floral specimens, are rewarded with top honors. Those who present unusual images which challenge the norms or present uncomfortable subjects are often dismissed.

For anyone who knows me, following the norm is not my comfort zone. I’m more comfortable with challenging images of decay and issolation at the Salton Sea or a triptych of well worn inner-city pay phones with directions for calling home to Mexica. Yes, my discontentment was due to that fact that it was my images that were so often dismissed. My images that presented a different view of world and were outside the comfort zone of the standard “rules” for photography. It was my images that could not find a charitable home in the hearts or heads of our local portrait and landscape photographers, who themselves are judged by producing work that sells and wins their own competitions.

So I set out to broaden my inputs by working with some of the great photographers of our time. Either I would learn that my photography truly sucked or I would find out that is was my audience that needed some education.

My journey started by dipping my toe into the warm waters and attending a 3-day workshop with Sam Abell, a 30 year National Geographic photographer. Sam’s documentary work is exemplary and he has not one, but two, images in National Geographic’s top 100 images collection. Sam’s approach emphasizes composition and layering – “compose and wait”. His concept of layering are the basis of every single image he makes. Even with all his emphasis on composition, not once during the 3 days did Sam ever mention anything about any typical “compositional rules” I’d heard at the club.

If my first step was a dip of the toe, my next step was a dive into the deep end spending a week with Jay Maisel in New York. Jay is one of the most generous, most confident, most unabashedly honest men you will ever meet. Jay’s workshop revolves around lecture, shooting, critique, and food. This week is about teaching you to be a photographer. Each day you turn in five images from the day before. Each day you get your chance to show your command over “every millimeter of the frame”. Jay evaluates your image based on the journey it takes him on. Sometimes you fail: “This image takes me on a journey that I could care less about.” Other times you succeed: “Did you realize it was good when you took this?” Rule of thirds, leading lines – he couldn’t care less.

My most recent stop was attending a “Vancouver Gathering” with David DuChemin. David has been digging deep, teaching and writing on the concepts surrounding photographic vision for years. In addition, David has an approach for reading an image which forces you to really look into how an image is put together to determine how it tells its story. He calls it Photographically Speaking and you can get his book by the same name. With three days of talking about photography you would think we would discuss the “rules” – nope!

It is now 12 months later. My year consisted of three workshops, 20,000 images, and the study of at least 20 photography monographs. No doubt, my head is a-jumble with ideas that will take years for me to master. My conclusion, however, is that my photography is coming along just fine but my environment for evaluation needs to change. I am at a fork in the road. Do I dump my local camera club or do I set out to change it?

At this point in my story, I must disclose that I am the President of that local camera club that has so disillusioned me. So it is my work to start the change, to move the needle, to instill a drive for creativity over conformance. Late last week my new ideas for the club the were presented to the general membership and all indications are that they will be approved at our next meeting.

Although the new format still includes competition (three per year), in between we will focus on creativity, sharing, and each of us building up our own set of photographic discriminators. Anonymous critique will be replaced with dialog between the local professional and the photographer. The professionals will be banned from saying whether they “like” or “dislike” an image. This will make some uncomfortable, both the invited professional and the member, as they will be forced to find the words to explore the image rather than their emotional reaction to it. “Assigned topics” will be replaced with “Creative Play” to be shared without the thread of criticism or critique. I will measure my success by the number of Creative Play entries, the depth of images entered into the Competition meetings, and the quality of discussion.

Even though I am just a fledgling myself, I have taken the challenge to invite those around me to explore their own creative flight. I have proven to myself many times over that teaching is the best path to learning. Wish me luck. I’ll keep you all posted.

Reflections on Day 1 of the Vancouver Gathering with David DuChemin

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Reflections on a Vancouver Street

Day 1 of “The Vancouver” gathering with David DuChemin is complete. A day of lecture and discussion and generosity of time and energy.

Today was deceptive in that I didn’t walk out of day thinking, “Oh boy, that was a lot of information”, but when I look back at my notes, David really covered a lot of ground starting with vision and voice and ending with a couple hours of photo discussion where we are asked to describe a photo and how it is expressed. This is part of David’s Photographically Speaking (PS) methodology of learning to read a photograph.

I really liked the way David expressed his “3 Misunderestimations of the Creative Mind”, a pithy contrast of the importance of work vs inspiration, exploring ideas vs pursuing perfection, and the paralysis of fear vs the results of failure. In each case, it is important not to underestimate the first or overestimate the second. We had a long discussion on exploring ideas and bad ideas. This is right in line with my current exploration of the phrase “fail brilliantly”.

I also have to mention, that the crowd is a really nice group of thoughtful and interesting people.

PLEASE Watch Your Step

PLEASE Watch Your Step

I’ve been making my way through the writings of David duChemin and I also was able to to clear time to catch several hours of David’s recent workshop Vision Driven Photography broadcast on CreateLIVE. In his writings and speaking, David unwaveringly guides you through his process to which he has ascribed the pithy tag-line “gear is good, but vision is better”. His message challenges you to think about what you want to say with the image and use that information to guide how you will frame, capture, and process. Oh, that sounds too easy. His message is really to think about what you feel in a place and use your emotions to determine how to frame, capture, and process. What do you feel? Oh how we resist that question.

So what was I feeling about this place as before I clicked the shutter and how did I incorporate these feelings into my process? David does this list thing. He lists a series of things and ideas as he walks and looks and discovers. David actually writes these down and refers to them over a course of several days of shooting and again during the processing. I used a mental note only.

Here is my list for this place:

  • Danger
  • Vertigo
  • Signal Anxiety (that anxiety that causes you to be cautious when you should be)
  • Incoming tide, Angry seas
  • Humor (is that sign really necessary? Why PLEASE? Why not “Danger, steep steps”?

And here is how I used this list to influence the Frame, Capture, and Process

What did this tell me about how to frame the image?

  • Accentuate the steepness of the stairs with a wide angle, downward looking shot
  • Align the image off kilter to help convey the off-balance feeling of vertigo
  • Get some froth from the ocean and it would be best if I can have the rock showing too.
  • The sign must be in the image and perfectly focused

What did this tell me about how to capture the image?

  • Use a wide angle and get close to the top step to accentuate the depth perception
  • Focus on the sign (I use center point focusing and then recompose) but use a small aperture for full depth of field
  • With the right timing, a long exposure will capture a lot of froth, use my ND Filter to give me the capability for and even longer exposure.
  • Use a tripod (due to long exposure)

What did this tell me about how to process the image?

  • I needed contrast between the froth of the ocean and the rest of the image to make sure that it stood out
  • Needed to make sure the sign stands out appropriately possibly lightening it if needed
  • White balance should be a little cold and angry

To say that all these points were clear in my mind as they happened would be not completely honest, but there was enough consciousness to drag me in the right direction. Do you agree?