For three nights, the people of Oaxaca congregate and sit with their relatives. Graves are decorated with flowers and candles and often with other biographical items. The city is filled with wild marigolds, or cempaxuchitl. It is their scent that is said to guide the dead back to their loved ones for the Dias de los Meurtos celebrations.
My first serious photography workshop, with a master photographer, was one year ago this weekend – Sam Abell‘s workshop at the Julia Dean Workshops. And this week, I attended his talk, a prelude, to this years workshop.
The workshop was called something like “Refining your Photographic Vision” but it could have been called almost anything. The workshop was Sam teaching us his system of photography. His system of compose and wait, macro and micro composition, composing from the back to the front. His system which he developed over the course of his career to make compelling documentary images worthy of the pages of National Geographic.
Only three days, 36 hours, my first workshop, my first explosive step toward a goal of understanding what is means to be a photographer. What I take away now, a year later, is that Sam’s is a system for how to make complex, layered images that express a sense of place with nothing out of place.
He said in his talk this week that the 28mm lens was his favorite go-to lens, that working with a longer focal length was “too easy”. Indeed – making simple graphic images is one challenge, making complex layered images simple is challenge at another level completely.
This image is the kind of image I want to make, and I recognize that there are several unsuccessful items in this image. Until I can make a better one, this is the one I will display.
By the way, the first installment of The Sam Abell Library is available for preorder. It is unbelievably affordable at $50 for a 4-book set. There will be 4 sets total, release one per year. Here is what is says on Amazon:
Sam Abell (born 1945) is one of America’s most influential documentary photographers, celebrated in particular for his in-depth color photo-essays for National Geographic magazine. He has also made a considerable impact as a teacher and author. Abell’s career is now the subject of The Sam Abell Library, a new publication project from Radius inaugurated with this volume–the first in a series of four multi-volume sets. Each of these sets is themed around a particular genre: the photography of places; the photography of nature; the photography of the past; and the photography of ideas. Essays by Abell appear in all of the books. In Life and Still Life, Abell explores three different cultures: Newfoundland; Hagi, Japan; and Northern Australia. This first boxed set also includes a fourth book with an illustrated essay by writer and curator Leah Bendavid-Val examining Abell’s evolution as an artist.
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.