It’s been a couple of weeks now since my class Sam Abell at the Pacific Northwest Art School and I’ve yet to thank him fully. It was quite a class, quite a week, quite a challenge.
First I need to get one thing out of the way. Do not expect to produce your best, most exceptional, work during a week-long intensive with a master photographer. A great image is the result of the alignment of many things including – clarity of vision, mastery of technique, acute awareness of composition, and opportunity. Master classes, on the other hand, push you beyond your current notion of vision, challenge your technical abilities, increase your awareness of your compositional sloppiness, and enforce mandatory daily picture taking.
The routine for this class was quite similar to the workshop I took with Jay Maisel – and I suspect a common formula (now that I have two under my belt). The first day was spent with an introduction by Sam’s to his approach to photography and his personal message to us to become 24-hour photographers. Take pictures of everything. “If you want to make fine photographs, make fine snapshots”. He urged us to keep a diary camera and to practice photography by journaling our daily lives and taking images of everything around us. I am trying to take that to heart and will have more on this approach in the future.
Regarding what I learned at the workshop. The core of Sam’s photography is his process and approach to composition. The phrase “compose and wait” is a central notion but only scratches the surface of the full concept. The goal of his process is to create rich layered images with a place for everything and everything in its place. In a previous blog post, A Lesson with Sam Abell – Micro-Composition, I wrote about a session I had with Sam at Santa Monica Beach where he gave me a first-hand illustration of the technique. In this workshop I was able to take these concepts further. On the first day he relayed story to us of a conversation he had with one of his colleagues. After some discussion, his colleague pronounced that Sams photography wasn’t about micro composition, it was about nano-composition. Macro, micro, or nano composition, Sam’s process for layering an image and putting things in their places is one that not only serves him well, but one that has taken my photography to a new level. He talked about his process as one that can take you past “reductive” photography – the technique of reducing and simplifying to create order and focus – to the creation of richer more complex images that have the same sense of ease to the viewer. He confessed that for years he pursued the reductive notion but ultimately realized that complex photographs are richer, but so much harder.
Through daily discussion and critique, he shared with us several combination genres which he pursues to create these richer photographs:
- Still life with a life – start with a still life, but find some life to moving through it.
- Still life attached to a landscape – a still life in a landscape setting
- Portrait attached to a landscape – a portrait in a landscape setting
- Whole world photography – capturing a big full scene, but with each element in its place
When Sam talks about elements and line in a photograph, he refers to them as poetic, as in “look at the poetry of the profile of these buildings on the horizon” or “the poetic line formed by the reflection of a sailboat mast”.
The most amazing part of the workshop was during the critique sessions where I observed Sam’s ability observe and evaluate an image with the speed and accuracy of a bullet. Without missing a single detail, he sees everything in it within seconds. I asked him about his process. His answer was revealing. “I just look at it as if it was in my view finder.” How simple, yet how elusive to most of us.
I spent much of the week searching for opportunity, not quite knowing what to say with my camera, what poem to write. Whidbey Island is a quiet town. Quiet towns make quiet pictures and it took much of the week for me to reconcile this and to look for the quiet moments. I present here a couple of quiet moments on the ferry between Whidbey Island and Port Townsend. This couple, with their careful dress and demeanor, represents the presence and intentionality that Sam teaches us to bring to our photography.
Thank you Sam for your open and thoughtful week. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. Thank you for your insight and wisdom. And thank you for pushing me beyond.