An open Thank You to Sam Abell

Take 1

Take 2

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.

Jay Maisel Day 5 – “Trust your intuition”

This is the ceiling of one room in Jay’s building. The ceiling is peeling because after a house guest painted it black, repainting it white produced the current situatioin. Jay laughs about this ceiling and won’t repair it, in fact he saves the chips that fall off.

Just as I didn’t want to end the week, it is difficult for me to end my description of the workshop. Friday was two days in one. The morning was business as usual. I was up with the sun as I was not sure I had my images from the short amount of time we had to shoot on Thursday. We had to turn in 10. The morning with Jay started with a lecture discussion on color. How colors interact and the optical illusion you can create with color. Did you know that colors vibrate?

Then on to critique. Critiques were brief, not because we had gotten lazy or tired or were running out of time, but because we could do them almost in shorthand. “Didn’t you see this here?” “Yes, gesture over graphic.”, “You are still having problems with sharpness, let’s review the data”. This was actually the first time that we actually looked at the meta-data from our images during the critique. “See, you are at f/22 – why are you at f/22?”. “Good – see how sharp this is at f/5.6 because you are shooting at 1/1000th”. If someone says that there is not technical discussion at the workshop, they would be mistaken. Technique fits in right where it should, as a means to create an end. If the end isn’t right we first examined the seeing. If the seeing was good, then we would examine the technique. But always the message that failure is ok, dare to fail, and trust your intuition.

We saw a slide show of Jay’s trip to Paris with Scott Kelby that he took the week before. They were making the next Kelby interview which will be entitled “A week with Jay Maisel in Paris”. And we saw a slide show of Jay’s pictorial biography of his daughter Amanda. It was beautiful in graphic and sentiment. We finished with a tour of the building, dinner on the roof, and 2 hours of shooting the breeze in his kitchen. Jay’s office, gallery, workshop, and home are a full expression of his curiosity and playfulness. The workshop is worth every dollar and every minute.

Day 0 with Jay Maisel

Roughly 3000 miles, but a world away, here is my first look at the New York City skyline as I land at Newark Airport. Tomorrow morning I meet Jay Maisel and he meets me. My cameras are set to shoot RAW + jpeg and it is yet to be determined if I’ll go ahead and shoot bracketed as Jay does.

In the note Jay sent as a preamble to the workshop, he asks three, not so simple, questions:

  1. Who are you and what do you shoot?
  2. Why are you taking this particular workshop?
  3. What are you intending to learn?

I have always found it difficult to answer questions like #3. Mostly I live life opportunistically, not seeking, instead waiting for opportunities coming to me. Sometimes it works extraordinarily well and other times, not. But always it leads me to something worthwhile and fulfilling.

Tomorrow I have almost no idea what to actually expect. All I really know is that the “doors open at 8:30” and class starts at 9. We are each to bring 10 images. 10 images times 10 participants. Will Jay critic 100 images tomorrow? What does he mean “and be prepared to defend them with your life”?

My answer to question #3: I am looking to the learn what I don’t even yet know how to ask.

Jay Maisel Image Selection – My Best 10

Next Sunday, May 13th, I board a plane for NYC to attend Jay Maisel’s Workshop and I need your feedback.

In the what to bring section of the workshop page, you are instructed, with out much fanfare, as follows:

For the initial critique bring the best (10) examples of your work and be prepared to defend them with your life.

Oh, like this won’t be difficult. I’ve picked 10 images and 16 alternates. I’d like your input on what you think is best. Is there an image in my main selection that you would replace with one from my alternate.

In order to set the stage, here are my thoughts on how I’ve picked my “best (10) examples” of my work.

My photos cover a lot of different subjects – from street to stills and nature – and I have favorites (are favorites and best the same thing? – another topic) in each area. In thinking about what to bring to Jay, I am leaning on one of the reasons why I’m going to this particular workshop in the first place – I want to get feedback on my street photography from a street photographer. So much critique I have available locally are from the perspective of the Professional Photographers of America (PPA). These folks are extremely gifted and technically adept, but their goal is to create work that others want to buy.  Work that people use to remember the good times (weddings) and put on the wall to view the worlds beauty (landscapes of far away places in spectacular lighting). My images are not these happy thought images.

The goal of my work is to create work that shows the world from the inside. My images are mostly neither ugly nor seedy, violent nor scary, but they are often intense. I think about my days studying music. If the line called for a crescendo or diminuendo (get louder or get softer), your job as a musician was to ensure that there was no uncertainty about it. I approach my photography the same way. I want to get Jay’s view on exactly these images.

Below are my “best (10) examples” of my work. Here is a link to them and my alternate picks. Please leave me a comment here, on my website guest book, or Facebook (nancy.lehrer) with your feedback. Are there alternate images which you think are “better” and would replace one of my 10 picks?


1. Night at the Pier

2. A Little Night Music

3. Lunchtime Ritual

4. Cake Walk

5. Which Way?

6. Skate Boy

7. Train Breezes

8. Monster Games

9. Night Parking

10. Stop, Go Left