Workshops, to do or not to do?

Colonnade, Eau Gallie, FL 2013

Colonnade, Eau Gallie, FL 2013

This past weekend I taught a workshop that was based mostly on my approach to photography. I have taken a few workshops and taught a few others and over the years I have compared them to the approach that I use teaching a regular class. They are two different animals, and should be looked at as a different experience. Both are useful, and both are worthwhile, but they are and should be different.

In my classes, I am teaching for the masses about a general approach to photography that can be used no matter what kind of photography the students want to do. I cover the basics, and take as much of a global view of photography that I can. Even when it is a specific subject, I take a more global view of the information that I try to provide my students. I feel that workshops should be the opportunity for the student to have an up close experience with the professional that is giving the workshop. The workshop is where the student can try out a particular approach to photography, or to spend time with a photographer, (in the case where the photographer is well known) who’s work the students wants to learn more about.

But I think the most important part of a workshop is that in this venue, the student has the opportunity to try something different. While I know how this feels, I think that students sometimes make a mistake by thinking that they are going to attend a workshop and make great photographs while in the workshop. I try to think about what I am trying to learn and am more interested in how the workshop may affect my long-term photography than the benefit of making a photograph that I might be able to use. Often I think of the workshop as a way of putting a new tool in my toolbox. I do not think that there ever has been a workshop that I came away with without getting some gem that I could use. Often a comment made in less than a minute will have a profound influence in my photographic future. Sometimes these gems are received over lunch where all the participants along with the instructor have the opportunity to talk informally.

So are workshops worthwhile? I think so, (and not just because I teach them from time to time) as they often give the student an experience that they would otherwise not be able to have.

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A Stone’s Thoreau.

Dulcimer, Ft. Christmas, FL, 2013

Dulcimer, Ft. Christmas, FL, 2013

“It is not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” Henry David Thoreau. Who knew that Thoreau was a photographer?

For me photography has been more about how we see things and relate those experiences to larger thoughts. Both technically and aesthetically, I like to think in terms of relationships and how everything is interrelated. Just as a F-Stops relates to Shutter Speeds, what we see today relates to other things that we have seen or felt in the past. What I have read about the Mississippi in Mark Twain’s book, Life on the Mississippi, has added deeply to my understanding of the river today, more than a hundred years after the book was written.

Edward Weston’s photography seemed to be always more about the larger meaning of the subjects of his photographs than it was about the literal depiction of the subject. True, his pepper was still a pepper, but in Weston’s hands it became a metaphor of the human form, which in turn became a metaphor of the universality of shape and form.  The photographs that I am most attracted to are those that I can look at and see more than what the picture is actually of.

A former student of mine once complained that there was no new subject matter to photograph. I told him that was true, but there is still an unlimited number of ways to present any subject and an unlimited number of ways to see even the most common subjects.

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Peace

Luv, Eau Gallie, FL 2013

Luv, Eau Gallie, FL 2013

“A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself.” And “What a man can be, he must be. This need we call self-actualization.” Both quotes by Abraham Maslow.

These two quotes by Abraham Maslow say more about why I am a photographer than any words that I can come up with. I am a photographer because that is what I am. I cannot think of myself in any other context, for it defines me. For me it is not work, and while I may tire while photographing, I am never tired of making photographs. My interest in so many other subjects is born from my interest in making photographs. My interest in history, culture and all other things are to support my making photographs. My life in photography has brought me into contact with many interesting people, who have each in their own way made my life fuller. Photography has also taken me to many interesting places, which have widened my view of the world. Photography has made whatever holes I have in my soul smaller, and I am thankful for that, and that gives me peace.

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On the Road:

Used Tires, Orlando, FL 2013

Used Tires, Orlando, FL 2013

“To read the papers and to listen to the news… one would think the country is in terrible trouble. You do not get that impression when you travel the back roads and the small towns do care about their country and wish it well.” Charles Kuralt.

Photography has given me several things, but really best of all was the time that I spent on the road. It does not take one long to understand the allure of the passing panoramic that comes from being on the road. Except for driving the Interstate, whose soulless purpose is to get someone from one place to another as fast as possible. While I really do not have anything against Interstates, I have to say that I feel more in my element when I am on some two lane back road seeing something of the country. Like it did for Charles Kuralt, it makes me feel reassured about who we are as a country. Besides, where else can you get a tire for $10.

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A Place In Time

Jazz Feed, Baker Florida, 2003 & 2013

Jazz Feed, Baker Florida, 2003 & 2013

As I travel, looking for photographs, I often return to places that I have photographed before. In some ways it is like returning to old friends. However, it can be somewhat sad to see the changes in the places I grew to love in my memories and my photographs. This past weekend I had business in Pensacola and as my want to do; I made time in my travels to make photographs. Choosing to drive down Florida, highway 90 a former main artery of the Panhandle before Interstate 10 paralleled its route, I revisited many places that I have photographed over the years. Having traveled this road so many times I have learned to photograph anything I find interesting as a lot of what I find interesting on one visit will most likely not be there on the next visit. I once photographed a church that was all outside, just along the side of the road, just outside Quincy, Florida only to have it disappear by my next ride through the area. The good news is that there is always something new to photograph, the sad news is that there is a loss of something interesting.

Early in my photographic life I became interested in some areas of the Panhandle because Caryville, Florida was the location of some of Dorothea Lange’s few Florida photographs for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) project in the 1930s. I was also attracted to John Colliers’ photographs of Baker Florida and Escambia Farms, also for the FSA. Therefore, in 2003, with the support of a grant from United Arts, I went to the Florida Panhandle. Along with Two Egg, Cottondale and several other towns, I visited and photographed in Caryville and Baker Florida. I could not find the exact spots where some of their photographs were made, but then that was not really the point. It was on this trip that I made what has become my most popular photograph. It was called Jazz Feed, Baker, Florida 2003 (above, left). It has been in every major exhibition I have had since 2003 and it graced the cover of Orlando Arts Magazine.

Baker, Florida, by John Collier for the FSA

Baker, Florida, by John Collier for the FSA

So, on this most recent trip I returned to Baker and found the now faded Jazz Feed sign above, right). The store, whose wall was graced with the painted sign, was now closed. The air machine is now gone, which gave my 2003 image a sense of the juxtaposition of two or more unrelated signs that form a meaning unrelated to the original signs. While Jazz Feed may be fading away on the wall of the building in Baker Florida, I hope that it will be preserved in the photograph I made in 2003. It is naive of me to think that after 10 years nothing would change, but there is something inside of me that would like to think that those things that I have photographed would remain. But as long as my photographs are available, in some way Jazz Feed will always have a place on the wall of a store in Baker Florida. In the same way that John Collier’s photograph of the crossroads in Baker taken in the 1930s will also preserver the unending

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A Questioning Mind

Shadow of a Photographer, 2010

Shadow of a Photographer, 2010

This past week I gave a talk to a group of first graders. I did not really want to do it, as I thought it would be as about as easy as herding cats. Afterwards, I thought herding cats may actually be easier, but I was glad that I did it. The difficulty was the endless questions that often times did not have much to do with what I came to them to talk about. There was one little boy who’s hand was permanently raised asked me if I was a famous photographer. I was not sure what to say, and the answer I gave him, I am not sure made any sense to him, but I knew that I had to say something. So, I told him that in photography, it was photographs that became famous, not photographers. I then took the opportunity to show some news pictures that even those first graders knew, like the Hindenburg explosion and the flag raising during World War II. They may not have much of an appreciation of the event, but they knew the pictures. One child was able to tell me that the blimp that blew up was the Hindenburg. Very smart kids! But it did not occur to them that there was someone who took the picture and in the case of Rosenthal’s war photographs was someone who put themselves in harms way to be there to take that photograph so that we could see it some 70 years later. The photograph is famous, not the photographer. After telling the kid about how photographs are better known than the photographers who took them, I told him that it is the way it should be.

300px-WW2_Iwo_Jima_flag_raising

Before I could fully answer his question he and the other students had numerous questions, many of which had little to do with photography. I first thought that the barrage of questions would frustrate me, but I turned out to be amused by them and marveled at the quickness of their minds. It was not how I remembered first grade, but then I have a filter of 50 plus years to cloud my memory. In some ways I envy their curiosity.

In the end, I think that I did bring them something, even if they do not understand everything that I told them. I showed them my 4×5 wood field camera because it would be a good way to show them F-Stops and Shutter Speeds. They marveled at seeing the upside and backwards image on the ground glass. They found interesting the way that with my digital camera I could put the student in the background out of focus in one photo and then have that same student as sharp as the foreground students by changing something, they did not know exactly what, on my camera. They found it wondrous that I was able to make a student’s moving arms disappear by having her move her arms up and down during the exposure. I did not give them a complete understanding of photography by any means, but I would like to think that to some extent I planted some seeds.

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Unscramble

Farris Wheel, Daytona Beach, FL 2013

Farris Wheel, Daytona Beach, FL 2013

When I think that I have it well in hand, something always comes up and bites me. When I feel complacent about the work that I am doing something, there is always something that lets me know that I am not as in control of things as I wish I were. When it starts to break down there is a period where I feel an empty place in my creative soul. I feel unsure, and when I go out to make a photograph a hole in your soul is not what you want to feel. Writers call it “Writer’s Block,” but artists of all bents have periods of doubt. Why do I have these periods of down time? Who knows, and it is not really important.  Regardless, of the reason, that feeling that I cannot just go out and make a decent photograph is not a happy time for me.

For me the solution is work. I often joke to myself, and maybe there is some truth to it, but I say that there are a certain number of bad photographs manufactured into any camera and the only way to get to the good ones is to make photographs. It channels the reasons for my lack of productivity to the camera and not my heart and mind, but that is OK as long as I don’t really believe it, but use it to get me going again. During these times, I will look back at a list of quotes that I have on my I-Pad from books that I read. These quotes often jerk my thinking in a direction that is more productive.

In his book, Imagine, Jonah Lehrer made a passing comment that resonated with me at the time and also now at a time that I can really use it. He wrote, “We need to leave behind the safety of our expertise.” Ah ha, the value of risk! All of my better images have to some element of risk. The funny thing is that one area of risk that I think about is telling the truth. I can make a photograph that follows convention all day, and I might even be able to make a decent photograph that way. However, at the end of the day, the images that speak to me the most, and that often speak to an audience the most, are those where I took a chance. It is difficult to explain, but taking a chance leads to images that expose a personal truth that makes my images stronger. Along that line, I am also drawn to what Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” To me, prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness exist when there is an absence of truth. I do not have to travel far, but the act of traveling, if even for half a day, allows me to see and think more clearly.

Maybe now with a clear head, and good light, I will be able to make a worthwhile photograph. I will let you know what I find.

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