After thinking a little bit more about mastermind groups it dawned on me that artists have been meeting in groups to discuss their work for centuries. Perhaps the most famous, and most written about of these artists groups, or friendship groups as I’ve seen them called, is the Impressionists.
The Impressionists found each other as kindred spirits who were working outside of the traditional French Academy system. As they worked closely with one another they developed a group sensibility of what they thought art should be. They experimented with techniques that would allow them to realize their ideas that were then shared with one another, providing support and validation for paths that might have otherwise been abandoned had they been working in isolation. In regular weekly meetings the artists would discuss successes and failures in the context of the group’s values, work through conflicts and anxieties and share contacts with dealers or masters. I can only imagine such a regular meeting would have been profoundly energizing.
Of course visual artists are not the only ones that go through a period of intense involvement with this kind of group. In a recent webinar that Dane Sanders hosted to support his Weavewriter product there was talk of ‘writers workshops’ that sound just like the kind of meeting that the Impressionists were having. My research into writers workshops lead me first to Pat Schnieder‘s book ‘Writing Alone and with others‘ and then to Peter Elbow’s book ‘Writing Without Teachers‘.
‘Writing Alone’ appears to build on the work by Peter Elbow which provides a framework for group interactions where there isn’t a ‘master teacher’ in the room. In this model the writer is hearing real world feedback from other members in the group about what’s working and what needs additional clarity. It is an interesting process for me because I had it in my mind that without a master in the room mediocrity would reign. Perhaps not.
Both examples above provide me with support for my ideas about the importance of a small group for artistic development, not necessarily to instruct in a formal way but to provide ‘real world’ feedback, encourage and to share resources that could be of help. They also make me realize that this is in essence a ‘solved problem’. There are existing groups that fit this model that you may be able to work with if you look hard enough, the Artist’s Round Table that Ray Ketcham and Sabrina Henry have organized looks like it fits this model almost perfectly. The resources are also there that could help you to develop one organically yourself if that is a better option for you. The only question is what’s stopping you?
I’ve been taking a look at how people have photographed Iceland in the last few weeks. One of the photographers that came up time and time again in my searching was Hans Strand. Strand is a landscape photographer based in Sweden who has a solid body of work from more than 15 visits to Iceland over the course of 20 years. His landscapes are striking. While there is a mix of the grand landscape with more intimate landscapes, I suspect that the intimate landscapes are aerial shots that abstract the landscape. His aerial work was one of the key factors that separates his work from that of others in Iceland. For those interested in workshops, Strand’s Iceland workshops often include an aerial session, something worth consideration if you want a unique perspective.
Check out the Hasselbald promo video below that gives a behind the scenes look at Hans Strand at work in Iceland, photographing an active Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that brought air traffic in Europe to a halt for weeks.
In doing research for my trip to the Olympic National Park one name that came up in a couple of places was that of Pat O’Hara. I’ve found it tough to find out about Pat. He seems to have been most active before the internet kicked into high gear and so there isn’t a big Pat O’Hara web footprint. There is some material – this page on the Nikon website gives a nice biography of Pat and gives a sense of his path to photography from his military service days in Vietnam in the 60’s escaping into photography during his R&R time to his photobooks that serve his passion for the environment and conservation. The gallery of images on this page is also a good resource giving a good overview of Pat’s work – a mix of both the grand and intimate landscape.
There is more information about Pat on the Visionary Wild website, largely because the principal there, Justin Black, seems to have coaxed Pat into teaching a workshop a year or two ago. I actually looked at this workshop which was based in the Olympic National Park with a special extension in Pat’s studio but passed on it because I had too many other commitments and thought, foolishly, that I could go to the next one. I haven’t seen another offered but would of course jump on it given the chance.
Given the relative small footprint on the web we are then left to look at Pat’s books. Fortunately many are available on amazon.com. Click here to see a list. The first of his books to arrive from amazon was ‘Olympic National Park‘ which has the perfect subtitle ‘Where the mountain meets the sea’. It’s a delightful tour through the park, especially since every image is a unique perspective that I have yet to see elsewhere, plus there is a blend as a mentioned above of grand and intimate landscapes. His work really makes me realize that there are unique images to be made in even the most well visited places if you just take the time to go beyond the postcard shot.
If you find a good source of Pat O’Hara’s work, let me know I’d love to see it.
To follow up on my previous post I thought that I’d share some of the things that I’d done to improve my photography and hopefully they may be useful to you. At the time I did all of this stuff I felt that I was a late starter and wanted to accelerate my learning as much as I could. This meant using the expertise and experience of photographers that I liked to quickly get a solid foundation. Please do chime in with your thoughts and comments too.
1. Find your true calling. Work out what appeals to you, what repels you. Start a scrap book real or virtual of images that appeal to you. Make a list of common attributes – color or black and white, landscape, portraiture, wildlife, fashion, wedding, dig a bit deeper what else do these have in common, what differentiates them.
2. Find a mentor. Have you found yourself gravitating to one or two photographers? Study what they’ve done and how they got the shots you particularly admire. Of course if they’re alive today they probably teaching workshops – take a workshop with them and get some advice from your photographic hero. Not only will you get some insight into how they achieve their signature works but you’ll also get some feedback on your own work.
3. Get the right gear. Figuring out what gear your heros are using to get the shots you admire and get the same stuff. Somethings you’ll want to buy now, others you should rent. But without getting the gear to get the shot you won’t get the shot. A good example for landscape photographers is a rock solid tripod – get a good one and it will last you for years.
4. Do what your heros do to get the shot. When I was at Alison Shaw’s Workshop on Martha’s Vineyard in 2009 I was bemoaning my lack of progress to Alison’s assistant Donna Foster. Donna quickly pointed out that there was a progression to my work but that my biggest problem was that I wasn’t shooting in the best light and that if I wanted to improve I should find some time to get out early or late and shoot when the light is good.
5. Get feedback on your work. There are a number of ways to get comments on your work I prefer one on one portfolio reviews with someone who is going to be brutally frank. Feedback from workshop instructors is also very useful, as can be comments from friends whose opinion you trust and value.
I hope that you found this useful. I’d be delighted to hear what you’ve done to improve.
My recent experience at Art Wolfe’s Olympic Peninsula Workshop, while not bad per se, led me to reflect on what my ideal workshop would look like. My goals for any workshop are to have fun, make friends, learn something and if I get some photographs that I like so much the better. With that in mind here’s what i came up with.
I prefer relatively small groups
The reason for this is two fold. I want to get to know the people that I’m with for the duration of the workshop. Some of these folks often know more about the technical aspects of photography, or the software than the instructor does. Handy to know these people.
I want to get to know the instructor and allow the instructor to know me.
I feel like this can only be a good thing when it comes to learning and overcoming challenges that I’m dealing with.
Daily critiques of new work
While it can be painful, I find that daily critique of the images that the group has created is a powerful tool to improve the standard of the work that the whole group does. Which leads to the next point.
I want to feel safe enough to step outside of my comfort zoneOne of the things that workshops afford us is the opportunity to try things and quite likely fail spectacularly. I’m not likely to do this or at least share the results of my experiments if I don’t feel safe.
I don’t want to be rushed
Workshops are a funny vehicle for learning. Often you are sprinted from one location to the next without an opportunity to return and put what you’ve learned into practice. I completely understand the ‘photo tour’ aspect of many workshops and this is great if you intend on returning to select locations on your own to fully work through the photo possibilities that it offers. Otherwise I prefer at least similar locations that would allow me to refine my thinking about how to approach particular subjects.
What would help make the ideal workshop experience for you? Leave your suggestions in the comments section.
I was expecting a relatively intimate workshop (I had been under the impression that it would be 12 people) that would give us all a lot of time with Art and Libby and Jay. It turned out to be a much bigger group, ~30 participants and 4 or 5 additional instructors/assistants. Not that is a bad thing, the staff were all pretty attentive both in the classroom and in the field, although I found it difficult to keep track of peoples names, whether they were with our group or not and whether they were a participant or instructor. We didn’t spend too much time in the classroom because the weather was ‘perfect’ for photography, it was overcast the first day, overcast and rainy the second, but then cleared so that we got broken cloud cover for a sunset at Second beach. Very cool the way the weather worked out perfectly.
One of the reasons that I took the workshop was to get a better sense of photographing in forests and there was no shortage of opportunity to photograph in the forest. Our first stop was Marymere falls and then on to the Sol Duc. Being in dense old growth forest I was overwhelmed by the clutter and so it wasn’t until I was in the Hoh Rainforest the following day that I actually started seeing potential shots. But then however I was battling a couple of technical challenges that I hadn’t expected – it was raining, hello rainforest – which meant that I had to clean off the front element frequently otherwise my shots would be obliterated because of raindrops. The second issue that I was frankly surprised by was fogging. I was using a polarizer to take the sheen off the green and found that the front element would fog under the polarizer and so I had that to contend with too. Most if not all of the shots of the forest I ended up with are marred by one or other of these issues.
While I may not have any photographs from the forest that I liked, I did begin to ‘see’ potential photographs which was a significant step forward for me. I’m looking forward to going back for more!
I’m in the Pacific Northwest this week to attend a workshop with Art Wolfe. It was through researching potential workshops with Art that I came across Jay’s work and have been following his blog for a couple of years now. His outdoor work, covers a wide spread of nature, landscape and adventure photography but he also builds on his architecture training to make some stunning photographs of buildings. Goes to show that the more you know your subject the better the photographs will be.
It’s hard to know the person behind photographs when your interaction has been purely electronic stalking but Jay’s about page reinforces the notion that I had of a pretty mellow, if not passionate and intense guy. Do all those fit together I think so. Get a sense for yourself in the interview with Jie from an episode of ‘Framed‘ last year.
I’m just back from a week on Martha’s Vineyard to attend Alison Shaw’s workshop. It was a really fun week, great to catch up with old friends and make some new ones and to immerse myself in photography.
Like most of life, you get out of a week long workshop what you put into it. That means being at the location an hour before sunrise and staying at the evening locations until well after the sun has gone down. That makes for some very long days, especially if you try to edit photos when you get home in the evening. By mid-week everyone is a little punchy, filters are gone and everyone is in the groove.
This was the second time I’d visited Martha’s Vineyard, the first time was for Alison’s workshop last year. As a consequence the novelty factor is still very high for me even with places that most people are very familiar with such as Edgartown or Menemsha. While we went to some of my favorite spots, Lucy Vincent Beach and Vineyard Haven Harbor being high on that list, there were a few new places included in this workshop. We made it over to Chappaquiddick and after a stop at Mytoi, the Japanese garden, we headed for East Beach. While East Beach does not have the spectacular surf that Lucy Vincent Beach has there were enough photo opportunities to make the trip well worthwhile. One of the things that I appreciate about the locations that we visit is that they are rich with photographic opportunities, so even someone like me is able to come up with 3, 4 or more different photographs at each location.
Alison has an easy going nature and teaching style that she is able to adapt to the level of the student. While I could imagine some workshops being all about the instructor leading them, that’s not the case here. You get as much help as you need. While there is plenty of in the field instruction from Alison and a reasonable amount of classroom instruction, for me the real learning comes from the critique sessions. Alison was commenting on 80 + images every day, remarkably many were very different even though we were all at the place. I found that while I learned a lot from the critiques of my images, I learn just as much from the critiques of the other students.
For the September workshops Alison is usually assisted by Donna Foster. Donna splits her time between Charlotte, North Carolina and Martha’s Vineyard. I can’t say enough good things about Donna. Last year she really talked me off a ledge when I was in Menemsha and lost for something to shoot – if you’ve never been, think rusty junky old stuff and lots of it. Then took the time to review my images that I had brought with me and showed me that yes I was actually improving by sequencing and commenting on them. It was the boost I needed.
The week is rounded off by a group dinner and show. It was fun to see the progression in everyone’s work from the start of the week to the end of the week. I had an excellent time and look forward to spending another week with Alison in 2012.