GPP 2014 is getting close and I’ll be teaching 3 different workshop there (a hands-on and quite intensive class on portraiture, one on self portrait, one on mixed media).
I’m extremely excited about this and in the last few weeks I’ve been working hard on making sure I make the guys at GPP proud and give the students my best, and after e-mailing back and forth with a photographer friend about “what makes a workshop worth attending?”, I decided this was a subject worth talking about.
I’m mainly self taught when it comes to photography, which was great: it gave me the freedom to explore the medium without fear of “doing something wrong”. When you don’t know there are rules, you can just try and fail until you discover stuff by yourself and make this knowledge your own (only to find out everybody and their mum already knew and they look at you weird because “being over excited about the fact that if you want a white background you need to light it separately from the subject”, is not that big of a deal apparently).
But then in 2002 I got to attend RISD as an exchange student and it was so overwhelmingly awesome: I realized that having a teacher could propel me into doing things way faster and way better and when I got back I started taking photography workshops whenever I could.
Here’s what I learned:
1. A workshop is not a photography course. It’s short and intense and you don’t get to really grow within its duration. You are not going to be a better photographer because you heard a great photographer speak: as much as I wanted to, photography is not transmitted via osmosis nor diffusion1. This means at the end of the day you need to go back to your little studio/room/burrow and start putting what you learned into practice as if your life depends on it, otherwise you’ll just forget it but (and this is the sucky part) you’ll still think you know it, because you remember sitting in that class.
2. Pick what’s best for you and not what’s available or cool. There’s a bazillion workshops out there. Some are cheap, some are insanely expensive. Some are one day long, some last a whole week. Some are held by rockstar photographers, some are taught by people whose name you never heard. How do you choose your next workshop? My rule of thumb is: select something that might help you with what you are struggling with *right now*. Are you constantly screwing up your exposure when you’re working with strobes? Are you good at lighting stuff but you freeze in front of a human being? Do you feel like there’s more to photography than technique, but you can’t seem to figure out how to add meaning to your images? Use this as a compass to look for the best workshop for you, because then you’ll have questions in need of an answer, which brings me to my next point…
3. Have at least one or two specific questions before you step into the room. Stress on specific. You can’t reach a goal unless it’s defined and measurable. “I want to take better pictures” is a crap goal for a workshop: how will you know if they are better? Or better enough to justify the cost of the workshop? A better goal would be something like “I want to learn where to place my main light, because all of my portraits seem to have weird shadows and that pisses me off so much I want to punch the model in the face and since I’m a kid photographer, this might be a problem”2. Pick the workshop that seems to give you a better shot at figuring this out (e.g. in the example I used, NOT a class on storytelling). If the teacher is not addressing that specific question, ask it. Believe me, it’s not going to kill you.
Choosing a workshop because it’s available and looks cool is like the old joke about the drunk dude looking for his car keys under the street light, not because he lost his keys there, but because it’s better lit.
4. Research the teacher. If you are taking a class on fashion photography and the photographer teaching it does not shoot fashion, never published a single photo in a fashion magazine and all the photos in his portfolio are definitely not something you’d see in a fashion magazine… well… do I need to go on?
A lot of photographers in the last few years started teaching workshops as if they were ATM machines: you get a pretty girl in skimpy clothes, place a couple of lights and lure guys with cameras willing to spend money to post photos of a pretty girl in skimpy clothes on flickr and get a lot of likes from their friends. I’m not judging (too much), but if you spend thousands of dollars in this kind of education and you don’t seem to get more clients, it might not be the recession3.
Also, if the teacher is someone you loathe, does not share your values, has a sense of humor that offends you, you might want to give your money to someone else. If you are considering taking one of my classes at GPP, you might want to read my series on photographing people I wrote on strobist first, or read a couple of interviews that might give you an idea on how my head works. If you read italian, hop over to my blog: most of my stuff is there.
I’m completely fine with people thinking I suck, I’m less fine with them wasting their time to listen to me talk: remember that you could use the same time (and probably less money) to hire a model or rent some gear you want to test and shoot one-to-one for the whole day and you would learn a lot from that.
On the other hand, if you’re enrolling in one of my GPP classes because Heisler’s are filled up and you plan to stalk him the whole week and need an excuse to be there, I totally support that. Let me suggest one of the one day classes (less money, more stalking time) and remember he likes a skinny latte with 2 fake sugars in it.
5. On taking pictures. Some workshops give students shooting time, some others are more “show and tell”. There are advantages to both formats.
If the workshop you are attending is one of those where the teacher demos how he/she works, use the camera to take notes, if you need to, but don’t be the one shooting from behind the teacher’s shoulder to get a photo “for your portfolio”. That’s just ridiculous. First, that’s not your photo: it’s like photographing a photograph and claiming it as your own. I know appropriation played a significant role in art, and I find Jon Rafman’s 9 eyes project brilliant and poetic4, but what makes it different is the intention. Always have intention when operating a camera. Also, you have paid good money to watch this person work, and you’re spending your time snapping bad photos of the model. That’s not super-clever.
On the other hand, when you are given shooting time use it, milk it, make the best of it. Aim to fail: try stuff you saw or heard during the lecture or demonstration and don’t care about not getting the perfect shot. You are not there to impress the teacher nor your classmates, you’ll most likely never see those people again in your life. As a matter of fact, if you’re not screwing something up, you’re most likely just doing what you already knew how to do. Remember why you are there.
6. Go home and start working. I am the nerdy type, so I take a lot of notes, but I also bring a separate piece of paper to class to write down ideas for stuff I want to try. It might be something technical, like “place a beauty dish in front of a softbox, same axis” (thanks, Heisler) or something that might make little sense to the passerby, such as “birds hair”.
As soon as I go home, before normal life sucks the enthusiasm out of me, I start planning to make these notes happen. I make appointments with myself, as if I was a client, and I test out stuff.
At the end of the day, a workshop can be a great tool to propel yourself, but can also be a great excuse to postpone the actual work (I can’t take photos because I still don’t know everything there is to know about photography). A lot of people seem to be waiting for someone to put the hand on their shoulder and tell them “you are ready know, here’s a bucket full of money” and that’s just never going to happen. If what you need is the permission to be a photographer, here: have mine. Go take photos.
- 1. Don't know the difference between osmosis and diffusion? http://www.diffen.com/difference/Diffusion_vs_Osmosis
- 2. On a side note, you might want to take a class on anger management. And please, don't breed yet.
- 3. Also, I'm thinking of selling a 1000$ workshop on how to avoid scam workshop: it's me slapping you with a trout for hours and it's a great value because I use a fashion trout. Paypal me the money if you're interested.
- 4. You can also watch Michael Wolf speak of his Google Street View work here: http://vimeo.com/20667709, or check Sherrie Levine's work on Walker Evans and Richard Prince's photos of magazine clippings.