In photography it is really easy to churn through gear (GAS) in search of … something? But seldom do we see people talking about the workshop experience. I had decided that part of becoming a good photographer is seeking out experiences with other photographers in the workshop setting.
My first workshop this year was with Eric Kim in Portland. The workshop topic was “Conquer your fears in Street Photography.” Eric can have a really aggressive in your face style on the street. He hunts the street seemingly staying in motion constantly shooting street style portraits. He could range miles in a day shooting. My sense is there is seldom a quiet moment; always in motion. He translates that style into a workshop and through excersizes enables a student to learn how he does his photos. When I look at his work there are contemplative elements to the composition not just luck, this doesn’t translate into the workshop though. From Eric you learn that there is no pain in approaching people to ask for a photo. In fact most people will not only allow you to make a image of them, they will participate following direction readily.
My second workshop was in LA with Ibarionex Perello a Los Angeles based street photographer. His workshop was a two day affair. The focus was on the basic elements needed to construct a good photograph. Ibarionex’s teaching style is contemplative, zen like, in the study of light & shadow, line & shape, color, gesture. His photographic world for a day may only consist of four square blocks or even a single street corner. After attending his workshop, it is clear that a small world is totally satisfactory for a street photographer. He doesn’t worry too much about the social interaction; it’s expected that you will conquer that interaction as needed.
Both workshops bring the style of the teacher into sharp focus and couldn’t be more different. I realize that I needed the Eric Kim workshop to just get on with shooting photos. At the same time, the style of working doesn’t interest me too much. Emphasizing the sudden glance, the quick motion, the hunt for action. It reminds me of Bruce Gilden somewhat. It’s fun at times to just shoot, shoot, shoot, images, but ulitimately I find it unsatisfying. It feels too dependant on luck. The psychology (mine and the subjects) of photographing people on the street aside, I’ve not found that anything else from the workshop really stuck with me. Once the wall interacting with subjects is broken, the addition of direction is a natural outcome.
Working with Ibarionex is a much more contemplative affair. Since that workshop, I have revisited my notes and the mantra (line/form, light/shadow, color, gesture) many times over. I use these tools to review my work, to photograph on the street, and even more importantly inform all my photos. I’ve been going through my old images and archiving them; I see the method in that work now. Less formed but still there.
It makes sense that the Ibarionex workshop resonated so strongly with me; I had already worked incorporating the mantra I just didn’t have the vocabulary. The difference between before and after was an intellectual basis for the photo. Prior it had been organic feel for what looked good. Organic work is fun but difficult, so unpredictable in the seeking and making of good images. Organic work involves many days or weeks of images that fail to resonate in any way. But worse yet, images that do resonate (are successful we’ll say) are elusive. The organic process (mystical) left the photographer unable to repeat the results. Post-workshop, while the true keepers are still rare, the overall level of misses has improved dramatically. Even more importantly, I can evaluate the misses for what should have happened for improvement. This puts me on the road to becoming a better photographer.
It’s easy to buy photo equipment. The latest greatest camera won’t help though. You’ll have to do the work. You’ll have to seek out education; the changes that improve your work. Set aside the price of a couple lenses and take a workshop. Fly someplace away from home to do it. Take it seriously and learn something. Be careful, it could change your photographer’s eye!
Sleeping soundly, I’m sure, awake to the sound of knocking at the door. “Police, open the door.” More knocking, not banging, but something more urgent than a polite knock. Stumbling about the unfamiliar room, I ask aloud who is it. The response “police open the door” and more knocking. Making it to the door, only 10 feet from the bed but a seeming marathon away, I stand to the side of the door. And ask, “who’s there?” The response, neutral in tone, the same “police open the door.” Trying to peer through the peep hole in the door I can’t see a thing and I tell them, “I can’t see you through the peep hole.” “They ask, why don’t you open the door? ” “I’m scared that’s why.”
My mind still not working well after being roused from a deep sleep after a long day and evening of street photography, I’m grasping for rationale. Cops outside my door make no sense, I didn’t call them. I think it’s a scam, a robbery, fake cops crashing into rooms in the night. What would my wife, Ruth do? She wouldn’t open the door either, certain of that. I tell them to hold on, my brain slowly coming online.
Stumbling around the room in the dark, I find the phone, dial 0. Front desk answers. I ask. They say, yes, there are cops in the building; someone called them. I stumble around looking for clothes to put on. All the time the cops knock and request that I open the door. Finally, I approach the door, and realize the reason I couldn’t see through the peep hole was the little privacy flap had it covered. I look. Two people in cop outfits a man and woman stand on each side of the door.
Reluctantly I open the door. I’ve seen the LAPD in action. Not opening the door isn’t a choice no matter how rational. The corner room an easy target for SWAT snipers and a the roof a short rapel from above. LAPD not know for working up through the spectrum of force slowly. No choice.
Door open, the cops explain that a woman was reported screaming nearby. Did I hear it? Dead asleep, no. Satisfied, door closed, back in bad. I hear the knocking going down the hall. Same muffled questions. No shots much to my surprise, no ghetto bird orbiting. Just another night in Hollywood.
The day had been eventful. 10am to 6pm with Ibarionex Parellelo and 11 other photographers at the LACP (Los Angeles Center of Photography). Beginning with Ibarionex’s mantra: light & shadow, line & form, color, and gesture he leads through a presentation. Good content along with dicsussion of specific photographs interspersed with question, answer and coffee. Cut loose, but not set free, we leave to photograph on the street, two blocks to Stella Barra Pizzaria. The second assignment lunch, the first, spend 15 minutes photographing around the corner of Sunset & Ivar. The point; plenty of subject matter there and close to lunch.
Lunch, getting to know the other photographers, a spectrum of people but skewed towards the photographer typical. Me too. Guy’s save two. Patricia, the assistant here; in MFA program at Northridge studying photography from cinemetography. Ray another Leica man, Eric with the Airstream in summer. Talking through the assignment upcoming, pay, leave, head up Ivar.
Ibarionex talking through the image potential, the elements, the peices that can be assembled into whole. Paired up, set free for 30 minutes. Head to Hollywood Blvd., applying the talk, trying, exploring. Green wall, grey wall, shoe hanging, shadow approaching. Need a pair walking to balance against white space and complete the triangle. Hoping for a gesture. Withheld, but imaged anyway, a learning experience, another entry in the visual encyclopedia.
Meet again and re-assigned, similiar but different. Partner loosely attached, 15 meters away working Hollywood Blvd. The Scientology greeter, happy, attractive young woman. Curious, but not worried. She keeps moving into the right side of frame, the white shirt completely over powering shadow on the column. I shoot anyway, the encyclopedia grows again.
Walking down Hollywood Blvd, another block working deep shadows on the north side of the street. Tourist traffic creates chance after chance, shooting, shooting, shooting, thank god for digital. Down Cosmo St., a guitarist emerges from a building, great character. Ibarionex, asks for a portrait and walks through three locations, each better than the last shooting his portrait. I begin to understand process.
Back to the LACP. A quick culling then review and discussion of the best three from each for the day. Ibarionex talked us through the review and maintained a positive but clear point of view about the exceptional and unexceptional aspects of each image. Thorough and direct. About two hours for the entire participant critique. The critique solidified the mantra of six elements; light & shadow, line & form, color, and gesture.
Two blocks up the hill, my hotel for the night Mama Shelter. Trendy place quite clearly, rooftop club, crowded lobby. Clean plain room on the fourth floor. Unpack, not much, put the expensive stuff that isn’t going out in the room safe and head out to move the car to overnight parking.
Walking with the Leica and 35 Summilux up Cahuenga to Hollywood then towards Gromans Chinese Theatre. Saturday night, crowds of tourists and locals everyone seeing and being the sights. Workshop lessons still fresh, trying to apply them in chaos. Using store fronts as frames compositions tricky; lots of visual clutter. Hard to find the clean lines. Shadows faint, hardly visible under the homogenous street lights. Tricky lighting, the camera AWB function may sort it out.
Pig and Whistle for dinner and a drink. Feeling better then, a little cranky before no wonder the mantra eluded me. Fresh eyes back on the street, cross and turn back east on Groman’s side. The crowds of tourist and performance not too interesting to me, walking to get a little room. Finding a doorway with distinct design columns and Indian cashier. I work the scene for awhile but the visual clutter is hard to sort out.
A white wall down the street with steady but not crushing foot traffic lends itself to my study. Shooting, working the scene observing starts to feel like it’s making sense. A worker from the white wall building comes out, shadow down the white wall, calls to another. They both return to work, by the white wall. I feel like the white wall is complete. Either captured or not, I’m finished there. Around the corner more white wall and traffic. Good patterns but I feel the scene exhausted and soon move on.
Walk of stars shadow play, starts coming together auto headlight beams provide the form on the sidewalk. Quick turn down Wilcox and back to the hotel for my bisected sleep.
Earlier meeting 9 am LACP. Ibarionex talks us through the day’s assignment. Work the Hollywood Farmer’s Market applying yesterday’s mantra. Partnered up with Jamie the movie poster photographer, our assignment; 45 minutes of shooting the market, 15 minutes of shooting without looking through the viewfinder. Then portraits in selected locations, three each.
The assignment, six principles, was beginning to take effect and I shot scenes that felt right accordingly. The portrait shoot felt less successful, but a stretch in good directions. Three subjects down, I would have picked a different location now knowing.
Grab a lunch and head back to LACP for culling and critique. After about five hours shooting, lunch, culling, and selections we started the critique at about two. Five images; one shot blind, three shot according to principle, and one portrait. Discussion and review, this time facilitated by Ibarionex but explored by the participants. Lively and helpful. Talking through images in detail; discussion of why elements work and don’t. How well each image meets the six principles, how and why over and over. 6 PM, last image reviewed, I felt energized and happy to have been there.
The punch line: it is pretty rare to have someone turn down your request for a photo.
October 19th, I attended an Eric Kim street photography workshop in Portland, OR. A single day, all day workshop there was a total of five participants counting me. It made for an intimate and focused session.
The goal was to conquer your fears in street photography. This is an important topic for the budding street photographer. Judging by the number of posts online I see that say something like: “I’m looking for a discrete camera for street…” a lot of people are fearful. For me, I’ve always believed that people have their own f**king problems; they don’t really care what you are doing. But I had a weird hangup too. I’m not sure what the origin of the hangup was, but I was reluctant to take pictures of people on the street. It was a strange thing, because I’m not shy; generally not afraid to talk to anyone. To save thousands of hours of psycho-analysis I signed up for this workshop.
“Street photography” seems pretty popular although I seldom see any practitioners. It makes sense that it would be popular. Many of the great and best known photographers are street photographers. Really, how many people know the name of the guy that shoots brilliant and beautiful burrito images for Taco Bell? But even the most oblivious have a pretty good chance of knowing of HCB.
The ready availability of streets or public places and the low technical threshold place this form at the forefront of easy access photography. No hiking required, no expensive studio equipment, no paid models. All you need is a vision, a camera, and a minimum of guts.
The 15 NOs…
After a short time with introductions Eric gave the first assignment. Break into pairs and head out to the Portland streets. Ask people if they mind if we take to picture of them; if they say the don’t mind: go all in. Take pictures while giving direction (look up, stand on one foot, stare at the camera, …) and take at least 15 images. If they say no, just move on to the next subject. As it turns out, there is nearly an infinity of subjects, so one “no” isn’t going to ruin your day. In fact the entire goal of the exercise was to rack up 15 nos. That is have 15 people tell you that you can’t take their picture! I failed. I managed to find 8 people that said no, and that was after really trying to figure out the “type” that would say no. Guess what? No damage done. I kept photographing, no one attacked me or called for help, or even expressed the most minor annoyance. Great learning experience!
The take then ask…
We met up after the 15 nos assignment to review our results and talk through what we’d learned. The next assignment was just as fascinating. We were to go out onto the streets and very overtly take someones picture. Then attempt to catch their eye and ask if they’d mind if we took their picture.
Yes; do it then ask permission. Like many things in life, in street photography it’s often better to ask forgiveness rather than permission. And that is what this assignment taught. It also taught that if you don’t directly confront someone it’s quite likely they’ll pretend you aren’t there.
We found it really challenging to catch the eye of a subject after the photo was taken. They knew I took the photo. I was standing RIGHT THERE with a 28mm lens so I had to be pretty close to make a photo. But the subject would choose to keep walking or standing at the bus stop or eating and pretend nothing happened. It’s a strange social contract.
If the subject did allow their eye to be caught, it was easy to take a few pictures, often with direction. For this guy in the diner, I had motioned for him to hold his hand so the camera could see the ring. No problem.
First off its was a real pleasure meeting and working with Eric, Nancy, Matt, Max, and Anton. In the exercises having a wing man for support was super! It provided someone to share the experience with and talk through the challenges as they occur.
I feel like I’m cured of whatever weird malady had been affecting my street photography.
Back in my home town, I’ve been applying the stuff that Eric talked us through. It’s pretty fun to do the take then ask technique and effective at producing interesting images.
Ultimately, I would recommend this workshop. Eric creates a workshop environment that is open and direct. He ties the discussion to the work and has useful and creative assignments. I had the luxury to travel to Portland for this one, but I can certainly recommend you’d take the opportunity to workshop with Eric where ever happens.