When you first arrive at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, Reid Callanan, the company’s founder, will tell you no matter what course you take the week is not about creating masterpieces, it’s about learning new approaches to photography, opening your mind and eye to fresh ideas, and challenging your skills.
It was all that and more.
My instructor was a fine art photographer and Sam Abell disciple, Brett Erickson. The Santa Fé workshop: “Visions of the American West”.
My fellow students and I (nine of us in total), quickly learned that for Brett, “visions” was the operative word. The American West was a backdrop, a muse for our creative efforts, and we would explore these visions with black and white photography.
When the workshop began, Brett explained that his main objective was for us to see the world differently; to be keenly aware of the textures, shapes, and colors that make up a scene and use them to our advantage. He wanted us to discover the story within the photo, the nuances, and the complexities, both literally and figuratively, in order to communicate our vision successfully. In short: to thoughtfully craft images rather than just “take” them.
Below are five lessons (and one neat trick) I learned that I believe will help me (and perhaps you) do just that:
1. Identify What You Like About the Subject or Scene
When you come across something you want to shoot, take a moment to ask yourself what you like about it? Brett explained, “We choose compositions because of the way they make us feel.” Meaning more often than not, it’s emotion, not intellect that directs our eye.
At first, I found it difficult to articulate what drew my attention beyond the surface (ie. the light is really pretty or I love the way that looks), but the more I thought about my reaction, the better I perceived the scene. Taking the time to reflect—even for a few seconds—provided me with valuable insight on how to make an image that would convey my feelings more accurately.
A Simple Example
Take this very simple example: Minutes before I landed in New York from Santa Fe, I took a picture of the wing and the beautiful twinkling lights below (above left). Then I remembered to ask myself why I was drawn to the scene. I realized it wasn’t just the beautiful lights; I loved the idea that I was privy to an extraordinary view of the city from my own little seat in the clouds.
With that in mind, I composed the next shot to include some the window frame, giving the photo a completely different feel. A person looking at the image now has more context. They become a passenger peering through the window with me which is the essence of what I wanted to communicate.
2. Instill Your Images with Poetry and Metaphor
What makes an image compelling? Brett says, “poetry and metaphor.” Since that’s a tad esoteric, consider it a sense of depth and meaning that goes beyond the literal scene. What story can you tell? What observation about life, love, friendship or society can you work into your image that will make a viewer connect on a level that stirs the emotions?
Every day Brett challenged us to create images with poetry using metaphor. Below are a few of my attempts.
On our second day of the workshop, we visited El Santuario de Chimayo, a tiny Roman Catholic church built in the early 1800s. A modern-day pilgrimage site receiving over 300,000 visitors a year.
Outside the sanctuary, crosses made from pieces of unfinished lumber stood bleakly in front of the iron gate that separated the sanctuary from the parking lot. Behind a row of cars, I saw this small cross with the word “Hope” and the crudely carved phrase “Dear Lord Pray for Us All.” In my image, it was a passionate plea for help that I imagined had gone unanswered for “Hope” had fallen over.
Religion is a big business, even in the small town that plays host to Chimayo. In this photo, I wanted to show how commercialization feeds off of religion by featuring the mural of Mary juxtaposed to the litany of signs advertising local shops and businesses.
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On our last day of shooting, we ventured to a beautiful area with white rocks teaming with interesting shapes and textures. Brett’s assignment: use a model as a metaphor for something in nature. I was struck by the large, dark boulders that littered the white-washed wonderland. For this image, my model, Diaolo, became another rock dotting the rugged landscape.
3. Slow Down and Explore Your Options
Ever see something that you like, snap a picture and then move on? Yep, me too. Next time, slow down and explore your options.
In one exercise, Brett asked us to take five photos of something that made us feel. With each shot, we had to move closer (or move back) and reassess the picture anew. Did the light change? Was there something new to the scene that we hadn’t noticed before? Did the intimacy of a close-up better communicate our vision or did everything fall apart? The deliberateness of the process forced us to slow down and really look at what we were shooting thus providing new opportunities for inspiration.
When I walked up to this area of the Chimayo sanctuary (photo on the left below), the first thing that struck me was how the telephone poles in the background echoed the cross of the sanctuary building in the foreground. But as I walked closer, I saw the way the soft curves of the archway framed the rectangle door. Then I became intrigued by the stain of the wet adobe and how its soft lines mixed with the multiple triangles surrounding the door’s frame.
In the end, I felt the image to the right made a stronger statement than the wider angle that first grabbed my attention. If I hadn’t reminded myself to move in, I would have missed it entirely.
One afternoon, we went to Eaves Movie Ranch, a location used in countless westerns including The Ridiculous Six, starring Adam Sandler, currently in post-production. Thomas who oversees the ranch was one of our models and a perfect throwback to the genre with his cowboy hat and garb, long hair, and grizzly beard.
I took him to an old barn that had amazing light to shoot a portrait. At first, I photographed him close up and straight on, but when I experimented with various angles, I liked this framing the best. Here you can see a piece of the paddock and the supply shed in the background. I found it to be more visually interesting, with its subtle layers and horizontal lines, while adding greater context to the photo.
4. Make the most of composition tools.
Leading lines, diagonals, repetition, frames, patterns, layers, triads, triangles… these are elements photographers use to move the viewer’s eye through the frame creating a more compelling image. And that’s what we all want, right? It wasn’t the first time I’d thought about leading lines or patterns and the like, but working with Brett in a workshop environment brought my awareness and understanding to a whole new level.
In this image, I was drawn to the repetition. First, the eye focuses on the crosses to the right which is in focus. Then the vertical columns move the eye to the back where the crosses are repeated in the door and on the column to the left of the entrance. The lines in the ceiling also lead the eye to the back where the arches are repeated in the windows and doors.
This was taken from inside the studio doorway of a rather eccentric, 70+-year-old painter I met while shooting along Canyon road on our first day. I first noticed the sign on the door and I couldn’t help but think that it’s semi-schizophrenic handwriting suited the quirky artist. Outside, stood his old school bicycle, another glimpse into the man’s unique personality. I loved the combination of the two together.
From a composition perspective, the open doorway is a strong visual element that splits the image in two, thus grabbing the viewer’s attention. The horizontal plank below the sign is like an arrow leading the eye to the right to where it finds the bike, while the vertical edge of the door echoes the wood in the fence post.
Two horses snuggle in another shot from Eaves Movie Ranch. Besides the obvious “adorable” factor, the image combines three triangles, two are created by each of the horses’ heads while together they form one large triangle, keeping the eye fixed on the center and the equine bromance.
5. Wait Until the Next Day to Look at Your Pictures
During the workshop, I was struggling. Every day we there was a new assignment and every day I was convinced my work sucked. I did my best to create wonderful images that were exploding with poetry and metaphors, but nine times out of ten I wanted to throw my camera against a wall. Intellectually I knew what I was learning was incredibly valuable. Emotionally I hated that I wasn’t instantly fabulous. It was hard.
Ok, I put enormous pressure on myself. I think most creative folks do, which means if you’re reading this you probably know of what I speak.
Here’s my advice, if you’re not happy with the way a shoot is going to stick it out, do the best you can and then leave the pictures alone. If you keep going over it you’ll spin yourself into the depths of emotional self-flagellation.
When I stepped away and gave myself the opportunity to disconnect from the shoot and my frustration, I usually found that the images again weren’t so bad. In fact, sometimes I would surprise myself and find something I really thought was good. Perfectionism is a dangerous thing. Don’t let it get the best of you.
(A Trick) Try Shooting Black and White in Camera
When I first read Brett’s description of the class, he explained that monochromatic images would play a big part in our workshop and it was part of the reason I signed up. I love the look and feel of black and white photos but I’ve never felt particularly at ease creating them. Like most people, I shoot in color and then convert in post-production using Lightroom and Nik filters. More often than not, I’m not sure whether the conversion will look right until it’s done. It’s always been a bit of a crap shoot for me.
Brett wanted us to be able to see the world in black and white, to instinctively know how various colors would look in grey-scale so that we could be deliberate in the creation of our black and white images. His trick to train the eye: shoot black and white in camera
By setting my Canon 1-DX to monochrome and then changing the “image quality” to capture both a RAW file and a jpeg (Nikon users don’t need to add the jpeg), I could see a black and white jpeg on my LCD screen in real time, while simultaneously capturing a RAW color file for use later while editing. (You’ll want those color channels available so that you can tweak tonalities.)
I have a ways to go but I’m slowly understanding how colors will convert so that I’ll be able to spot compelling contrasts from the get-go. Eventually, I’ll be able to see the world in black and white without having to look at it on my LCD. At least that’s the plan.
If you have any questions or comments about the photos or the workshops, please ask in the comments below and I will be happy to answer. If you’ve been to SFPW or another workshop, I’d love to hear about your experience.
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