We were gathered around a truck filled with pumpkins, corn, bunches of tied chiles and other picturesque tidbits, plus a bleached elk skull for good measure.
The idea was to photograph it all. The problem was we had too much of a good thing.
It’s almost impossible to point a camera in New Mexico and not find something worthy of a photograph. Our group of 18 would-be photo champs ran around in an artistic froth that morning, photographing virtually anything that crossed our viewfinders.
Through this exercise and others like it, we hoped to become better photographers. That was why were enrolled in a photo workshop.
At the photo critique the next day, there were a few inspired shots, but most of it was … well, ordinary.
Until one single photo hit the screen. Orsolya Gibson, the youngest and perhaps least experienced of our group, had shoved her camera into a yellow newspaper box and captured a single yellow flower growing into it through a crack.
The interior of the newspaper box filled the slide, so that all you saw was this golden tunnel with radiating light surrounding the flower. The dreamy glow was something you’d find in your imagination rather than in a weathered box on an old road. And it illustrated just why we were all there: to find a new perspective for our photography, to jump-start our creativity, to learn a more interesting way of looking at the world so that our photographs would transcend the mundane.
In this era of specialized travel, the photographic workshop is one of the hottest new vacation options. It makes sense. As people become increasingly sophisticated travelers, they want to do more than just sit in a bus and look at quaint churches. And eventually, many want to do more than just snap shots of their friends in front of monuments. And so, last fall 18 of us gathered in Santa Fe for the Travel Photography Workshop led by noted photographer Lisl Dennis. Dennis, who has led workshops for 15 years and published a series of instructional photo books, has her own distinctive way of looking at the world. Her photos are lean and simple, bursting with bright colors and acutely focused on a single subject often seen from an odd angle.
“My aim isn’t to clone my own style, but to get people to move off from where they are,” she explained early on.
Each morning, we gathered in a meeting room at our hotel for four hours of lecture, slide-showing and critique. Each afternoon, we were free to wander and experiment with our new techniques.
From Day One, we were urged to pay attention to what’s in our viewfinder. “I’m an admitted control freak,” Lisl said. To this end, she usually uses a tripod, then carefully checks her image. She might drape fox pelts over a distractingly shiny doorknob or move a bunch of leaves to block an inappropriate road sign.
The tighter your focus, she said, the more important it is to pay attention to debris - a twig at the edge of a picture of colorful skirts, a distracting shadow, a crooked door jamb. This might not work if you’re grabbing a shot of vendors in some camera-shy Central American Indian village. But for portraits, old churches or some wonderfully colorful collection of fruit, it makes sense.
Dennis’s other aim was to inspire our creativity. “A lot of people come here with restrictive baggage from books and camera clubs: never have your subject dead center in the photo, the rule of thirds, never chop off parts of people. It’s my task here to release you from that.”
After only one morning’s lecture, we were all paying more attention to the rhythms of designs, to closing in on a single item and, above all, to color.
If Dennis has a trademark, it’s body parts used in unconventional ways. In one photo, she cut off an East Indian man just above the nose, showcasing his salt and pepper beard against the texture of his cotton shawl. In another, she again focused tightly on a man’s head but had the man kneel in front of a friend so that the friend’s cummerbund served as the backdrop.
Even landscapes get the Dennis treatment. Disappointed with flat beige sandstone ruins in Jordan, she composed a photo using her husband, Landt’s, torso at the bottom of the frame. His green shirt and blue pants added interest and color. Another time, she photographed mountains over the rear end of a spotted horse. Since our workshop was “travel photography,” we touched on a variety of trip-related problems, from whether to pay for a photo (money is a no-no, but offering to send a copy of your photo is OK) to danger (pay attention to State Department advisories), theft (don’t pack your equipment in shiny, expensive cases that shout what’s inside) and inertia (don’t let shyness, bad weather or laziness rob you of a good photo).
Dennis said she has seen a major change over the years in the people who take her photo workshops.
Three things have caused this. The development of video cameras has siphoned off many photographers. “Point-and-shoot” cameras have lured away the casual snapshot takers. And quality cameras have become more automated and sophisticated, so that virtually anybody can take a technically correct photo. This has freed people to concentrate on the creative aspect.
So what’s left today are the serious hobby photographers. “I’m seeing a much higher level of aesthetic and technical sophistication at my workshops these days,” Dennis said.
In the middle of our week, Dennis suggested we visit a tourist attraction named Las Golondrinas, one of those living museums with people in period dress.
We descended upon the place en masse. It was two days before a festival, which meant there were some staff people and vegetable displays but no other tourists milling about. Thus, we had the costumed docents all to ourselves. We grabbed one particularly amenable chap named Jim, whose white shirt and black hat set off his ocher skin perfectly. We posed him in every possible way for a good hour. The red of the adobe, the rich greens of the squashes, the cobalt of the sky and the starkness of Jim’s outfit and skin added up to photo heaven.
That evening, we picked up our first batch of processed film and the bubble burst. Many folks were disappointed with the results.
But in fairness, the five slides we had shown at the beginning of the week were our life’s best work. This second showing was from two days’ shooting in rushed conditions often with difficult light.
Another workshop leader once called this the Wednesday slump, when everyone’s getting tired, a bit burned out and hypercritical of their work. Folks at this point usually feel like drop-kicking their camera…. And then it gets better.
It was right after this that Orsolya found the yellow flower in the newspaper box. Her photo was like a special gift - an inspiration. We set off the next day with renewed spirits. And by the end of the week, we could all see vast improvement.
MEMO: IF YOU GO Photo workshops come in various formats. Some are basically vacation trips (usually to exotic places) with casual guidance from a photo pro. Others are like university short courses, with hours of lecture. Some combine the two, usually having instruction in the morning and photo trips in the afternoon, or a day of lecture followed by a day of field work. In choosing a photo workshop, determine your desired intensity, focus and skill level. Do you want a trip with casual guidance or all-day lectures? Do you want instruction strictly on technical matters, such as exposure and lighting, or would you prefer to concentrate on creativity and art? Are you an interested beginner, a skilled hobbyist or an experienced pro? Beyond this are even more choices. Workshops range widely in subject: travel photography, portraits, landscapes, wildlife, black-and-white photography, fine-art photography and even workshops for electronic imaging, where you learn how to scan photos into computers and then manipulate them. You can get even more specific, deciding to zero in not only on portraits, but portraits for magazines, portraits under varying light or portraits of nudes. Among the many workshop centers, four stand out: Santa Fe Photographic Workshops in New Mexico (505) 983-1400; Maine Photographic Workshops (207) 236-8581; Anderson Ranch Art Center in Snowmass, Colo. (303) 923-3181, and Palm Beach photographic workshops in Florida (407) 391-7557. Each of these offers an array of workshops with different focuses, skill levels and instructors. Each puts out a directory giving detailed information on the various courses. Lisl Dennis runs her photo workshop once a year during June or July through Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, PO Box 9916, Santa Fe, NM 87504. The workshop, film processing fees and meals run $890. Housing at the workshop’s retreat center is another $290 per person, double occupancy. Attention to gear is also important. Minimum gear includes: two camera bodies (in case one breaks), lenses that range from at least 28mm (20mm is better) to 200mm, tripod, strobe and either a photo vest or fanny pack so you don’t have to spend all day lugging a 30 pound gear bag over your shoulder. Bring extra batteries and lots of film, since both always cost more on the road.
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Story and photos by Yvette Cardozo Special to Travel
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Story and photos by Yvette Cardozo Special to Travel
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