What happens when all the air comes out of the balloon?

I talked to three different photographers who used to make good livings in recent years teaching workshops across the United States.  All of them say the same thing.  Basically, the air is almost totally out of the balloon.  The current expression of the photographic workshop is being killed off the same way bacteria in a petri dish die out when the food in the dish is all eaten up. 

I thought about making workshop teaching part of my pie chart of doing business but I could never figure out how much of my life I wanted to give up traveling and pontificating/teaching when all I really want to do is to take photographs. Every once in a while I teach one for the guys at Precision Camera and it's great because they handle the registration and all the details.  But I'm careful to only commit to one day workshops because I know I can make it through one day and deliver a certain amount of value to students but two days always seems like a stretch.  A full week would seem like a prison term.  To me.  I can only imagine how bad it would be for the students.

My problem with workshops is that every student comes with a different set of expectations and levels of experience.  And what they think they want to know is so different than what I think would be best for them to know.  Most (not all) of the workshops I see and hear about, and most of the ones they want me to do are about technical stuff:  How to use small flashes.  How to use more small flashes.  How to use small flashes, part 2.  And of course, Using small flashes for a number of different images.  

While not connected to workshops my publisher recently asked me to do a revision of my first book, Minimalist Lighting, Professional Techniques for Lighting on Location.  But really,  I think the whole category or subject is played out.  Neil van Niekirk has two great books about the subject from the same publisher.  And there are ten or twenty more from that one concern.  When my book first came out in early 2008 the only competitive book was Joe McNally's but it wasn't so much step by step as it was photos with explanations.  Now the same niche has nearly 50 similar titles available at Amazon.  I'd probably make some money reprising the book, just from name recognition,  but I think that petri dish is well populated.  And so is the niche for similar workshops.

But there's a big ass niche that stands empty.  I think the next wave of workshops (and one I enthusiastically embrace and invite) will be workshops and books about "WHY PHOTOGRAPH?"  How to get in touch with "why" you feel compelled to spend the money on gear and why you want to take images.  Knowing the answers to these questions will be much more valuable in the long run to every photographer.  And it's the idea that knowing ourselves and our motivations will give our images their real power and their real meaning.  How do you learn inspiration?  I think it comes from falling in love with the subject....

The problem is that there are a lot fewer people out there who have the chops to teach something like this.  Don't look at me I wouldn't know where to start.  And that's why something like this would be so valuable.  The most valuable creative experience I ever paid for was a two day workshop by a guy named Ian Summers.  He did a series of workshops called, "Heart Storming" workshops and he really did a good job making you look inside yourself to see why you do what you do and how to excel at it. I went in as a skeptic and came out changed.  In a good way.  What did I learn?  "Be true to your own vision."  Find the thing you love.

But the problem is that there are lots of technicians who can teach you about lighting ratios and using one light or no light or ten lights, but there are damn few teachers who can take you to the next level of inspiration.  And even fewer who can teach you to have the courage to take the path less traveled but more in line to your own inner core.  If you find a workshop like that, take it.

Lately I've been seeing the typical, cyclical return of "Zen" and photography.  And the inevitable workshops that teach you how to be dispassionate about being passionate.  I understand but I don't understand.  How's that for a Zen koan?  These workshops might be useful to slow you down and make you more mindful.  But mindful of what?  Your unhappy childhood?  Surely you can find something you love more than that....

In the long run a good weekend spent sitting in a beach chair, staring at the ocean,  and clearing out your brain may be the best medicine.  Or it could be that you just need to stop reading blogs like this and go out with your camera and let your muse come to you.  After all, if you make yourself inaccesible to passion and inspiration how will it know where and when to strike you?  

Here's what I've come to believe about writing and photography:  The more you do it the better you get at it.  The less you think about it the happier you are.  The less you think about technique the better your art looks and reads.  The less you care about it the better and more sincere it becomes.  Put the brain on autopilot and shoot with your heart.

Wanna take a workshop?  Don't look at me.  I don't know what the hell I'm doing.  And that's okay with me.

These photos have nothing and everything to do with what I wrote up above.

I just like the way they look and I have a lot of respect for the art of four color printing.


Dave Jenkins said...

A long-time client and close friend, a top-flight designer who is also a fine photographer and has an MFA, said to me the other day that he was thinking about teaching photography at the college level.

I've thought about teaching photography or giving workshops from time to time, but as I said to him, "Mike, I have this deep-seated conviction that photography can be learned, but not taught."

Of course the tools and techniques of photography can be taught, and they are important, but only in the service of vision. And I don't think that vision can be taught. Teaching can maybe sharpen vision, but it can't impart vision where there is none.

Anyway, that's what I think.

Gordon said...

Craig Tanner tries to walk down that road on his 'Next Step' workshops.


wjl (Wolfgang Lonien) said...

I remember the muse kissing me late. Like last year for instance, when I visited photokina with my brother. There was a poster maker with a huge poster of a lens test chart, and they placed a naked and body-painted good-looking young woman in front of it, a bit like the way David Bailey photographed his wife. I was in the crowd photographing her. Only after my brother and me got out of the hall it occured to me that I should have taken pictures of the crowd instead, with maybe only showing part of her at the extreme broder (like from a 45 degree angle slightly behind her). Oh well...

atmtx said...

I really like the 3rd photograph with the blue glow.


A great post Kirk. How do you come up with such thoughtful words of wisdom, often 2 or three times a day? Please keep it coming. Your posts are always a great read and truly food for thought - especially this one.

Ditto your thoughts on the magic of four colour process.

Anonymous said...


maybe you should look at this book
"Towards a Philosophy of Photography"


there are no real answers but you'll get some good starting points of thinking "why do I take pictures"


Anonymous said...

As a commercial printer I am glad you to hear you have a lot of respect for us. Because some of the "creative" types I deal with ( ad agencies mainly ) seem to have nothing but contempt for commercial printers.I have often wanted to see some of those folks work in a print shop for 2 weeks and see all of the production/color issues that we fix for them behind the scenes that they don't even know about. I would bet they would then feel the way you do about 4c offset printers.
By the way the top photo looks like one of our press's .. Heidelberg MO 5 color. The "blue" photo is an exposure frame for making plates, which for the most part is no longer used in the industry. Everything is now computer to plate with laser imaged press plates and no chemicals "very green" as they say.
Love reading your blog


Tom said...

A friend of mine who is a former art/commercial photographer and I (as his assistant) are teaching a small group of hobbyists on an irregular basis (6-8 times a year) for free. It's always very rewarding for me, when one of our students makes a good picture, because he/she followed my guidance. And I'm grateful that my friend (who's twenty years older than I and photographically lightyears ahead) asked me if I wanted to volunteer too. It made me a better photographer (as a hobyist) too.

Anonymous said...

I assume you've read Robert Adams Why People Photograph.

kirk tuck said...

I have read Robert Adam's book and countless others. My essays are meant to be rhetorical. I am not actually looking for guidance but thinking out loud about the choices we all make.

That said, it's good to post books like Robert Adams. Everyone should read more. Unless they already read enough....

Frank Grygier said...

Why do I photograph and why do I feel compelled to invest in all the gear. Why do I attend workshops searching for the grail. How do I overcome the fear of not knowing the proper technique and exposing myself to criticism. How to commit emotionally to my subject and show that love to the world. Why am I taking this journey. I wish I new the answers. Fear is the enemy. He who conquers himself is the greatest warrior.

Travis said...

I couldn't agree with you more than when you write "The less you think about, the happier you are".

So true. Go shoot, stop thinking.

Nathan Black said...

The most useful class I've taken (come to think of it, the only class I've taken) was a six week informal class taught by Robert Shults.

His approach was to introduce us to the work of early masters: Stieglitz, Weston, Robert Frank, Eggleston. From there he described how photography came to be an art form instead of just a purely representative medium. Then we discussed what we wanted to do with our photography. We brought in photos (some in print, mostly in digital format), and talked about how they related to the themes we wanted to express. We spent a minimal time talking about how cameras work.

It was a great class and changed the direction of my photography. I don't think his class is offered any more, unfortunately. It was a great resource for the community.

Also, as a zazen practitioner, I don't think the purpose of zen is to necessarily become dispassionate about your passion. It is more to let go of imagining the world to be more than it is. If you are passionate about something, so long as you aren't being unrealistic, then you are just passionate about something. If anything staring at a wall every day has put me more in touch with my passion and helped me to drop some of my fears about the path.

Now what they teach in the seminars might be a lot different from my experience. But so be it, everyone has their own path. For me, I'm going to go out shooting.

kirk tuck said...

A line about a wise man in India confronting Alexander the great (in Steven Pressfield's book on Alexander):

"I have conquered my need to conquer the world."

Mark Hespenheide said...


If you'll let me say a few words: Teaching is hard. I say that from the bottom of my heart, but I'm biased... I'm a teacher. I have a graduate degree in science and teach physics and math at the high school level and have done so for a decade. The only single, unifying thing that I can tell you about teaching after ten years in the profession is that it's hard.

Or, at least, it's hard if you want to do it well. I'm not saying this as a jab at you or any other singe person in particular, but the core of teaching is a desire to make your students better. Not only that, but every single one of your students is different: every one is at a different stage in their learning, and every one learns better from different methods or exercises. Your knowledge of the subject is, frankly, less important than your ability to communicate that knowledge.

I think that, with the explosion of digital cameras and the exponential growth in the number of serious amateur photographers, a number of good-to-great professional photographers saw their traditional income streams dwindle and tried to look around for something else to supplement their incomes. Teaching photography seems like a viable option, until you come up against the truth that teaching is not easy. When you hit the student who doesn't understand your explanation (even though you cherish your explanation and your understanding, and it's worked just fine for everyone else up until this point), what do you do? Do you shrug internally and think your student is an idiot, or do you struggle to find some other way of explaining it, even if that challenges your own understanding of the topic? If you're a teacher, it's your job to help your students to the best of your ability, even if they're not where you think they should be.

Again, this isn't a personal note. Having read your blog for a year or three, I think you'd make a good teacher. But the fact that you consult as an advisor for a college rather than teach at that college tells me that you understand something of the distinction between the two activities. I'm not saying I'd make a great photography teacher, either (and I'm not all that sure that I'm a great physics teacher, for that matter). But I'm pretty sure that there are a bunch of good or even great photographers out there offering workshops whose passion isn't teaching, but rather photographing.

In my small high school, my students don't get to chose who they study physics with. If they want to learn physics, they're stuck with me as a teacher and my ideas, informed by the profession as a whole, as to what's important. If you're an adult looking at taking a photography course or workshop, think long and hard about what you want out of that opportunity before you commit to it. More than anything else, you might simply need a dedicated block of time to work on your photography.

Thanks for letting me rant.

kirk tuck said...

Mark, First of all, thanks for taking time to write. If you think of the blogs I've written about the subject I think you'll see that we're on exactly the same page. Teaching a subject that can be objectively measured is tough but trying to teach something that has no objective metrics is even tougher and, I think philosophical thought presupposes so much foundational study that's not valued in our culture, that teaching a workshop aimed at self-examination and cultural context is a losing proposition.

I do want to correct one supposition you made. You mention that I sit on a board instead of teaching, which is true, but I taught for several years in the college of fine arts at the University of Texas at Austin and worked with undergraduates as well as a handful of graduate students. I also spent several years as a teaching assistant and lab instructor at the same school. I am not without some teaching experience.

I resigned because I didn't love the process and didn't have the passion to teach. And I think it was a wise decision. Knowing my personality I would have tried to bend all the students to do things just the way I do them and that would make me one of the least effective teachers extant.

Thanks for your service to our kids. God knows they need people like you!!!

arg said...

When I think of this topic, the gap you mention Kirk, I think of Dewitt Jones. I love his 'passion first' approach to creativity. I can't say it's helped me a lot because I'm still not creative, but he sure has inspired me to press on.

Low Budget Dave said...

Good comment. When you teach your workshop, be sure to include that comment. Also include other insight directly from your blog.

Go with your inner accountant: Wisdom that people pay for is more likely to sink in than wisdom they read for free on your blog.

Merle said...

"And what they think they want to know is so different than what I think would be best for them to know."

So, maybe a workshop called "What I want You to Know"? All camera types, sizes, models welcome. Go shooting as a loose group in, say, early morning light. Meet up for coffee. Go shoot again. Gather images from everyone and use the afternoon as a slideshow where anyone can stop any image going by and everyone critiques that image in a "why is this good?" "why I like this." sort of way. From there ease into the technical of how to do what made that image good, if you even have to go there (and you will for some people). Go shooting again in the evening. Etc.

Obviously, you could do similar things with portraits, studio, food, stills, art, whatever.

Of course, your workshop would be much better than I've described. But only if you were enthused about working that way with all sorts of odd folks like us. Just sayin' it doesn't have to be technical, just you.

george logan said...

I thought you might have read Robert Adams; Why People Photograph, its an excellent book others should read imho.

In the UK there are a lot of pro photographers doing workshops by way of diversification and generally they don't have the qualifications to do so. They tend to be very narrow in their photographic vision and cannot address other styles or genres, basically as they don't know or are in a creative rut themselves. This of course is not beneficial to photography in general as it becomes all about making a clone. Yes people wish to learn from someone they admire but it should be a crossing of paths, not for a piggyback.

In the UK one photographer who's workshop I attended (20+yrs ago) changed my life was John Blakemore, who not only is a great photographer but experienced in teaching creativity.
His own 'workshop' book (he has several of his own work) is really about looking at a subject, very highly recommended.
Please read the Amazon comments, they say it all.


Park Street said...

Of all the speakers I have seen over the years talk about photography the one that touched me the deepest about why a person photographs and the love of photography was Dewitt Jones - http://www.dewittjones.com/

Mike Shipman said...

I always tell my students, I can teach you how the camera works and about the physics and behavior of light, but I can't teach you how to see. I can guide you, but it's impossible for me to tell you what subject is best, what composition is more appealing, whether you should over or underexpose or use a shallow or deep depth of field, flash or no flash, alter your color balance, or any of a thousand different adjustments, methods and techniques to make your photograph appealing. I can show you how the software works and what it can do, but there are no recipes to a great photograph.

I think it's easier for most photographers to rely on technology rather than their inner vision. Plus, technology is easier to blame and easier to fix than personal vision (and in some cases replaces personal vision).

I'm also way more interested in leading workshops that explore the "why", but attendance at those workshops is mostly non-existent compared to the "how" type workshops I also do (even in these workshops I tend to teach more of "why" than "how").

I would much rather lead a group of 4 (or 2, or 1) photographers who are really thinking about their role and participation in the artform than an auditorium full of copycats and "one-button-processors".

I think the photographers who "get it" or are interested in "finding it" will find those workshops that delve below the surface. If you're interested in reaching those individuals, keep trying. There isn't a recipe for teaching that stuff, either. And, it's not really teaching, but guiding or mentoring; more of a collaboration than a teacher-student relationship. That's how I like to look at it, anyway.

The rest will go on pushing buttons and hoping for the best.