9.29.2011

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.