On the 'Horizon' for Weekend Workshops

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works
Tuesday, August 9, 2005; 11:05 AM

Over 25 years as a professional photographer I have attended -- and now have taught -- a fair number of photography workshops and classes.

In fact, it is fair to say that my transition from Washington correspondent (for the New York Daily News) to freelance photographer and writer (for Washingtonpost.com among others) came about largely because of the good time I had in the hothouse atmosphere of the Maine Photographic Workshops in Rockport in the early 1980s. Those early workshops helped reinforce my desire (read: stiffen my spine) to leave daily journalism and pursue commercial and documentary photography fulltime.

At the extremes there are two kinds of photo workshop: expensive total immersion classes that take at least a week, and one day (or partial day) seminars in which you look, listen and take notes -- but rarely make any pictures.

Happily, there is now a third alternative: weekend workshops that combine intense, hands-on experience with expert teaching, and still get you back in time for work on Monday. But first some history:

I came to Rockport and the Maine Photographic Workshops on the recommendation of my then-fiancee Judy, who had studied there years earlier and who had described how she would spend an intense week photographing and learning from a master photographer (in the postcard setting of coastal Maine) -- while tuning out virtually everything else in her life that week.

To a then-newspaper reporter like me, whose life was dictated by deadlines and breaking events, such a respite seemed not just idyllic, but paradisiacal. My first Maine workshop, which Judy attended with me, was in location lighting. It was taught by Neil Selkirk, a New Yorker by way of England, who is one of the best in the business. It says something that in subsequent years I took two more intensely hands-on master classes with Neil, and that he and his wife Susan have become friends of ours.

But week-long workshops, even with a great teacher like Neil, even set in a beautiful place like Rockport, Maine, can have drawbacks.

First, it's a huge chunk of time that not everyone may have available to spend, especially those with other family commitments, not to mention spouses and kids with differing ideas about how to use precious vacation time.

Second, classes like these ain't cheap -- nowadays some of the higher-end classes at some of the best known workshops in the United States easily can run $850 for the week -- and that's just for tuition: never mind travel, room, meals and car rental.

Alternatively, there are one-day workshops and seminars, often taught by well known names who can pack an auditorium and who are masters, not only of photography but of Power Point.

These are fine as far as they go -- they are a lot cheaper than a week at a workshop and they do pack a lot of information into a short span of time. I recall one great all-day affair I attended years ago, taught by the well known New York fashion and advertising shooter Nancy Brown. The event, sponsored by the American Society of Media Photographers, took place at one ASMP member's spacious DC-area studio and Nancy ran through any number of lighting setups, using live models.

It was wonderfully informative, but hands-on it was not. And, given the size of the crowd, it was tough to get any real face time with Nancy. The conversation flow was, of necessity, largely one-way.

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