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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Strength (and Skill) in Numbers

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

There are workshops to improve your writing; classes to punch up your cooking.

There are seminars to make you a better investor; retreats to make you a better person.

From learning to dance, to learning to cope with death and dying, there are offerings in group schooling that, in most cases, have at least two things in common: a group of like-minded people and their willingness to pay for expert instruction.

My wife Judy and I are no exceptions. The other day, for example, my photography partner, who also is a sculptor, began her first welding class. Years ago, she took a woodworking class – all to improve her skills as a three-dimensional artist.

As for me, my Monday nights are devoted to my continuing language lessons at Casa Italiana, a community center in downtown Washington, DC. There my fellow Italophiles and I try to mold our stiff adult minds and tongues around the musical rhythms of the most beautiful language in the world.

[Note: I haven't even mentioned our weekly yoga classes.]

At Casa Italiana my fellow students and I often share a second- or third-generation's desire to learn the language that our parents or grandparents (in my case on my mother's side) spoke with ease but which they, as proud new Americans, saw no need to carry on.

I suppose it would be possible for me to go to the library or buy a few books and teach Italian to myself. It would be more of a stretch, as it were, but still theoretically do-able, for Judy and me to buy a book of yoga postures and dope them out on our own.

In fact, there is a lot to be said for being self-taught. For the most part I am a self-taught photographer. The only art classes I took in high school and college were the mandatory ones that were designed more to be endured than to inspire. Though I now make my living with my camera (and my pen) there is no certificate on my wall attesting to my successful completion of an approved course of photographic study. Much of what I learned initially about cameras and lenses came from books and magazines that I read on my own.

I am, it can be said, a photo autodidact.

Yet, for all that solo study, there is no way in heaven I could have become the photographer I am today if I had not also plunged lens-first into a series of intense photo workshops and classes over the course of several years, long after I had become an avid amateur.

Some things, I believe, cannot be learned in a vacuum. And photography is one of them.

I say that because photography is at once a very technical, yet also personal, art form. And each of these aspects benefits from interplay with other people.

Simple example of the first: The notorious, counter-intuitive Hasselblad film magazine. I defy almost anyone to correctly load film into this thing the first time while only looking at a diagram in a book. It's so much easier to have someone show you how to load this ingenious film back, all the while you are sure they are doing it wrong.

Simple example of the second: going out the first time and taking pictures of people you don't know. Frightening right? Or at least nervous-making. But if you are in a workshop and everyone else has the same assignment – and you can see them stumbling along the same as you – suddenly the assignment seems less forbidding, and even may turn out to be enjoyable.

Of the many interpersonal ways one can learn photography (or pretty much anything, really) three come to mind most quickly. First, there is the formal school route, perhaps in a degree program, involving set classes and the aforementioned "approved course of study."

Second, you could sign on as an (often unpaid) apprentice or assistant to a professional photographer, trading scut work and equipment schlepping for the chance to learn the craft up close and personal while the pro goes about the business of making pictures.

Finally, there is the workshop option, that meant so much to me.

Of these three, it may surprise that I'd rank the most formal approach – the university or tech school training route – last, behind assisting and attending workshops, valuable though formal training might be. Granted, courses like these perform the valuable function of grounding you in your craft, and exposing you to disciplines (like, say, the 4x5 view camera or fine art digital imaging) that you otherwise never might experience. But if the student (that's you, bunky) looks on this set of prescribed courses only as just so many obstacles to be overcome, just so many tickets to be punched, before landing a high-paying job in the exciting field of professional photography, you may be in for a letdown.

What I am saying is that formal training can be just that: too formal, with precious little of the yeasty real world thrown into the mix: to tumble preconceptions and pretensions. Keep in mind too that, with thousands of people looking to enter the same field as you, an MFA in photography carries less weight today than it once might have. [And at least I am consistent in this prejudice: as an ex-newspaper reporter and editor, I'll take a kid who has worked his or her way up from copyperson to reporter over a fresh-faced J-school grad any day.]

Working as an assistant to a fulltime photographer is a common way that many younger shooters learn. In fact, the danger is in becoming so good at assisting (sometimes for a succession of big-time, big name shooters) that you become reluctant to leave the photographic nest of your employer's studio and go out on your own.

A more common downside to assisting is that these folks literally do all the heavy lifting. Spend a day lugging hundreds of pounds of lights, stands, props, camera cases and who knows what else to a location, then a couple of hours setting it all up, only to strike it all down and load it back into the van, and at the end of the day all you'll want will be a cold beer, a hot meal and a warm bed. Since the photographer you're working for may be as tired as you are (he or she has had the added mental pressure of dealing with the clients and art directors, not to mention having actually to produce salable images) that there may be precious little time for real one-on-one teaching.

Having said that, many assistants I know say that this real-world working environment is the best "classroom" experience they've ever had.

The workshop route, for me anyway, was the best of all worlds. Since I had a day job as a Washington correspondent, I could afford to spend my vacations and free evenings devoting myself to a hobby that was turning into a new career. Though Judy's and my workshop years were spent in Maine, similar experience may be had at a growing number of other schools around the country, including ones in Santa Fe, Palm Beach and at the Anderson Ranch in Colorado.

The beauty of these classes is that they are almost literally total immersion: all day and evening sessions taught by qualified instructors – or big name photographers in Master Classes – with absolutely no distraction from the outside world. [That is, if you are smart enough to leave your kids, cell phone and forwarding numbers at home.] In most cases, workshops tend to limit the size of their classes to a reasonable number (under 20, say) so that you can really get to know your fellow shooters and not feel as if you are back in college in a huge lecture hall listening to a star professor way down there at the podium.

I really think the high-intensity weeks I spent learning location lighting at the Maine Photographic Workshops nearly twenty years ago were the equivalent of semesters of study in a more structured academic environment.

And the food and the scenery were a hell of a lot better, to boot.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: www.amazon.com

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