Why workshop?

A while ago I mentioned on Twitter that I had booked myself a place on a photography workshop. Someone commented on this in what felt like a throw-away remark, saying they had never seen the point of going on workshops. So I – in 140 characters! – sought to explain why this was important to me. Now that I’m just back from the workshop I booked on at the time, I thought I’d try and say more about it, and include some images from the time away (these are just the digital ones – I have yet to take the film rolls to be developed).

Achnahaird Bay

Achnahaird Bay

Firstly, it’s worth noting that I have no formal artistic training (unlike my correspondent, who has, I think, a degree in art/photography), and so for me, I hope that a workshop can serve partly to teach me something. Secondly, having a pretty intense full-time job means that if I get the time to go and photograph for a few days and do nothing but think about photography, that is really fantastic!  The week was a proper holiday, and I didn’t read a single academic text whilst away (even though I did have a book with me… I rarely travel without one!).

Thirdly, and most importantly for me, engaging with a photographer leading a workshop is about having someone critique what I do and help me move forward in my thinking and my photography.

Loch Bad a' Ghaill

Loch Bad a' Ghaill

My week away was with Bruce Percy, who has been running workshops for several years now.  Exactly two years before going on this Assynt workshop, I went (with my neighbour, Mabel Forsyth) to Torridon on one of his weekend workshops.  That was a great experience, as I wrote about here at the time.  So I was confident the week in Assynt would be a good week.

There are some people who seem to be workshop-regulars, going from one to the next all the time. I am not like that: I have attended a couple of other day-workshops in recent years, but have not been on residential workshops other than the one in Torridon and this one in Assynt.  So if you’re wanting me to offer comparisons, I can’t do so (though I have now heard quite a few horror stories of other workshops, some by really famous photographers… and no, I won’t say more on this).  My main purpose in going to Assynt with Bruce was that I wanted to rediscover something about my own reasoning and motivation for making photographs – especially landscapes – that I had found increasingly difficult to identify in recent times.  I felt I knew enough theory in terms of operating my cameras (though of course, Bruce was able to help me improve in certain areas, such as my exposures and hyperfocal focusing). But I felt I needed input on more important things, especially aspects of composition and how and why I frame the way I do or give more attention to certain things in a scene, and what all that says about my own ‘visioning process’ (sorry, I think that is a rather horrible phrase, but I can’t think of a more suitable one; pre-visualisation covers some of it, but is not the same thing).

Glencanisp Lodge, with view to Suilven

Glencanisp Lodge, with view to Suilven

Of course, this is not something that I discussed in any detail with Bruce before or during the workshop, because I knew from previous experience that this might come anyway – and it did.  One of the two key things for me in thinking about a workshop is that I have to like the photographs that the workshop leader makes, and I really love Bruce’s work – it offers depth and challenge, simplicity and elegance, in both his landscapes and portraits. Of course, I have no desire to create images that are like Bruce’s, even if I could do so, since they represent his vision and not mine; however, I feel I can relate to his vision. I have come to realise that the other key thing for me is that I have to feel I can connect to the leader, and that he or she can connect to me.  Of course, I’m privileged in that I was able to go on the Torridon workshop with Bruce and I therefore knew him a little already; and we’ve also become friends over the last couple of years – that is not something that is necessarily open to people who don’t live in the next neighbourhood to a workshop leader!  But it is possible to at least gain some impression of the person from their images and their writings (such as their blog) and this offers good clues.  And, of course, you can trust my recommendation that Bruce is a great workshop leader! 🙂

So, is it possible to sum up what it was that I gained from Bruce’s input? There are a number of things that come to mind, but the main one for me can be outlined in the following terms.  At the beginning of the week, he noted that he sometimes found it difficult to understand exactly what I was seeing and why I had gone for a certain composition (I did say this was perhaps because the images were no good, but Bruce disagreed!).  A day or two later he began to suggest that my visualising of scenes was perhaps too selective – I tended to visualise one or two really significant elements in a potential image, but I did not always frame these in a way that meant they were as apparent as I wanted them to be, whether this be unusual shapes, repeated lines, patterns on hills, the interplay between different elements in a scene, and so on. This is not simply about excluding extraneous elements – even if I intended to crop the image from whatever I saw in the viewfinder – although this is also a factor (see the tree image I discussed here recently and the grass in the bottom right of the image: 1, 2). Rather, for me, it is about expanding the view of the scene as a whole, about being able to encompass the elements that form the shapes, colours and tones in a way that enables a more holistic image to emerge.  That is what I want to achieve, and I know that I do that, but not always as consistently as I would like.

At Achnahaird Bay, looking south

At Achnahaird Bay, looking south

Of course, this is just me.  Other participants will hopefully have found something in Bruce’s critiques (there were 2-3 hours of image critiques on every day but one; other participants also commented on images) that helped them with whatever they thought they needed – or perhaps that they didn’t know they needed.

A month or two ago I removed all the landscape galleries from this site.  There really was a lot of rubbish there, in amidst some images that I liked.  Before going to Assynt I had begun the process of recreating the galleries and they are gradually going to reappear, but this time with far fewer, more carefully selected images.  In general, I make photographs for myself and not for others: being clearer about what I’m doing is therefore essential, and I feel the week away with Bruce has enabled me to see much more clearly exactly what kind of images I want to create, and given me more tools to enable me to go about doing that.  Those are the images I want to show here.

In essence, I feel I am approaching my photography with new confidence, a clearer sense of why I’m doing it, and how to go about achieving what I want. So in answer to my correspondent: that’s why I wanted to go on this workshop! 🙂

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6 thoughts on “Why workshop?

  1. akismet-1b1e9861c3eb1ebcbaa6491bd92018bf

    I think I’m may be a month or two behind you in the thought process 🙂 I’m looking to remove/update my landscapes as I think in the past 14 months I’ve moved on so much. So like you, modestly technically accomplished, but I feel I’m lacking the “vision thing”. Doing a course for me might help me achieve some sort of understanding as to what I want to achieve and aid me in developing a style.

    That all said, I’m still swithering over which course to do and with whom.

    1. Michael Marten Post author

      Thanks for reading, Alastair.

      I think all these things come in stages, and there are times when these more conceptual and emotive things feel very intuitive, and times when I lose them a bit. I was very aware I needed a bit of prompting (kicking?!) to make me realise what I needed, and was delighted it did that for me. Of course, it’s not guaranteed, but I was open to whatever the week would result in, and the direction it would give me. Trusting in Bruce – a very warm and generous individual anyway – enabled that to happen. I also found some of the interactions with other participants helped me with some of these things too. Re-doing the galleries is, I suppose, an outward indication of what I am doing internally.

      I’m interested to follow your own choices over these things. 🙂

  2. Mike Green

    Most compelling, Michael. Not that I needed persuasion of course: I’ve commented on the value of workshops, and specifically Bruce’s, in the past and I think my rationale is fairly similar. Perhaps the key benefit derives from an attitude where one is open to new ideas, or more particularly third party ideas, about images. Personally, I found the critique sections invaluable and they were an excellent developmental ‘tool’. And of course, as you say, they’re a great holiday!

    1. Michael Marten Post author

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Mike.

      Yes, the critiques are what make it – real engagement for several hours a day with participants’ images is hard work (esp. for Bruce!), but completely invaluable. I’m completely uninterested in the kind of workshop that is just a glorified site tour (‘come over here, you’ll get a good shot of that mountain’ type of thing). Bruce’s workshops are hard work, but tremendously rewarding if you’re prepared to engage fully.

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