Photography workshops as creative communities

I just finished teaching a great class in street photography. The students were lively, the locations we photographed were interesting and the creative community where I was teaching was incredibly stimulating. During the time I was working at the Maine Media Workshops, I dined with, talked to and saw the work of some of contemporary photography’s masters. In the class I was teaching, there were people who had the potential to be the next generation of photography’s masters. On the way home from Maine, we stopped in to see an old friend, a former assistant who I had worked with years ago at the Workshops. It was eight great days immersed deeply in the community of people who love photography. It got me thinking…..

This blog entry is not going to be a commercial for the Maine Media Workshops. I usually love my time in that very special community and, like this year, I often feel sad when I leave. Still, I do want to write about community and photographers because it is a topic that interests me a lot. It was also part of many discussions that I was involved in during the time I was in Maine.

One question recurred during my time in Maine. It is one I have heard often. It goes something like, how do photographers who are usually solo practitioners with strong streaks of individualism find community in the digital age? At one point the darkroom used to be a great, if informal, community for nurturing creativity. The digital darkroom has made us all potential masters of our own photo-printing universe, but it also has all but killed off the wet darkroom in the process. That community is gone.

As digital has democratized photography it has also killed off many of the other informal gathering places for photographers. I learned a lot when I was starting out by simply looking over the shoulders at the work of established pros on the light boxes in photo labs in Philadelphia and New York City. Camera stores also once served as informal gathering places and some stores still do, but not like they used to do. Photo agencies used to be great hubs of community and some still are. Many are simply repositories for great images sent in by talented photographers across the world, who no longer need to physically visit the agencies that disseminate their work.

If this blog entry is a commercial for anything, it is a promotional for the kind of workshop where you have to go somewhere, away from your daily routine in order to fully immerse yourself in photography, in the local culture and in the community of fellow photographers. I have taught at numerous other workshops where this happens including, but not limited to the following (in alphabetical order:)

Art Workshops in Guatemala at http://www.artguat.org/

LIGHT Photographic Workshops at http://lightworkshops.com/index.html

Maine Media Workshops at http://www.theworkshops.com/

Rocky Mountain School of Photography at http://www.rmsp.com/

Santa Fe Photographic Workshops at http://www.sfworkshop.com/

There are many other workshops like these, where an important part of the creative process is physically stepping out of one’s day to day routine in order to do nothing but photography.

There are also many other workshops out there that offer similar instruction but do not require a photographer to completely step back from their day to day routine. I teach at some of these as well, including, but not limited to the following (in alphabetical order:)

International Center of Photography at http://www.icp.edu/

Julia Dean Workshops at http://www.juliadean.com/index.html

Objectifs center for photography and filmmaking at http://www.objectifs.com.sg/

I love teaching at all of these places, whether they are what I think of as “residential,” like Maine Media Workshops or “non-residential” like the International Center of Photography in New York City.

In the last few months I have taught short, three or four-day intensive workshops in both type of places, including Objectifs in Singapore and ICP in N.Y.C. My experience in both of those places was very similar. The energy of the two cities and the mix of students from across the world made both classes very fun, energetic experiences. On the other hand, in both Singapore and N.Y.C., students went home at night, back to real life in a way that the Maine students did not. The “real world” and daily life tend to distract all of us, so it was understandable that some of my students in Singapore and in NYC felt torn. The ones who grew the most in the classes were the ones who were especially adept at focusing their energy on what we were doing, stepping out of the day to day in order to be “present” in the workshops.

In a “residential” workshop, a community of creative minds comes together, even if only for a week. In that community, where people strive to be “present,” relationships are built, trust is nurtured, limits are tested and, for many photographers, growth is spurred. That kind of sequestered workshop venue is my own favorite, but that is my preference.

That approach works well for some photographers, but not for all. What I think of as “non-residential” workshops may spur creative growth in better ways for certain photographers. Similarly, what I think of as “semester length” classes, typically in a college or university setting, are another route to creative growth altogether.

My wife, who is a professor at the University of Rhode Island, actually prefers that longer term teaching environment over the shorter but more intense workshop environment. Between my wife and me, each of us seems to have found our place in the universe of teaching. The fact that we teach in such different settings probably explains why we generally do not feel too competitive in the teaching arena.

On the drive back from Maine, I thought about the various strategies, residential, non-residential or semester length. I was reminded how each person learns differently. As I have blogged about before, one of the most important things any one should learn is exactly how do they learn? No one learning strategy is better than any other. The most successful people in almost any pursuit are often the ones who know how they can learn and then act upon whatever it is they are passionate about.

What matters is figuring out what kind of workshop and creative community works best for you. Like so many things in photography, the answer is not to be found in what someone else tells you or what you read in a publication or what you see advertised. This may mean attending some workshops to see what works, asking a lot of questions and then taking some chances.

This idea is very important if you want to maximize your potential as a photographer. It is equally important economically, considering how much workshops can cost. If you want to maximize the return on the investment in yourself that a photo workshop can and often is, you need to know how you learn and what kind of learning environment is best for you. The rest, as I like to say, is commentary…

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