What I learned at the California Photo Festival

Last week, I was one of thirteen photographers teaching at the first annual California Photo Festival. The instructors brought a diverse range of styles to the temporary community of photographers that briefly sprung up near San Luis Obispo, California. As I flew West, I was very curious about how the mix of instructors (and photographic styles) would work together. Now that the festival is over, I can look back (and talk about) what happened, at least from where I was sitting. The lessons I learned will benefit most any serious photographer.

Unlike a conventional workshop where a fixed set of students works with one (or maybe two) instructors for five days, the festival offered dozens of short workshops, some as short as two hours, others taking up almost a whole day. The idea was to give the 150 attendees lots of choices. The attendees were supposed to pick and choose based on what they already knew (and what they wanted to learn.) It played out differently for different people. Some students worked hard on expanding their existing skills, especially in the classes involving Photoshop or studio lighting techniques. Other students tried new approaches to photographic genres they were unfamiliar with, essentially sampling those to help them decide whether to attend a full-blown workshop on the same subject in the future.

As the week started, I was reminded of something I already knew, that photographers have a strong tendency to categorize, label and compare things. Dualities were often noted, such as Apple vs. Windows computers or Nikon vs Canon cameras or Epson vs HP (or is it Canon) printers.

As time went on I realized I was interested in more subtle but equally important dualities. Were the photographers making photographs that mirrored the author or were they making photographs that worked as windows to take the viewer to another place/time/experience? Every time I explained the idea of photographs as mirrors or windows, I could see student’s eyes light up. Most had not heard of, but were thrilled to be introduced to, John Szarkowski’s construct for looking at photographs and photographers. I also noted how photographers are often also divided into those who love the shooting/capture aspect vs. those who focus on the print/finished product.

But as I dug further (and the festival went on) those artificial delineations came up short. Some photographers loved the printing process as much as they enjoyed the capture process. Others did work that mirrored them selves but never thought of the process through Szarkowski’s framework.

Arguably the best thing about the whole festival was the way the many genres were thrown together, where mixing up the many styles made all photographers involved better for the process. The folks who came to the festival feeling strongly attached to any one side of these many divides left the festival with their definitions a bit more blurred.

The ultimate example of this mixture is Hal Schmidt, a retired fighter pilot turned director of the Light workshops, the organization sponsoring the festival. See: http://lightworkshops.com/ He was giving the introduction at the start of the festival and said he would be talking about the lessons he learned as a fighter pilot that now apply to photography. My first reaction was “huh,” but once he started, I realized he was saying many of the same things I say as a teacher and practice as a photographer.

Getting good at photography (or jet flying) takes practice, awareness and discipline. In the end it is not about the gear, but it is all in the operator. He went ion from there in a humorous and insightful way. The really unusual thing was that I had never heard that perspective on what I talk about often as my core wisdom being told from such an unusual perspective.

What else did I learn? I picked up a few aphorisms that I plan to use in future teaching situations. Some of them are so good, so concise, that they really drive the point home. One was from Hal, and is used to encourage photographers to use full manual exposure settings and it went “Friends don’t let friends us aperture priority.” When discussing the importance of planning in any kind of photography, we agreed on the need to balance the spontaneous nature of photographing with the need to be organized. The quote went “To be a serious photographer each of us needs to “channel your inner control freak.”

The second annual California Photo festival is scheduled for October 12th to 15th of 2011 in Los Osos, California. I look forward to attending the event, being part of the temporary photography-focused community they create and to gaining the many new insights I hope that I hope to come away with.

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