A few weeks ago I participated in the workshop run by Ragnar “Rax” Axelsson and hosted by Leica Fotografie Internal, in Hamburg. My motivation for attending was as a long-time fan of Rax’s photography, and at the same time a hope that a few days of mentoring by a dedicated black & white, people and storytelling photographer would give a useful nudge to my dedicated colour, people-less and non-storytelling photography. Oh, and add to that my total lack of Leica ownership. Well, spending a couple of days two years ago with Neil Buchan-Grant in Venice certainly expanded my horizons, so why not. Of course, in that case I had my relatively strong relationship with Venice to fall back upon. Of Hamburg I knew precisely nothing.
The workshop attendees were not exclusively wealthy Leica owners. A few were clearly ultra-wealthy Leica owners :-). And a handful were, like me, non-Leica owners, and a few people even confessed to prefer colour. So I wasn’t totally isolated. And of course I got to pretend I owned a Leica for a weekend, as I casually laid it on the table at Starbucks.
Unfortunately the weather on my first day in Hamburg was worse than dismal. Incessant, bucketing rain, empty streets, terminally grim. It wasn’t even that kind of bad weather which is good for photographers. Nope, it wasn’t even good for ducks.
We had a quite loose assignment. Apart from a directive to produce at least one selfie (Rax has a sense of humour), the general idea was to produce a coherent series of some 20 photographs, which could be edited down in one to one sessions to 6, together with a set of 6 from previous work which we were asked to bring along. Finally the completed work was to be presented to the group.
Well, most everybody else wandered off and produced some nice black & white street photography. You can see some of it here. I’m quite impressed with what some people managed to produce. I certainly didn’t manage to tune in to Hamburg street life in that what.
Instead I reverted to type and tuned in to waste and desolation. I fixated on a few hundred square meters around the new Überseequartier U-Bahn station, which emerges like a buried alien artefact in the middle of an area of mostly disused dockland being transformed into Living Spaces for Bright Young Things etc. I found the state of transition quite captivating, if hardly up-lifting. However it did offer plenty of opportunity for a formal approach to urban landscape.
The selection curated by Rax narrowed down to 5 photographs, as can be seen at the end of the LFI gallery linked above. I respectfully disagree with part of his selection - my own set is here.
I’m currently participating in a weekend workshop run by Icelandic photographer Ragnar “Rax” Axelsson, and organised by Leica Fotografie International (LFI). Fortunately LFI don’t discriminate against non-Leica owners, so they let me in.
Ragnar is known as a black & white photographer. If I were known, it would not be as that. He is also known as a “people” photographer. Ditto. And he uses Leicas. So, what the hell am I doing here ? Well, firstly, he’s also a very fine and accomplished photo book author (and writer and storyteller), and I’m very interested to work out how to progress from single photographs to coherent series. Also, similarly to a workshop I attended a while back co-run by Neil Buchan-Grant, who is predominantly a portrait photographer, I find I learn more from people who do different things to me than by those who do the same. Generally, by now I should be more or less able to photograph a landscape. Emphasis on “should”. But my soaking up methods, approaches and techniques from photographers working in other styles, I hope to add other dimensions to the stuff I do.
Well, that’s the theory. I also enjoy hanging out with people like Ragnar, who is erudite and very funny, apart from being a fabulous photographer (and apparently professional pilot), and with the other people on the workshop (most of whom who own Leicas - but they still talk to me).
Hamburg is not a place I’ve visited before, and tomorrow and Sunday I have the challenge of putting together some kind of coherent series. Not to mention a self-portrait, somehow. I’ve had a bit of a dry run today (“dry” meaning in torrential, relentless rain), and the following is the shot I like most so far.
Oh, and LFI have kindly lent me a Leica Q - the most expensive camera I’ve ever used. Hope I don’t drop it or leave it on the U-Bahn.
Well, that’s now in the past, and it was a great experience. Neil and Steve are great photographers, excellent and attentive teachers, and wonderful people. They worked extremely hard to make sure all participants got plenty out of it. From my point of view I found being
forced strongly encouraged to photograph the standard scenes of San Marco and Rialto thronged by tourists and in very harsh light, rather than skulk way off the beaten track to my usual dingy haunts frustrating at first but very rewarding at the end. I also found the very new experience of photographing models quite captivating. Again, being encouraged to do this in the mid-day hothouse of Piazza San Marco, literally engulfed by excited tourists, really pushed the envelope. Neil set up the lighting, directed the models, leaving us to just grab the opportunities. I don’t think I’m going to branch out into yet another direction photographically, but it was a far more engaging and enjoyably creative experience than I expected.
From the cityscape / landscape side, Steve helped me a lot to put some order into my jumbled approach, and to point me in the direction of themes I had started on but not really recognised. I have to admit that at one low point, between being kept awake, dead tired, at 1am, with an alarm call pending at 4am, I'd decided to hit the pause button on photography after the workshop, but the next day completely revived me, even if some of my co-participants made a lot more of the 5am session at Rialto than I did.
Just for fun, here is a small selection of model portraits I shot. In at least two of these cases I was wilfully ignoring the directions / advice Neil was giving. I hope he’ll forgive me!
Thanks as well to our two very patient and professional models, Ira (first three) and Chiara.
The Olympus E-P5 was kindly leant to me by Neil Buchan-Grant. It’s a very nice camera, and the output is distinctly better than my E-P3. Quite shockingly so, in fact. There is far more dynamic range and the highlight rolloff is much smoother. However, it probably wasn’t such a good idea to use an unfamiliar camera in such an unfamiliar context.
I’m in the mood for a bit of a rant.
It’s the season for emails soliciting for next summer’s photo “workshops” in exotic parts of the world, in particular, for me, due to my track record, the higher latitudes. Although such outings have never, on the whole, been particularly cheap, despite the general economical situation, I’m getting the feeling that a threshold has been crossed: prices have passed “expensive” and are now in full blown “outrageous” territory.
What is a “photo workshop” anyway ? I suppose generally one might imagine that it involves an intensive period taking on a challenging subject in a small group setting, led by an experienced photographer who also happens to be a good teacher - a rare combination. That photographer might even, in an ideal world, have some formal teaching qualification of some kind. And actually, in the worlds of studio and street photography, such workshops do exist. But what I’m talking about is nature photography workshops, in far flung places, and the nature of these is more group travel with a focus on photography, and with optimised itineraries and schedules.
Obviously some places are hard to get to, and hard to travel around if you don’t know the area or language. So the first advantage is that somebody else takes care of the logistics, and you pay a price which covers your share of the overheads and a fee for the organiser / guide, who after all is making a living. Fair enough. But where things start to go a little out of control is where the guide is basically a hired hand and the workshop is run under the aegis of some “star” photographer in who’s glow you will theoretically bask. And who will basically be taking their own photos, building their own portfolio, and actually getting paid to do so. Of course there is a sliding scale here. I’m absolutely not going to name names, but there are some “star” photographers who will go out of their way to help and advise their clients, and there are others who will behave like absolute prima donnas, considering that their clients should stay out of the way and speak only when spoken to.
As far as costs go, here’s one benchmark: in 2010, myself and 9 others arranged a co-operative tour of Svalbard. We hired a 12 berth ocean-going sailboat, with expert crew of two, for 14 days. The cost, including all food, fuel, harbour charges, etc, worked out at almost exactly 50% of the mean price being charged for several significantly shorter and/or less flexible trips offered for 2014. Even assuming that we got a very good price, one can’t help but wonder where that 50% is going. Well, actually you don’t need to wonder too much.
So what, though? It’s a free world, and if people have the money and feel that the prices are justified, well then the market is well adjusted. But on the other hand, it is driving access to places which should, and could be, an accessible dream to a lot of people, into the luxury market. And that’s a shame.
There is also the label “workshop” itself. I may be wrong, but I would imagine that the average person is not going to head off to the Arctic to learn how to set an aperture or exposure dial. And yet many prospectuses seem to offer just that - and little else. Some vendors are actually forthright about this, and differentiate between “workshop” and “expedition”. This is commendable, in my opinion.
So what should you do if, say, you want to go to the Arctic, to Patagonia, to Greenland or other far flung destination ? By all means search for “workshops” on offer. But also look for general interest tourist trips, and compare prices. Then you’ll get some idea of the markup charged by the star photographer. If it’s over 25%, forget it, it’s money down the drain. You’re basically buying bragging rights to say you’re Best Friends Forever which whichever Canikon poster boy. Also, on the vendor’s website, in the workshop pages, look out for photos taken by workshop participants, and not (only) the photographer him/herself. Such photographers who are genuinely pleased to showcase their clients work are probably those you will learn the most from, even if their own work is not full-on National Geographic level. Ideally, if you feel you can manage it, try to organise your own group on a cost-sharing basis, and write your own agenda. It’s not as hard as it seems. And don’t get discouraged by ridiculous, inflated prices which would take you over 3 months to earn.