A few weeks ago, someone remarked in the negative about the shortage of CPA workshops centered on developing artistic abilities. (Note to self: maybe there should be a future blog post analyzing why the people who help the most complain the least, and the people who stand on the sidelines complain the most.) I noted that we are working on having more courses aimed at artistic development (see this blog post, and this one), and said that we are planning some for next year.
Then I got to thinking about my own development as an artist. Much of it came about through making photographs, mulling over the results, and, like the infinite loop in the shampoo bottle instructions, repeating. A lot of it came from looking at other peoples’ photographs in books or in exhibitions. But if it weren’t for workshops that I’ve taken, I wouldn’t have progressed nearly as rapidly. The funny thing is, almost all the workshops that I’ve taken have been advertised as craft workshops.
My first workshop, in the early 80s, was a four-day black-and-white printing workshop with George Tice. George was not a touchy-feely kind of guy, and his course was very much aimed at learning specific techniques. However, George is more than a master printer; he is an accomplished artist. Even though there was no overt discussion of the art that went into his photographs, we looked at many of them, and saw the way that George presented and reacted to them. By some osmotic process, I absorbed his way of looking at the world, and it changed the way I made pictures for a while, and maybe forever.
I’ve done several black and white printing workshops with John Sexton. John turns a darkroom into a dance studio, and it’s a pleasure to watch him work. John teaches an easily-reproducible (well, not precisely reproducible – hardly anyone prints as well as John – but if you pay attention and practice, you can get close) printing technique that is very effective. But the things that stuck with me that I value the most have nothing to do with craft: John’s respect for his subject and for the process, his work ethic, his aesthetic sense, his love of grace in the process and the end result, the way he really sees what’s there — not what he expects to be there, not what he wants to be there, not what ought to be there — both in the darkroom and in the world.
I’ve taken a Zone System course from John Sexton, a view camera workshop from Morley Baer, landscape workshops from Huntington Witherill, Pirkle Jones and Stephen Johnson, a black and white printing workshop from Paul Caponigro, and a photo editing course with Charlie Cramer. In all, the story was the same: while the instructor was teaching about putting sodium sulfite in Edwal FG-7, giving me the formula for Dr. Pratt’s developer, or telling me how to create luminance masks, I was learning something deeper, something more difficult to express and more elusive; I was learning what a photograph could be, what I might aspire to as an artist, and a respect for the process of artistic growth.
I’ve also attended craft workshops and come away with no more than new and improved techniques.
What’s the difference? The craft workshops that transcended the putative subject were taught by mature artists who cared passionately about their art and were able and willing to open themselves up to the students. When you combine that with students who are willing to pick up on an atmospheric effect that’s not the explicit topic, it can be magic.
I’ve taken a few workshops aimed directly at artistic development, including a delightful day with Ruth Bernhard and John Sexton, and several workshops with David Bayles and Ted Orland. They’ve been useful as well. However, I can’t say they’ve been more valuable in my personal artistic development than the craft courses that went beyond what their titles promised.