Four models in a swimming pool offer an enticing subject for participants in a photo workshop in Arles. Picture © Lou Siroy.
It was the summer of 1989, in the south of France. Four nude young ladies were dipping into a private swimming pool on a sunny afternoon. I was part of a gang of 12 photography students, led by Italian fine art photographer Franco Fontana. Not only did I have permission to look at and photograph these women, I felt under pressure to do so.Most of the other classmates (11 to one, male to female) looked like they wanted to pinch themselves to make sure they weren’t dreaming. But although the sun shone brightly it was apparent the models were very uncomfortable as a continuous breeze was leaving them shivering and covered in goose pimples.
The women swam towards the ladder while the photography pack scurried along the edge to meet them at the deep end. I found myself naturally gravitating in the shallow direction to survey the scene. As the models’ arms reached up to grip the edge, the snappers – and the word seems appropriate here – aimed their lenses down and started shooting. From the other end, I couldn’t help thinking I was witnessing something like shooting fish in a barrel.
That was just the introduction to our photographic workshop in Arles, and Italian, French, Spanish and English were the languages being spoken. Every Q&A had to be repeated in this catalogue of languages, while the South African participant thrust his box of photographs at Mr Fontana. There must have been 50 16×20-inch matted prints and Fontana was forced to hold up, look at and comment on each one before moving onto the next. With elaborations, explanations and gesticulations, the show and tell became a one-hour test of patience for our group. I still associate Johannesburg with tuba-carrying, uniformed marching bands in garish colour.
After a fitful night, I went straight to the festival’s office and claimed that my work had immediately summoned me back to London, and I was unable complete the workshop. In fact, I was unemployed.
Twenty years later in spring 2009, I was tempted to apply for my second photography workshop, this time with renowned American photographer Stephen Shore at the Photo España Campus in Madrid. I had attended the festival in 2008 and viewed the vast range of exhibitions across the city, satisfying my predilection for street photography by publishing an online gallery for The Times. Armed with a Leica M8, I entered the master class of 22 students, in which Spanish was the main language.
A translator was provided but there were some miscommunications, many of which provided an opportunity for banter. On one occasion, Shore named Walker Evans as the photographer who most influenced him. Alvaro, an air traffic controller from Barcelona, wasn’t sure of the mentioned name. Shore repeated and mouthed the name exaggeratedly á la Steve Martin before grabbing a piece of paper, writing “Walker Evans”, and holding it up to Alvaro. But by this time, Alvaro had already comprehended and said impatiently, “Yeah, yeah – Johnnie Walker”. “I think you should spend more time studying history of photography than drinking Scotch!” torted Shore.
Early on Shore stated, “I am going to share with you all I know about photography in four days that I teach my students in four years”, but added that we would not be taking any pictures during these days. There were a few grumblings of disappointment but in the following days Shore made constant references to formats and types of camera, and recommended what might help each photographer become more serious and deliberate in their work. “I’m less interested in whether someone is a good photographer; I’m more interested in someone finding a voice,” said Shore. This was the stuff of Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance. Motorbike, camera – whichever – this was about quality.
Shore spoke in even, measured sentences, sometimes referencing and using illustrations from his book, The Nature of Photographs. More often we were given fresh Shore philosophies such as his thoughts on composition: “Composing is a synthetic process – you put together. Photography, on the other hand, is analytic – you don’t put together, you select. A painter starts with a blank canvas and builds a picture; a photographer is faced with the complexity or messiness of the whole world and chooses a picture.”
Each student in turn laid out their prints on a long table where everyone carefully viewed the selection before discussion began and questions were raised. We were warned about the colour red on more than two occasions. One student had brought along a landscape image containing a back view of a small human figure wearing a red backpack. “Where does your eye go to?” Shore asked. When it was agreed the eye went straight to the backpack, he added, “Red disrupts the image.”
Red reared its head again when Shore described a published photobook. “Many shades of red fall outside the gamut of photographic processes,” he said. “When this happens, these reds are assigned the closest red at the edge of the gamut. The result is that dozens of reds are assigned the same colour. Because dimensionality is defined by tonal gradations, and all of these reds are represented by the same red, a three-dimensional red area will be without gradation and will appear flat.”
We travelled various roads, both symbolic and in subject matter, crisscrossing and finding reference points along the way. In this way a classmate’s work was as likely to become as referenced as one of the photographic greats illustrated in Shore’s book. When the time came to show my own work, I became fearful. I opted to show a slideshow of images called American Detail, taken during trips back home over a 20-year period. From the outset Shore was less than pleased with the format as he had requested each student bring prints.
At image four I heard Shore’s voice, “You must like the colour red”. At slide number 17, a landscape of a shooting range in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where my friend Bill was walking amongst the targets wearing a red shirt, Shore shouted, “STOP!”
He continued: “Eggleston’s Red Ceiling is all about the colour. In my book, Uncommon Places, you will only find two photos with red – Ginger wearing a red shirt and next to it a red truck. You could have chosen not to take the photo of your friend Bill.”
Or, I thought, I could’ve asked Bill to remove his shirt. Maybe, there was something psychological attracting me to the colour as was suggested. I was given the directive of not taking pictures with the colour red for one year. Afterwards I counted the images in the series that contained red and out of the 22, there were 12 culprits. xcessive, I surmised, given what I had learned. I’ve heeded Shore’s advice ever since, despite red objects jumping out at me from every turn. Like hypnosis for curbing smoking, it’s worked.
At the end of the session, a satisfied Shore sat back in his chair and looked directly at a classroom of united students. Whoever said one shouldn’t meet one’s heroes? A proper photographic course done the right way.
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