I thought I knew everything I needed to know about photography. Then I found myself in a photography workshop taught by Sam Abell. That week ten years ago changed my photographic life.
In fact, lessons I learned from photography teachers over the years guide me every time I raise my camera to take a picture.
But before talking about teachers, I pose a prerequisite question: can photography be taught?
The answer is “Yes.” Much of photography is sheer perseverance, hustle and luck. With the right skills, a determined individual can go a long way. And most, if not all, of these skills can be learned in class.
However, only the gifted can become masters – but isn’t that true everywhere?
My first photography teacher was Les Dowling at Foothill College in California. After several years of self-learning – camera controls, black and white processing, lighting – his course was my first formal course on photography. Mr. Dowling’s instruction – in 1984 – placed my technical knowledge of photography on solid footing.
The following semester I enrolled in Jim Goldberg’s Photographing People class at University of California’s Photography program. Jim had just published a book of rich and poor people of San Francisco. He had photographed the millionaires of Pacific Heights and the downtrodden of the Tenderloin in their homes. His stroke of genius was to augment each portrait with handwritten words by the subject about his or her life. The result was powerful and poignant. Jim pushed his students to go out and photograph people in their own surroundings, getting to know them and their lives.
Michael Kenna, who taught my Advanced Photography class, was Jim’s opposite. Where Jim was down to earth, Michael was cerebral. Before every class, we had to pin up our weekly photographs on the wall. Michael walked into class holding two L-shaped cardboards and immediately started cropping the photographs while critiquing them. He is a master of precise yet soulful composition who taught me to use cropping forcefully and creatively.
I have written earlier before about Frank Espada, the teacher I felt closest to. From him I learned egoless photography and empathy for the subject.
My workshop with Sam Abell was many years after Frank’s class. For several decades during National Geographic’s glory days Sam was their staff photographer. He is a master of photographic composition, creating impeccable photographs. In class, he was quiet but incisive, always connecting with the students. I learned several techniques including the notion of layers – making the photograph so that the background reinforces the subject instead of detracting from it. To this day I use Sam’s lessons almost every time I raise the camera.
When I started bird photography, I quickly realized it came with formidable technical challenges. So I went to Jim Neiger, an expert on photographing birds in flight. For the first time since Mr. Dowling’s class, technique dominated. Spending three days with Jim chasing Ospreys and other birds, I learned to use my large camera rig to capture flight. His lessons, particularly on exposure and focusing, have proved valuable.
There were other classes, but these were particularly valuable. Another lesson I learned was that a famous, successful photographer does not automatically make a great photography teacher. Passion, a selfless soul, and actionable techniques make the difference.
And no matter where you are in your photographic journey, there is always more to learn.
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