Last week I participated in a workshop led by Stuart Sipahigil and Ray Ketcham called “Close to Home” in Port Townsend, WA (which is actually close to my home in Seattle). The workshop was based on the Craft and Vision book by Stuart of the same name. I had planned to do a review on Sunday night or Monday morning after the workshop ended; however, I need to some space to think about the experience of the workshop. I needed to breathe in a little from the experiences of the weekend.
I think it is easy to come home on a bit of a high from a workshop, conference or vacation and quickly tell everyone you know about how cool it was or your favorite part of the experience. But ultimately, I believe what matters most are the things that stick with you after time passes. Once the euphoria wears off and the day-to-day task start to pop back up crowding out the ideas that seemed to important to forget during the workshop is when you find the value of a workshop. Can it stand up to life? Does it find a way to continue to influence you after the fact? For me, the Close to Home workshop has done that and will continue to be an influence on me for some time to come.
As I continue to develop my craft, I have learned a couple of things. One of the biggest is that the camera doesn’t matter all that much, but ones ability to tell your story in your images matters a whole lot. Stuart’s book (Ray and Stuart’s conversations at the workshop) and the workshop are about helping you see experiences, stories and photographs that are in your own backyard. The idea of working to overcome the voice in our head that tells us the place we live is mundane. However, what if you were able to push that way of seeing aside and actually see the amazing world that is always around you? What would those photographs look like? What if you could always see the world as if you were seeing Rome for the first time?
Conceptually, this makes total sense to me; and yet, I often times struggle to find a way to make my own backyard interesting. Lucky for me, Ray and Stuart had a plan. After some lecture and examples on the first night, we hit the first full day of the workshop with cameras in hand. The first exercise was simple. Stuart and Ray found a place and town and we were told don’t move. Not left or right a single foot. We were given one hour to photograph from that single spot. The process of slowing down and not being able to move was interesting. I was able to hear the wind pickup before I could see the trees move. I could hear cars off in the distance before I could see them. I could see the light shift as the clouds drifted by the sun. While at first I had a hard time “finding anything to photograph,” I quickly got into a grove; and if you asked, I would have bet you my hour was only 15 mins.
While we had other exercises, my favorite exercise of the weekend was the personal assignments. Each workshop participant was given a unique assignment to photograph for the final image review. I really appreciated the time that Ray and Stuart put into figuring out how to challenge and motivate us based on our own backgrounds, shooting styles and needs. My assignment was to tell the story of a coffee shop. I knew that this would be interesting for me because I didn’t want to just create a collection of images from a coffee shop, I wanted to find something that reflected my experiences of being in a coffee shop. In some ways the experience from the day before really helped me. I had to sit in the coffee shop for a few hours and experience what was going on in the shop. What did I notice first? What sounds did I hear? What did I see no one else would see? In the end, I created a collection of images about the signs in the coffee shop. The signs that answer the questions people asked over and over again. Sometimes asking for the information that they just read on a sign. While I am sure that the work isn’t going to garner a Pulitzer, I am pretty excited that I was able to find something the inspired me and was unique to me in a very common place. Prior to this I honestly don’t think I would ever think to photograph in a coffee shop because I never thought I would find anything other than portraits of coffee cups, baristas and coffee drinkers.
Finally, I think that the best part of the workshop was the conversations we all had about our work, the meaning of close to home and art in general. Ray and Stuart were great guides for those conversations. Asking questions, offering up a story or two or just listening to one of us talk about what was working or not working. Ray was great with our image critiques providing great insights into the images, meaning, edits and the story we we trying to tell.
So, would I recommend this workshop to someone. Absolutely, it was a great way to spend a few days learning and shooting. I think that workshops that teach you how to be you and find work that is close to home that inspires you is something that we all need. We all daydream of far off locations and magical locations, but the reality is most of us have a life that is led close to home. Learning that close to home is magical is worth it.