'Coffee & Critique' and others offer great guidance
By Frank Van Riper
During my long years as a political writer and editor, the highest praise I might get from my colleagues after I had done a long takeout or written a dramatic exclusive was contained in two words:
Not much in the way of pithy analysis or critique, but most times it sufficed.
Then I was fortunate to win a Nieman fellowship to Harvard and, among other things, took a creative writing seminar that met in the home of a Harvard English instructor. Anyone in that class who tried reacting to someone’s short story or essay with a simple “good piece,” would have been thrown out on his or her Ivy League ass.
Attending the writing seminar meant, not only that you had to stretch as a writer—in my case, trying to compose fiction instead of news copy—but also to think seriously about everything that everyone else had written, and talk about it intelligently and at length.
It wasn’t easy. Neither was writing fiction. But since I was treading water in what I loved—writing—it was not onerous or all that difficult once I began. In fact, the seminar taught me a hell of a lot about setting words to paper and may have been the best course I took during my entire academic year at Harvard.
Compassionate peer review, free of ego, competitiveness or angst, may be the best instruction anyone can get in any field. It certainly is true in photography, the “second” career I adopted after I left daily journalism, but actually something I have been doing for as long as I’ve been a writer.
In the Washington, DC area, perhaps the best example of this kind of gentle review are the regular “Coffee and Critique” sessions held at Photoworks at Glen Echo, Md., a former amusement park that has been transformed into an arts and entertainment center offering everything from painting to glassblowing to jewelry-making to puppet theater to ballroom dancing—to photography:
I have been a teacher at Photoworks for more than a decade and remember years ago being very impressed with the simpatico vibe of my first Coffee and Critique. The two-hour sessions are held on Sunday mornings, roughly every month: “Bring photos for informal feedback by a Photoworks faculty member, or just attend to take part in a lively and thoughtful conversation about fresh work from fellow photographers. Coffee and bagels are provided and the event is always free.”
C&C meetings tend to attract about a dozen folks each time, gathered around the table looking at prints—or occasionally at a computer screen (prints are preferred, however.) The conversation is blessedly tech-free, concentrating more on the image itself and what the photographer was trying to accomplish.
Under the leadership of director Karen Keating Photoworks is trying hard to rekindle what Karen calls “photo community” at a time when the very technology of photography is isolating us more and more.
“What I felt (we needed) was a real organic approach to building community in a new space at the time of digital technology when no one needed to stay in a group darkroom for hours over trays, drying prints, spotting dust on prints, dry mounting etc.,” noted Karen, herself a fine art photographer and author, as well as veteran photo teacher. “My experience with a women’s photo group, Prisma, for over 25 years taught me the value of photography support, honest criticism and trust.”
And perhaps as valuable as honest feedback is simple interaction. I remember a short time ago judging a major amateur photo competition with my friend and colleague Max MacKenzie, a superb architectural shooter. Max recalled how we used to run into each other regularly at Chrome, once the premier custom photo lab in DC, now reduced by the changing market into something much smaller. Glitzy though Chrome may have been back then--it lived up to its name--it nevertheless harkened back to a small town general store, especially when virtually every pro in town was shooting film.
Where in the old days folks would gather around the potbelly stove in a general store to swap town news and gossip, at Chrome photographers would run into each other regularly and also swap information or simply catch up with friends.
There was no potbelly stove but, rather, a series of light tables in gallery-hung rooms on which we all sorted or selected slides and chromes, or inspected proofs, prints and negatives. A week would not go by that my wife Judy or I did not go down to Chrome at least once, and we always would run into a friend or colleague.
Today? Everyone is shooting digital and everyone is chained to his or her computer. Case in point: yesterday Judy and I shot a series of about a dozen corporate portraits on location for a longtime client. Rather than drop film off at Chrome and spend a little time shooting the breeze, we simply went home, where I downloaded the digital images for us to edit, tweaked them in post-production—then shipped them to the client via Dropbox.
After that first edit with Judy, I never interacted with another human.
“I can't remember how I first learned of Coffee and Critique,” said Julie Miller, a local writer and editor.
“I was probably aware of Photoworks because I contra danced at Glen Echo, and then perhaps took a camera class when I got my first digital camera in 2002. Anyhow, I'm sure I was very sensitive to criticism and so the C&C hosts must have been gentle for me to keep coming back.
“I really don't care for competition, even in sports and games. I've always
refused to keep score in Scrabble. I went to a traditional camera club once,
just as an observer, and was really put off by the competition. The judge
that night gave low points to some photos a young Army fellow had brought in
because the judge didn't like to look at (pictures of) dead fish. “
Sure, there is value in learning under a master: taking master classes in photography, for example, in Maine or in Santa Fe. I did exactly that more than 30 years ago at the then-Maine Photographic Workshops as I transitioned into professional photography. And certainly it can be exhilarating (most times) to enter one’s work in myriad camera club competitions where it will be judged and commented on by experts.
But the drawbacks for each can be daunting.
Too often master classes at big name workshops are very heavily attended—sometimes over capacity in fact--to get the highest return from Mr. or Ms. Big’s presence. This can translate into endless reviews of new student work as 30 people, instead of the advertised 12, show their workshop images at the start of each day. (This happened to me in Maine one year, and I am keeping the “master’s” name to myself. He should have known better; we all were exhausted after three solid hours every morning of sitting in the dark looking at slide after slide of student work .)
Camera club competitions also can be a mixed blessing. I should know; I judge them all the time, all over the region. I am gratified that folks seem to like the way I judge and critique. But that’s tempered by the fact that I often am compared with the last judge, who simply said “in,” or “out” and rarely had anything constructive to say about his or her preferences.
Is it any wonder that groups like Coffee and Critique are so popular with serious photographers?
Noted longtime C&C-er Bill Barton, an account manager from Northern Virginia:
“ I get to see different work. People are really interested in their photography and the fact that this is NOT a camera club.
“No competitions, no little old ladies with the 44th picture of their rose. You can bring anything in here and hear an honest critique whether you want it or not.”
Added Alain Durand, an internet technologist and native of France who is new to the whole experience: Coffee and Critique offers “a very different perspective on my work.” With camera clubs, he went on, “a lot of the experience is boring. Everybody’s ecstatic; there’s no constructive feedback…it’s all flowers.”
The key simply may be small size and seriousness. Anyone can form a group of like-minded souls to learn from one another. For example, some of my former Glen Echo students formed their own group, Suds and Silver, several years ago and we would meet regularly over beers to talk photography. Though we don’t get together nearly as often anymore, we do have a Google group that allows all of us to stay in touch—and believe me we do.
But nothing beats the face-to-face interaction you get at groups like Coffee and Critique.
Val Makepeace, a terrific fine art shooter who used to work at the old Black & White custom lab in Arlington, Va., put it like this:
“People are all very experienced and bring a lot to the table. We are all hearing and learning a lot from each other….It’s great to be among people who are really interested in what they do...no competitions, no speakers.”
And, she added: “No one asks ‘what camera did you shoot with?’”
NOTE: Following is the schedule for the next several months of Coffee and Critique at Glen Echo Photoworks. Sessions begin Sunday at 10am and go roughly until noon.
Participants are encouraged to bring work if they like, though it is not required: April 12, May 17, June 14 and July 19.No session in August
Lubec Photo Workshops at SummerKeys, Lubec, Maine -- Summer, 2015
Daunted by Rockport??
Spend a week of hands-on learning and location photography with award-winning husband and wife photographer-authors Frank Van Riper and Judith Goodman. Frank and Judy will cover portraiture, landscape and documentary photography during morning instruction, followed by assignments in multiple locations including Quoddy Head State Park, Campobello Island, NB and the colorful town of Lubec itself. Daily critiques and one-on-one instruction. NO entrance requirement. Minimum age for attendance is 16. Maximum number of students each week is nine. Students supply their own digital camera.
The Lubec Photo Workshops debuted in 2009 and were a huge success for their low-key, no-pressure atmosphere. Classes fill early.
New 2015 workshop dates are: July 6-10; July 20-24; August 3-7; August 17-21.
Come photograph in one of the most beautiful spots on earth!
The Umbria Photo Workshops:
October 10-16, 2015
(waiting list available)
Join internationally acclaimed husband and wife photographers Frank Van Riper and Judith Goodman for weeklong photographic workshops under glorious Fall skies in one of Italy’s most beautiful regions. Note: Workshops are limited to only six participants and include lodging at the spacious and inviting Villa Fattoria del Gelso in Cannara.
Frank and Judy, authors of the award-winning book Serenissima: Venice in Winter, will share their image-making techniques with a small group during a simpatico, low-key week covering everything from landscape photography in the verdant hills of Umbria, to nighttime photography using available and artificial light, to location portraiture in Umbria's closely held olive fields and vineyards.
Small class size assures individual critique and instruction.
Participants will travel by guided excursion to several of Umbria’s storied hill towns, including Montefalco, Bevagna and Assisi, and receive individual attention during daily critiques.
Package includes six nights in the fully restored 18th century villa Fattoria Del Gelso in Cannara, located on a 40-hectare working farm literally walking distance from colorful shops and restaurants and centrally located in the shadow of Assisi.
This is a trip designed for relaxed learning and sightseeing via foot, bicycle and van, taught by two experienced location photographers whose work has been exhibited in and acquired by major museums in the United States. Frank and Judy are molto simpatico teachers who will turn your photographic vacation into a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
Fee includes villa accommodations, all breakfasts, daily wine and antipasto Happy Hour, welcome and farewell dinner, pizza night, transportation by private van. No entrance requirements beyond a love of photography, good food and fine wine. For details: go to http//:www.experienceumbria.com or contact us directly at GVR@GVRphoto.com
Van Riper Named to Communications Hall of Fame
Frank Van Riper addresses CCNY Communications Alumni at National Arts Club in Manhattan after induction into Communications Alumni Hall of Fame, May 2011. (c) Judith Goodman
[Copyright Frank Van Riper. All Rights Reserved. Published 4/15]