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Something to
Shoot For
©Copyright Dave Gonzales/Universal Press Syndicate

For a decade, I've believed that by traveling extensively and shooting constantly, I could learn to take great travel photos.

It's worked. Sort of. Though I've captured some nice images, I've also taken thousands of shots that may never again emerge from my filing cabinet. I cringe to think how much money in film and processing I've sunk into all those slides. If I had that money now I could travel around the world.

So last year I decided I'd better learn how to get more than one or two decent shots out of each roll. What I needed was a brief, rigorous education in consistently capturing photos with visual and emotional punch. What I needed was photographic bootcamp.

That's just what I found at Photography at the Summit, a one-week workshop held each autumn in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Coordinated by Rich Clarkson, former director of photography for the National Geographic Society, the Photography at the Summit workshop turned out to be a bargain when I did the math. For the tuition price I got a week of instruction, not from one expert photographer as in most photographic workshops, but from nine of the best image-makers in the world, including Geographic shooters David Alan Harvey and George Steinmetz, Sports Illustrated staffer Bill Eppridge, landscape master Jack Dykinga, and adventure photographer Galen Rowell. I couldn't have found a better group of instructors if I'd flipped through a stack of Geographics, picked the best photographers, and hired them myself.

"Our whole point is team teaching," explained Clarkson. "You get so many different perspectives. And it works. We've had many people jump start their careers right out of this workshop."

That was an exhilarating prospect. The reality was more exhausting. On our first day, we 40 students devised projects for ourselves. Then, armed film, we headed into the field. When not shivering in a pre-dawn gloom, waiting for the sun to hit the mountaintops, or sweating it out in morning critiques, we attended technical clinics, personal portfolio reviews, the instructors' evening slide shows, and lengthy, late night discussions at Jackson's famed Silver Dollar Bar. Bleary-eyed by the third day, I realized all that was missing from my bootcamp experience were camouflage fatigues and a crewcut.

At least we had an energizing setting. An hour's drive north was Yellowstone National Park with its geysers, bison herds, and waterfalls. Ten minutes away were Grand Teton National Park and the National Elk Refuge, home to the lower 48 states' largest elk herd. The photographic fodder also included the herds of tourists constantly thundering through Jackson and the town itself, still clinging to its hardscrabble western heritage. The possibilities were limitless.

Unfortunately, so were the photographic clichés. But we students learned quickly the instructors paid scant attention to "postcard" shots, however perfectly composed. Though visual clichés -- a moose, for instance, standing in a forest-fringed pond -- were hard to resist in such a classic setting, this push to find inventive images carried serious oomph coming from such world-class instructors.

Or should I say drill-sergeants. Just like their military counterparts, the instructors could be ruthless, especially during portfolio reviews. Pulling George Steinmetz aside, I laid my portfolio of travel slides on a light table. He looked at a few. Silence.
"I want to see more," he said.

"More slides?" I asked.

"No, more in each shot. These are nice, but you need to dig deeper, peel back a layer. You're too far away." He turned to me. "Do you know how to use strobes, how to mix ambient and artificial light, how to use a flash meter?"
I paused.
"If you don't know how to use a flash meter," he said. "You're cheating yourself."

What made it worse was that many of my fellow students, veteran pros themselves, did know how to use artificial light. Nevertheless, some of the most effective images produced during the workshop came from non-professionals like Anne Muller, a Jackson painter and sculptor. I admired her images of Jackson's Hispanic residents immensely. Not only did she pry a human, emotional story from surroundings better known for their scenery, she found a subject that didn't require her to get up each morning at five a.m.
My own project -- to show how the Grand Teton had been turned into a commercial commodity -- was a bit overambitious. From sunrise to sunset I labored to find apt combinations of moment, light, and composition to convey my message. Finally I snapped a shot in a crowded parking lot of a rumpled tourist standing below a huge tour bus, the Teton range reflected across several of the bus's windows.
"Wow, that's a corker," exclaimed instructor and former Geographic staffer Dick Durrance when the shot flashed across the screen during the final morning critique. "What a great lead image for your project."
I was glad for the reaction, but I knew the truth. I still wasn't close enough, and it would be a lengthy struggle before I found the bravado and grace to put me in the middle of a story, in the middle of strangers' lives.

But I also learned that my instructors still struggle themselves.

As George Steinmetz said, "This business is simply too competitive to relax. The minute you get complacent, stop pushing, there's somebody else to take your place."

This lesson alone was worth the price of the workshop: for every great photographer, the bootcamp never ends.

 

 
Photos left to right: © Anne Muller, Tom Ewart/NWA Photography, Pat Sparling.  
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