©Copyright Dave Gonzales/Universal
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
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
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?"
"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.