August 18, 2014

Flying High with Alexander Heilner

This fall, we're excited to be offering a range of brand new workshops. One of the most interesting new additions is our Aerial Photography intensive with Alexander Heilner. We recently talked with Alex to discuss the inspiration, creative perspectives, benefits, and challenges of photographing from high above the earth.

© Alexander Heilner

How did you get started in aerial photography?
"Well, from the day I was born all the way through high school, my dad worked for TWA, so one of the constants in my childhood was a lot of travel, and a lot of looking out airplane windows. I also started in photography very young; I did it all the way through high school and college. So I think these two interests were bound to collide at some point. The first time I hired a small plane, I did it almost as a lark. I was visiting a friend in North Carolina, and we basically just looked in the phone book, found a pilot and decided to give it a try that afternoon. I was really surprised by the fact that it's not as outrageously difficult or expensive as people might think. I dabbled in it for a while, and started doing it more frequently, and more seriously, from about 2006 on."

What do you find fascinating or intriguing about photographing from the sky?
© Alexander Heilner
"What's most interesting to me is the relationship between artificial infrastructure and the natural environment. It's conceptually interesting because of the economic and environmental issues, and I often examine how humans impact our natural environment, and vice-versa. But it's not only conceptual; many of these human-built structures are also visually striking. Sometimes that's intentional, like the artificial islands in Dubai that have been built to look like palm fronds. Other times it's unintentional, and it's fascinating how something quite pedestrian can become really intriguing when it's abstracted. For example, a single highway winding through a remote landscape becomes about the geometry of that line, or rows of canals dug into the land turn into shapes and patterns. I'm really drawn to the fringes—the edges where urban and natural environments meet."

Why should terrestrial photographers give this a try?
© Alexander Heilner
"Viewing the world from above really changes how we see things, and makes ordinary sights more interesting. We may know rationally what something is, but when we see it from above, we see it in a new way; we may even be amazed by it, and start to ask questions about it. That awareness and interest in looking at things differently continues once you're back on the ground, and for me that's a big part of what's exciting about aerial photography."

Why do you want to teach this workshop?
"I love, love, love teaching! I've taught for a living for many years and I really enjoy being in the classroom with people. For me, teaching and making art are born of the same impulse. It's about recognizing something I find interesting and exciting and wanting to share it with other people. Hopefully, they will find it interesting and exciting too. With art, it's seeing something intriguing and creating an image for people to look at. With teaching, it's sharing a method, or a way of seeing. Both are ways of giving, and sharing my experience with other people. 

For aerial photography specifically, I want to show that it's easier and more accessible than people think. I mean, people are sometimes in awe that I'm doing this, and they really shouldn't be. It's not rocket science! And for the parts of it that are challenging... I can help them get the practice they need and set them up with the skills to do it on their own."

© Alexander Heilner

Why photograph over Santa Fe?
"Santa Fe has a variety of landscapes: remote highways, railroads, mountains, forests, arroyos, rivers, the desert, and of course the city itself. A lot of what we photograph will depend on what participants are interested in. I'm really looking forward to different people's aesthetics leading us in different directions. 

Also, for people who are coming from a place that's visually very different, at first it can be overwhelming to find yourself in this endless desert. But it's a great opportunity to practice narrowing and focusing your attention to see what's really there. Again, it's all about changing your perspective and how you see."

What can people expect from this workshop?
"This workshop will really be a combination of practical skills and aesthetic exploration. There's the logistics of doing this kind of work—getting up there, how you need to adjust your technique, how you photograph from a moving vehicle, how you work in additional dimensions you're not used to, and so on. Then there are the creative aspects—considering what you're saying with your images; whether you shoot straight down or at an angle with the horizon; and what makes a beautiful or interesting aerial photograph. Honestly, the real skill in this work is learning to engage the logistical opportunities and limits in order to serve your conceptual goals. As far as where we'll go and what we photograph, that's going to be determined at least in part by the participants and what they are interested in photographing."

Is there anything else you want to tell people that are considering your Aerial Photography intensive?
I hope participants come into this with a sense of adventure and ready to explore together. I expect we'll learn as much from each other as everyone learns from me. 

Interested in taking your photography higher? Join Alex for his Intensive: Aerial Photography in Santa Fe, October 16-18, 2014.

August 5, 2014

Sean McGann Discusses Myanmar: The Cusp of Globalization

This fall, Santa Fe Photographic Workshops is excited to offer a workshop in the exotic locale of Myanmar. The ten-day workshop, The Golden Land: Myanmar Photo Expedition, runs from October 21-31, 2014 and will be led by photographer and travel expert Sean McGann. We sat down with Sean to discuss Myanmar, photography, and his upcoming workshop. For details on the Myanmar workshop, visit out website here.

Hi Sean. Could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself, your photographic style, and how you got started in photography.

I think when my brother and I were probably 10 and 8, my dad got us each a Pentax K1000 because he was into photography, so I got started with that. I went to school for something completely unrelated; I thought I wanted to work with the State Department so I studied International Relations and Spanish. But in my third year, I realized I wasn’t going to be happy working for the State Department, so I moved to Santa Fe and started shooting fine art nudes. The Ernesto Mayans Gallery picked up my work and Ernesto really taught me everything I needed to know about finishing a fine art portfolio. I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor. Ernesto’s guidance was much like what I’d imagine a couple years of art school would have been like.

I did that for a few years, and I think I started to miss political science, so I applied to the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Then I interned with Steve McCurry in New York and I think everything came together for me. I realized I could be interested in politics and policy and also be interested in images, so I applied to Missouri School of Journalism.

We hear it called Burma and we also hear it called Myanmar. We're confused; which is it?
Both names are derived from the Burmese language, however Burma is the name the British used for its colony, and the name the country was given at the time of independence. Burma is a derivative of Bamar, the largest ethnic group in the country. However, the government officially calls itself the Republic of the Union of Myanmar to indicate that it's a united government inclusive of the many different ethnic groups living in the country.

You’ve been working in Burma since 2007. How did you first become interested in photographing there?

A 92-year-old shaman works the fields.
Right after completing the coursework for graduate school, I worked as Director of Photography Programs for a company that did high school travel. In any given year, they had eight to a dozen programs around the world. It was amazing because I was traveling around the world, photographing all the time, and teaching. I loved teaching and I felt so lucky. I’d wonder ‘How did I fall into this?’

In my role as director, I actually opened up Burma for them. We weren’t going there my first summer, but they sent me in to develop programs. So that was my first time there, for six weeks in 2007, setting up the initial programs. I think I’ve been back a dozen times, and I’ve spent something like 8 months total in country.

You’ve said Burma is your favorite place to photograph in the world. That’s a big statement! What makes Burma such a special place?

Attend the workshop and I’ll show you! It’s just amazing. Burma has been rather inaccessible to the rest of the world since the end of World War II. Up until around 2010, their government was extremely isolationist. So today you have a country that’s pretty much the way it was in the 50’s.

As much of the rest of Asia has modernized to different extents, Burma is still something of a look at pre-globalization Asia. Men are still walking around in the longis, there are ox-drawn carts rolling down the road, buses that look like they fell out of a 1960’s movie, nothing’s really been painted since World War II … the patina of the place alone is unbelievable.

There aren’t Coke cans anywhere, and the little foreign advertising that exists is in the cities. In the rural areas, you have tribes that have hardly been seen in decades. There are Long Neck women who still live the way their parents did, not because tourists pay them. There are indigenous groups that have not traded their traditional clothing for shorts and flip-flops. And the light is spectacular; even at noon you can make a gorgeous photograph.

Really? Even at noon?
Inside a monastery in Myanmar.

Yeah! You go into a monastery, which are generally made of oil stained teak.  They are pitch black, and then you’ve got a window cut out and the noon light spilling in from the side into darkness, so you’ve got these gorgeous pools of light everywhere.

As you’ve said, Myanmar has been isolated until very recently; a lot has changed in the past couple of years. Do you think globalization is on its way?

It’s definitely the type of place that’s not going to be around much longer, or at least it’s not going to be the way it is now. So if you’re going to go, do it in the next few years. All the factories and international companies will be there soon. Right now, it’s just really pristine, and the Burmese are the nicest people in the world. You could stick your head in a total stranger’s door with a camera and within 10 minutes you’d be in there having tea with them. Forget your camera, now you’ve got friends! I’ve been a lot of places in my life and Burma just drips amazing photographs. You pretty much just have to point your camera somewhere and take a picture. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere.

There have been a lot of changes in Burma in the past few years, and you’ve touched on some of the politics of the country. We have to ask: is it safe?

It’s absolutely safe. In 2010-2011, Burma finished a new constitution. They held elections, and they are now considered a constitutional democracy. Ever since this happened, The New York Times and other big papers in London and the U.S. have been touting it as the new Shangri-La. They’re saying, ‘You can finally go to Burma, it’s finally safe.’ But, really, it always has been safe. The last thing any government wants is harm to come to international visitors, and Myanmar is no different.

Do you think the people who are in power now are eager to industrialize and modernize?

I imagine that they only stand to gain from it.

So now that the country has democratized, there probably is a very small window of time before it gets completely globalized, isn’t there?

Exactly, and that's the key reason for this workshop. Now is the time to go. Because there have been trade embargoes for so long they haven’t had access to the tools they need to develop the land. But now that relations with the U.S. have warmed it’s a much more trade-friendly environment. In ten years, I probably won’t even be thinking about going back. The images you might make then, versus what you make now, will appear to be two different worlds.

What can people expect from their workshop experience in Myanmar?

As far as what you’ll see, it’s pretty much the highlights of the country. We’ll start off in Yangon, and go to Shwedagon Pagoda, which is one of the eight holiest sites in the Buddhist world. Then we’ll go up to Mandalay, where we’ll watch 1,000 monks have lunch at the same time. Literally 1,000 monks; it’s amazing.

Teeth stained red from betel nut.
Mandalay is a great city. One of my favorite places to photograph is this street where they carve marble Buddhas for shrines. So you have this entire street of these giant Buddhas in different states of completion. They're carved from white marble, so there’s white dust everywhere. It’s basically the worst place in the world for your camera, but then you see the pictures you’re making and you think, ‘OK, OK, I’ll get it cleaned when I get back to Bangkok,’ because there are white clouds of dust everywhere, and these Burmese guys who are dark, dark skinned are chewing on betel nut, which turns your mouth blood red. So they’re dripping crimson red, with white dust all over their faces and dark eyes peering through … it’s just a great place to shoot.

Sounds fantastic! Where else will you go?

There’s a few stops in Mandalay, then we go to Bagan. The temples there are 1,500 years old, and there’s something like 3,000 of them in 20 square miles—anything from a little stupa to a large pyramid. That may be my favorite place to photograph anywhere. It’s right along the Irrawaddy River, so you’ve got sesame farmers and palm sugar plantations, and people climbing up the palm trees on ropes with knives hanging off their backs. You’ve got people plowing ox carts right around these temples—people live amongst them, around them, and in them. Everything seems to be done in slow motion. An ox cart will go by full of sugar, and kids are running past you in school uniforms with their slingshots, shooting at the goats … there’s something around every corner.

So all the agriculture is done with hand tools?

Oh yeah, it’s all hand done. They use elephants, water buffalo, and oxen. I don’t think I’ve ever seen mechanized farming.  I’m sure somebody’s got one a tractor but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one.

That sounds very peaceful.
Classic fishing scene on Inle Lake.

Bagan really is. After Bagan we go to Inle Lake. That’s where we’ll see the classic scenes of the fishermen who are standing in their boats with the big nets. Everything is done on the water. The houses are built on stilts, so there are entire villages standing above the water. They create what they call floating gardens; the lake is huge, but very shallow, so they take long stakes and stick them in the bottom and they wrap weeds and plants around the stakes at the surface. Then they plant tomatoes and corn right in the water. It’s like standing hydroponics. The roots grow through the mat of weeds and everything grows literally right there on top of the water. Then they go up and down the rows of their garden in their canoes and harvest. They grow everything; eggplants, tomatoes, peas, beans. It’s unbelievable.

Floating gardens in Burma.

So how would you sum up the Myanmar workshop experience?

This is kind of the must-see highlights of the country, and it’s great for first-time visitors to get a sense of the place. I’ve been traveling there for so long that there are a lot of personal connections and little corners I know very well. So it’s the highlights but you’re doing it with someone who really knows the country and has a lot of personal connection to the place.

August 1, 2014

The Right Direction: Participant Melinda Green Harvey Shares

A turn for the better. 

Reblogged with permission from Melinda Green Harvey's blog, One Day | One Image. The original post can be found here. We love the photographic journey that Melinda shares here; she beautifully captures in words and images a feeling we—and many of our participants—can relate to.
A curious thing happened during my week at The Workshops. The sky, the horizon, the colors, the clouds – things that normally provide me with great comfort – held little interest.
I struggled. With everything. Nothing felt right, and under that vast sky, I began to look inward. One day, I put down my camera, sat on a rock, and cried. I cried because I didn’t tryst myself, didn’t trust my vision, didn’t know if I even had a vision. I cried because I didn’t know what else to do. I was reminded of the words of songwriter Bruce Cockburn, who admits to “ranting in self doubt.” I did my fair share of ranting.
I wanted to give up. I wanted to keep going. I loved what I was doing. And I hated it.
Then another curious thing happened: a series of images gradually found their way to me. They lined themselves up in an order that depicted my struggle, and I am grateful to them for showing me the path that I have traveled and for hinting at what’s to come. I’m not there yet; I haven’t even figured out where “there” is. But I sense a turn in the right direction.
Photos taken during The American West: Crafting Fine Digital Prints, at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, in July 2014:
near Abiquiu, New Mexico
The beginning of the end
near Madrid, New Mexico
A deliberate placement
El Santuario de Chimayó
Chimayó, New Mexico
Many things require an anchor
near Abiquiu, New Mexico
Going around back
Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico
The way begins to be revealed
near Madrid, New Mexico
Solace in the midst of storms
near Abiquiu, New Mexico
My profound thanks to Brett Erickson, who led the workshop and without whose patience and support I could not have written these words, or made these images.

To see more of Melinda's photographs, you can follow her blog One Day | One Image, or her other blogs, The Poetry of PhotographyMisc & So Forth, and Dirtgazing. 

July 15, 2014

SFPW Staff Picks: What's Your Essential Piece of Camera Gear?

When it comes to photography, everyone is different. Some people like a lot of gear, and others like to keep it simple. Some folks like film, while others prefer digital. You can tell a lot about a person from what they use to photograph. So we asked our core staff, recent instructors and seasonal support staff: "What's your most essential piece of photo gear?"

Reid Callanan

“A camera, any camera, that's the only thing you really need. You don't need a tripod; you don't need a flash. A lightweight camera with a short lens, maybe a 24-70mm is what I take with me, in a backpack. I like a minimal amount of equipment and go as simple and lightweight and unobtrusive as possible.”

Renie Haiduk
Director of Operations           

“My iPhone because it's always with me and I can make it do what I like! If I'm going out with my “Big Girl” camera, I always take my Lensbaby. I like my Lensbaby because I have no interest on recording reportage. Lensbaby gives me the feeling I'm going for, an interpretation of what's on front of me.”

Cotton Miller
AV Coordinator            

“Lately I've been shooting with an SX-70, but other than that, a Pentax 67 medium format film camera.”

Abigail Moore
Digital Lab Assistant

“My camera, that's pretty key. But really, I don't shoot digital, so I’d have to say my super squishy camera strap with pockets—comfort is key when shooting with a heavy camera!”

Brandon Johnson
Operations Assistant 

“My camera. I am SO not a techie kind of person.”

Will Van Beckum
Digital Lab Coordinator

“My 50mm prime lens, because I rely pretty heavily on really shallow depth of field and being able to shoot in any lighting conditions. Being able to open up my aperture to f/1.4 allows me to be really selective in my focus. Since I shoot on a full frame sensor, it allows me to get as shallow a depth of field as possible. Oh, and a snack is essential too! You get hungry and the creativity just stops.”

Carrie McCarthy
Marketing Creative Director

“It's very simple. It's my camera. I used to go with a camera bag full of lenses and flash equipment, and I keep stripping down. When I went to Cuba I put out everything I wanted to take. Then I visualized myself on the move… it'd be hot, we'd be going from place to place... So I brought one body, two lenses, and a mirrorless camera. That’s it. I found I enjoyed the process so much more with less gear.”

Melyssa Holik
Marketing Assistant

“I have this ultra-wide 14mm that’s really bare bones basic. It has no auto focus and the aperture is manual. I originally bought it for budget reasons, but now I’m finding I actually really love that everything is manual. It’s tactile, it’s immediate, and there are no electronics between me and the lens. It takes me back to when I first started photographing as a kid. The only downside is that my metadata is always way off!”

Instructor: A Natural Eye: The Summer Landscape

“My eyes!”

Instructor, Photographing People

“Good shoes! (Like Puma’s!)”

Instructor, The Editorial Portrait

“Except for a camera, a $2 piece of cardboard we put silver reflective foil on. That's the one thing I always have with me.”

Instructor, Crafting Dramatic Light with Small Strobes

“A Hoodman loupe. It's essential for because my over-the-hill eyes can't see the LCD on my digital camera! It also allows me to read the histogram in any light.”

Josh Withers
Instructor: Photoshop: Intro to Compositing

“My eyeballs!”

Mark Woodward
Course Coordinator

“Relationship with a subject is the most important. I like to forget that the actual reason I'm there is to take pictures. As far as gear: as much as I like shooting digital, photographing with a Hasselblad kind of slows me down, which I like. And maybe some red wine too!”

Emily Mason
Work Study

“My D-SLR. I used to only photograph with a Hasselblad 500c but these days, I’m loving my digital.”

Leah Woodruff
Studio Coordinator

“My digital SLR.”

Sarah Putnam
Intensive Course Coordinator

“Probably my camera, my favorite is my 4x5.”

Alicia Turbitt
Course Coordinator

“My favorite is 120 color film, because I think the color on it is just so saturated, and it's something I feel is a little lost in digital.”

Stefan Wachs
Assistant Studio Coordinator

“My medium format film camera.”

Jeremy Shockley
Course Coordinator

“My iPhone 5, just because I never have to worry about accidentally leaving my camera behind. I'm never without a camera and that opens up a lot of doors, and really gives me a lot of freedom.”

Morgan Cadigan
Work Study

“My 35mm prime lens, because the aperture goes to f/1.8 and I like that, plus it's small and unobtrusive.” 

What's your essential piece of gear? Grab it and join us in Santa Fe or around the world for a workshop this summer or fall!