I thought it would be worthwhile to pass on to the forum the experience I had this weekend at the Introduction to Large Format Photography workshop, taught by Michael Gordon and Guy Tal. The workshop took place in the Eastern Sierra Nevada, 15 miles west of Bishop, California.
Going into the workshop, I understood that the instructors would review large format photography, from soup to nuts. I further expected, and it played out, that of the 7 students, six had a fair amount of experience in either photography generally, as refugees from 35mm and/or medium format. The most telling experience was that of the 7th student, who had never picked up a 4x5 camera before. Would the instructors be able to present the workshop in a manner that was meaningful to all of the students? This issue was of particular concern to me, because the 7th student was my wife.
For years my wife has tolerated my interest in photography, but has shown no significant interest in making photographs herself. She has owned a 35mm point and shoot, which I purchased for her, and more recently she has used a digital point and shoot. She has used her camera exclusively for snapshots. In the days leading up to the workshop she asked me on a number of occasions, “why did you sign me up for this workshop?” As we drove to Bishop she admitted that she felt quite threatened by the workshop, didn’t know the first thing about a 4x5 camera, or for that matter a light meter, and was prepared to skip out on the workshop if she did not understand what was being taught, or felt as though she was holding up the learning of the other students.
With this as a backdrop, we met the instructors and other students at their camp (they had all chosen to camp out in a campground, while we stayed in a Bishop hotel). From the start the instructors and other students were very welcoming to my wife, and offered a great deal of encouragement. I vividly recall late in the first morning session seeing my wife practicing loading a sheet film holder, a mental picture which was simply beyond my comprehension before the workshop.
At the end of the first morning session as we drove to lunch, my wife suggested that although she had doubts as to whether she would ever get the hang of large format, her interest had been sufficiently piqued after the first 4 hours that she wanted to buy either a 35mm SLR film or digital camera. I could go on in great detail about our experiences at the workshop, but at the last session my wife announced to all that she had been converted from a non-photographer, to a large format photographer. It would have been unimaginable for me prior to the workshop to discuss large format cameras, but there we were towards the end of the workshop discussing what would be the best camera for her. In short, the instructors had successfully completed a Herculean task, all the while at no disservice to the other students.
Over the years I have attend 5 or 6 photography workshops, although this was my first large format workshop. With no disrespect intended to the instructors at the workshops I had previously attended, the tandem of Michael Gordon and Guy Tal were simply the best instructors I have had? I suspect my fellow students (and yes, even my wife) share my sentiments.
What made Michael and Guy so great was the fact that as accomplished photographers, they were able to communicate the technical side of large format photography in an understandable manner. The teaching style they employed was very different from one another – Guy generally teaching the technical aspects, while Michael would chime in with examples from a less technical perspective. The combination was extremely effective. To have someone walk me through each of the movements of a large format camera was worth considerably more than the price of the workshop.
Going in to the workshop, I had fairly significant gaps within my knowledge of how to do things, which Guy tended to explain, and Michael tended to show to me. Don’t get me wrong, gaps still exist, but they are considerably smaller because of the workshop, and the hands-on teaching of Michael and Guy. Yes, I will have to practice tilts, swings and shifts, and my use of split grads will have to be refined, but with practice these things now seem possible.
The Gordon/Tal workshop is appropriate for those of us who consider ourselves beginners, or at an intermediate stage. And the price was extremely reasonable. As part of my journey to immerse myself in large format photography I have read a number of books and have begun the long road of practicing to increase my technical and compositional skills. I think that this workshop speeded up the process for me significantly, because I have had assistance from the instructors in how to perform a number of functions with my camera. I will still need to spend the time honing my skills and burning through a lot of film, and I look forward to doing so, but Michael and Guy have considerably speeded up my learning curve. There is a little light down the tunnel.
At the end of the workshop Michael and Guy shared some of their work with us. I think the timing of sharing their work was very appropriate, as it gave us all something to aspire to, after they had shared some of the tools for getting there.
Needless to say, I heartily recommend the Gordon/Tal “Introduction to Large Format Photography” class for all large format photographers who are new, or relatively new, to large format photography.