In May 2016 I went to New York to join 11 other students to learn from one of the greats of our craft, David Alan Harvey. David is a photographer who I have been following for about 5 years, his prolific career with National Geographic, Magnum, as founding editor of Burn magazine and the many great books he has published have earned him a valued place in photographic history. Since I’ve returned from New York I’ve had a number of people ask me about the experience so I’m writing this post to give you a flavour of what went on and why, if you’re reasonably proficient to start with, I would really recommend working with someone of his calibre to improve your photography. I’m not saying you need to be ‘advanced’ but David didn’t pull his punches so you really need to be up for the challenge of pushing your work to new heights. (click on any pictures to see larger & right arrow to scroll through sets & ‘esc’ to close)
My fellow students came from far and wide, Canada, LA, Miami, Colorado, Berlin, Paris, Puerto Rico and Russia. The premise for the week was to shoot each day on a project of our own determining, and to work towards creating a narrative in the form of a slide show with titles and music. I had travelled to New York with several ideas for documentary projects, having contacted various organisations in advance which I felt could lead to interesting photographs. Unfortunately none of these plans came to fruition in the short timescale available so I was still unsure as to what I would shoot when my plane touched down at JFK. As a failsafe, I also put out a casting call on Model Mayhem looking to work with a model at some point that week. The day before the workshop started, I spent 2 hours photographing a young actress/model called Anna Ilina who I had chosen from the 60 or so applications (inc. emails) to my casting call. 21 year old Anna had an enigmatic mix of European and American looks, with Russian ancestry and having grown up in New York. She proved to be classy, beautiful and versatile as an actress. Even with our limited time, we managed to achieve a good variety of looks and feelings in the initial pictures we made around Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg.
Our first meeting with David (although some students knew him from previous workshops) was on the Sunday afternoon at his Kent Avenue loft. This amazing building is the home to many other high profile photographers and many creative types, the stairwell had a concrete, industrial feel and the light which poured in through the massive windows was a photographers wet dream. As the week progressed we all shot many photographs in this space, on the roof and in the apartment. David then spoke of what was to come during the week, mentioned some of the highlights and laid out the structure of the workshop and what was expected of us. I had no idea there was going to be so many interesting guest speakers joining us or that we would be visiting Manhattan as a group to meet with two pillars of the New York photography world. We headed up to his roof space where we enjoyed a few beers and we all got to know each other against the darkening backdrop of the Manhattan skyline. We then dispersed into the streets just before dusk, many intending to shoot immediately for the first day’s critique session, the next morning. (click for larger pictures, right arrow to scroll to next)
On the first morning we arrived to find a large spread of US style breakfast awaiting us. I won’t go into the specifics of each day but David was constantly talking about photography, his motivation, his challenges, even taking us through the RAW files from great shoots which later became published books. When you’re exposed to that kind of talent and openness on a daily basis, your judgement and aspirations become elevated. But more crucially, when your work is critiqued on a daily basis in front of your peers and is sometimes found lacking, it really pushes you to do better the next day. We started by showing David some of the work from our portfolios and whatever we had managed to shoot for the workshop so far. I showed David a mixture of what I considered my best work from the past few years including a few of my recent India shots. His instinctive assessment was overall, fairly positive, but he pointed out that some of my India work was ‘cliched’ and I immediately recognised that in those pictures. A highlight of the week for me was his comment that my picture of the Taj Mahal was one of the best he’d ever seen of that well photographed monument. When we looked at the work I had done with Anna in Bedford Avenue, he leaned back in his chair and said “Fuck!….Dude!” which he meant as an entirely positive reaction, it was a moment I will never forget! (click for larger pictures)
Throughout the week, we received daily inspiration and guidance from David’s discussions about his own work and the work of those he admires, along with continued critiques. That alone would have made for a wonderful learning experience but he had also arranged for some incredible guest speakers to talk to us. These included the photographer, activist and lecturer Ruddy Roye, the LA photographer Panos Skoulidas, the skateboarding photographer and film-maker Anthony Smallwood and the television producer John Mitchem. We also had a visit from the lady who runs Magnum in New York and her colleague who deals with the editorial assignments given to Magnum members. One day we headed out to the centre of Manhattan to visit the Howard Greenberg Gallery on 5th Avenue. I have been wanting to visit this gallery for some time as it was Howard who was responsible for the late resurgence in the work of one of my heroes, Saul Leiter. Not only did we get to view the two exhibitions on display by Mary Ellen Mark and Kathy Ryan, Howard Greenberg gave us a talk about his business and some advice on dealing with galleries. The exhibition “Office Romance” by Kathy Ryan, who is the Director of photography at the New York Times magazine was particularly beautiful. All shot with an iphone in her office on 8th Avenue and originally posted on Instagram for her friends, it showed how the photographer’s eye is far more important than the equipment used. Unbelievably, we then walked straight down to Kathy’s office at the New York Times and sat down with her to hear all about the magazine, how she puts it together and how she deals with photographers. It was an unforgettable day. (click for larger pictures)
The week was capped with the screening of our slide show in front of a packed room of people from the world of photography. It was opened by Magnum photographer Bruce Gilden who was fascinating to talk with. I always imagined that Dennis Hopper’s Apocalypse Now character was based on Bruce but having now met him, I think Hopper probably didn’t go far enough! Bruce showed us some highlights from his prolific career and then our 12 slideshows were shown as one entity. It was well received by the audience and it was great to see just how far we had all come. The work by the other students was genuinely exciting to see and of a great standard. From seeing the other student’s work being critiqued each day, I was gaining much more insight into what makes a successful image than if it were just my own work being assessed. I will post the video of the group slideshow here when it becomes available in the next few days. Following the show, the party continued both in the loft and up on the rooftop where I took lots of pictures of students, speakers and guests. (click for larger pictures, right arrow to scroll to next)
So what did I learn on this immersive and intense week of photography? Its not easy to put into words but I know it was, for myself anyway, quite profound! We barely discussed camera equipment, technique or digital processing during the whole week. These are regular topics of conversation amongst most photographers and areas which are often prevalent in many photographic workshops (including my own!) This workshop dealt with the bigger picture, what is it we actually want to say with our photography and why? For myself, this was the first time I had really explored working with a model in new ways, trying to create some images which were about more than just beauty or aesthetics. On my last shoot in Times Square we walked around for 15 minutes looking for inspiration, I knew I wanted some form of interaction but I wasn’t sure exactly what. Then I started directing Anna to act out the role of a narcissistic egomaniac and very quickly my focus became the reactions of those passing by. I enjoyed trying to capture the reactions of people and I can already see a number of ways one could improve and repeat this idea in different scenarios so I hope to do more of this in the future. (click for larger pictures, right arrow to scroll to next)
I also know that having been exposed to the repeated constructive criticism of a photographer who’s own work I regard highly, my judgement of my own work has definitely ‘gone up a notch’. Upon returning to the UK I immediately began weeding out some of the work that I now no longer class as my best, from the landing page of my website. I also think this workshop will influence the way I teach my workshops from now on. I would definitely be keen to incorporate more challenge and critique elements into future workshops.
Lastly, I want to touch on the moving talk given to us by Ruddy Roye. Ruddy teaches at Columbia University, makes photographs, writes prolifically and does some broadcasting. His work with a camera started in Jamaica photographing the dance hall scene in Kingston. He also covered the violence in Kingston and the consequences of that violence on peoples lives. Although he is now based in Brooklyn, his current photography looks at individual’s lives all across the US, highlighting the struggles that remain for people of colour. He is also very keen to use his photography to show how much we all have in common regardless of our backgrounds to help break down racial divisions. To see some of his recent images and see what he’s up to, check out his Instagram account here. The descriptions and stories which accompany his pictures are often quite illuminating.
His talk was essentially a plea to all of us to think about using our photography as a tool to help society and to make a difference. This may all sound rather earnest and worthy but he delivered his talk with great humour and poignancy. As someone who has mostly been taking ‘pretty pictures’ and concerned only with aesthetic pursuits, I’m not likely to run out and become a humanitarian photographer overnight. But I have to say that I found his ethos and his request of us, most convincing. I know that if I ever do anything remotely ‘meaningful’ with my photography, its roots would lie in the talk he gave us.
Lastly, a few more pictures I shot during the week… (click for larger pictures, right arrow to scroll to next)