Picturing Santa Fe
At the beginning of a workshop on travel photography I attended early this summer, I asked a fellow student why he’d come all the way to New Mexico to study the art of making pictures. “I’m not a beach person,” he said. “My idea of a vacation is to work hard at something I love.”
We were at the Sunday night welcome dinner for the Santa Fe Photography Workshops, which offers a series of about 40 weeklong classes every summer on topics ranging from fashion portraits to digital imaging. The workshops’ campus is a Catholic retreat center in the sun-blasted foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a 10-minute drive southeast of Santa Fe’s historic plaza. It is also not so far from the lonely village off U.S. 285 where Ansel Adams shot the haunting photograph, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941.” Just north of that, Georgia O’Keeffe found the landscape that inspired some of her most arresting paintings in the barren red hills around Ghost Ranch.
“Half your work is done for you in New Mexico,” O’Keeffe once said. So it’s hardly puzzling that even before she came to the high desert valley of the Rio Grande in 1929, Santa Fe had grown from a rough and tumble territorial capital where judges were gunned down in the street to a sophisticated city with a Museum of Fine Arts and its own little Bohemia. The latter was established among the shady adobes that line winding Canyon Road by a group of artists called Los Cinco Pintores (the five painters). Soon after that, modernist painters such as O’Keeffe and photographers such as Adams, Paul Strand, Beaumont Newhall and Eliot Porter started settling in, many drawn west from Greenwich Village by the wealthy art patron, Mabel Dodge Luhan, who had a house in Taos, 70 miles northeast.
Today Santa Fe and art are virtually synonymous, of course--especially in the high summer season. The city, which welcomes about 1.4 million visitors a year, has a renowned opera that got a dramatic, new roofed theater this year, a busy concert and theatrical calendar, seven museums (including the world-class Museum of International Folk Art) and 250 galleries. About a hundred of these are on old Canyon Road--now Madison Avenue West--where the Santa Fe decorative style was born. Art looks particularly fetching against adobe walls, and every Friday night brings at least half a dozen art openings. Not bad for a desert town of 67,000, founded by the Spanish in 1607 at the northern terminus of the Camino Real.
Reid Callanan, who started the Santa Fe Workshops in 1989, after serving as a program director for the prestigious Maine Photography Workshops in Rockport, says that the city’s confluence of Spanish, Native American and Anglo cultures, the landscape, art and predominantly adobe architecture are what attracted him to Santa Fe. That, and the ineffable light. “Never is the light more pure and overweening than there,” wrote D.H. Lawrence, “arching with a royalty almost cruel over the hallow, uptilted world.”
Perhaps more important to photographers, in the summertime it also is extraordinarily varied and long-lived--starting flat before dawn at 6, glaring by noon, turning subtle and cool as the sun descends into the Jemez Mountains to the west, and finally disappearing at 8 or 8:30 p.m. in a reliably stunning glow, with clouds suitable for a saint’s apotheosis. In short, a photographer’s dream--at least 12 hours of F-stop and shutter speed adjustments a day.
Frankly, I’m an unlikely candidate for photography workshops: a right-brain person as a writer, not a visually oriented left-brain type, and in the past a random picture-taker as opposed to a careful image-maker. But after the welcome dinner at the Quail Run Club about a 10-minute drive south of the workshops’ campus, we were shown an inspiring slide show about the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson called “The Decisive Moment” in which the French photographer says that for photography, “You don’t need a brain. All you need is sensitivity, a finger and two legs.” Which I have, I think. At the time I also had a very fancy borrowed Canon EOS A2E camera and set of lenses I barely knew how to use.
Photography workshops are offered by individual photographers and organizations all over the country, from Disney World in Florida to the Yosemite Field Institute, which is why I did a good deal of shopping around before choosing one. What attracted me to Santa Fe was the workshops’ reasonable price ($650 tuition for travel photography); large staff and small class size (there were nine students in mine, with one instructor and a teaching assistant); 30% student return rate; and faculty, which includes the celebrated National Geographic photographer, Sam Abell. But his classes fill up a year in advance and require portfolio review for admission.
Actually, most of Santa Fe’s workshops are fairly advanced. Seventy percent of the students are professionals, 30% serious amateurs, and portfolios are generally mandatory for classes with high-profile instructors such as Joyce Tenneson and Dan Winters, who both were teaching artsy portrait workshops during the week I wanted to attend. So I felt lucky to find the travel photography workshop for advanced amateurs and professionals led by Bobbi Lane, an L.A.-based photographer with an extremely practical approach.
She has taught UCLA Extension classes in photography for more than a decade, done travel assignments and work for corporate clients, and sold hundreds of photos for use in ads, posters and billboards.
Several weeks before the workshop, I received a big packet of information that included a letter from Bobbi asking students to come up with a subject for a picture story (for instance, adobe architecture, Spanish churches, or Taos), a questionnaire, and a lengthy equipment list.
Fortunately, the workshop has a store that sells film and equipment made by corporate sponsors such as Canon and Kodak; students are given four rolls of Kodak E100 and E200 film, a tote bag and lots of tourist information; and cameras, lenses and tripods can be borrowed on a daily basis from the studio for free. The $85 lab fee covers development of 10 rolls of 36-exposure E6 film, with each roll thereafter priced at $8.50 and processed overnight, so photos are ready for class critiques the morning after you shoot them.
I’d also signed up for a dorm room at the retreat center (six nights for $390, with a private bath) and the full meal plan ($145 for breakfasts and lunches, and the opening and closing night dinners). Some students in my class cut costs by staying with friends, while one man, who owns a printing company in North Carolina and had come to Santa Fe with his wife, got accommodations at the luxurious Inn of the Anasazi.
But staying in a clean, spartan room with a double bed and small sitting area at the retreat center--which up until this spring was a seminary and still houses nine cloistered Carmelite nuns--proved the most convenient arrangement. The food was hearty, if not gourmet, and the adobe campus pretty, with flower beds, benches, shade trees and the occasional serendipitous sight (a nun in full habit pushing a lawn mower). There were things to do nearby, such as jogging on the track at St. John’s College up the hill or hiking the Atalaya trail, accessible from the arroyo beneath my window. And I had a rental car, which meant I’d be able to take in more far-flung sights.
As it turned out, sightseeing was out of the question, due to my workshop’s harried pace. During the first morning of class alone we covered masses of information on composition, bracketing (which involves taking three exposures of each shot at different aperture settings to make sure you get the right amount of light), the use of tripods and hand-held light meters, and professional slide film, which is by and large what travel photographers shoot.
After a 45-minute lunch break, we were back in class for a lesson on lighting patterns before setting off on a field trip to a historic hacienda on the Rio Grande called Los Luceros, about half an hour north of town. There we shot indoors using exquisitely soft available light (and no flashes). But I couldn’t get my tripod steady and hadn’t a clue about how to calculate F-stops and shutter speeds, since in the past I’d always put my camera on automatic. I begged Bobbi to let me do so again, but she wanted me to learn how to use the manual settings, believing, as Cicero wrote, “What we do not understand we do not possess.”
For dinner at about 7 p.m., we gobbled down some of the most delicious tacos I’ve ever tasted at a roadside stand called El Parasol in the hamlet of Espanola, making it back to campus just in time for slide presentations in the auditorium by several faculty members. The images of New Mexico by Mark Nohl and delicate, almost Pre-Rafaelite nudes by Joyce Tenneson were astonishing. But in my exhausted, over-loaded state, I couldn’t really take them in. My eyes were full of dust and my nose was bleeding intermittently, due to the aridity. All I wanted was a hot bath and bed, but my sleep was too brief because I felt I needed to get up early the next morning for camera practice in dawn light.
So the schedule went for the next five intense and very hot days. But I gradually settled down, thanks largely to Bobbi, who had a mop of red hair and a useful way of silently looking me in the eye when I asked some stupid, frazzled question. Her friends call her “Bobbi the Blunt,” she told us, but she was gentle enough in her critiques, extremely well-prepared and funny. Most of all, though, I liked her unpretentious, capable air; if she could take pictures that made the covers of magazines, maybe, with a lot of hard work, I could too.
I grew exceedingly fond of my fellow classmates, including the North Carolinian, Bill, who used to say he was going hunting when he went out to take pictures. He and a man named Vaughn, who never showed up without his 10-gallon hat and owned a digital printing and publishing company in Santa Fe, talked Hasselblads and Leicas, while a young woman from Denver and I shared stories about our travels in India. Virginia, another student, had come from Maine because she’d signed up to work at a charity ward in New Delhi in the fall and wanted to document the experience with her camera. And then there was Margaret, a dauntless grandmother born in Scotland. One morning, while going through her slides at the light table, she winsomely said, “It’s like a feast, isn’t it? Having to choose.”
Over the course of the week’s shooting at a living history museum south of Santa Fe called Rancho de Las Golondrinas and a flea market near the opera, on the plaza, and along Canyon Road, I took 22 roles of film--coming up with enough good slides for a rather meager meal. But everyone loved my off-center cow skull, world-weary little boy from the flea market and subtly colored bench at Los Luceros--though my favorite shot was of a chicken at Las Golondrinas. Virginia produced the best picture story, on a soup kitchen in Santa Fe, with every slide emanating her own deep personal attachment to the subject. And when they showed everybody’s top slides (including my chicken) at the closing night dinner, we did our instructor proud--or so Bobbi said.
At the end of the workshop, I got a class picture and a diploma, and knew more than a few new things about photography. For instance, I’ll never shoot again without bracketing or the right illumination, and I set my camera on manual now because it gives me more control. I’m a lot less nervous about asking people I don’t know to pose for a picture. Except for an interesting exhibit on women photographers at the Museum of Fine Arts, I didn’t manage to take in much of Santa Fe while I was there. And apart from one excellent class dinner at the chic Santacafe downtown, my eating habits tended toward Power Bars and Big Macs.
But I do think that I’ve learned to see in a new way: colors, shapes and compositions as opposed to pretty scenes that look good through the viewfinder but don’t come back from the lab as prize shots.
And I got Bobbi to give me three basic tips for amateurs who want to take better pictures: Shoot in the golden light, an hour before sunset; take pictures of people; and come in close. Then too, I’ve got that chicken shot, which cries out for a frame.
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Santa Fe Snaps
Getting there: To Albuquerque, there’s nonstop service on Southwest and connecting service (one plane change) on America West, United and Delta, all from LAX; fares begin at $136 round trip. At the Albuquerque Airport, I rented an economy-size car for $149.59 a week from Alamo. The trip to Santa Fe takes an hour, due north on Interstate 25. You can fly LAX-Santa Fe, connecting service on United (changing planes in Denver) and American (Dallas); fares begin at $156 round trip.
The Santa Fe Photography and Digital Workshops: P.O. Box 9916, Santa Fe, NM 87504-5916; telephone (505) 983-1400, fax (505) 989-8604. Summer workshops are held in eight weeklong sessions, from June 14 to Aug. 9. Fall and winter digital courses and winter and spring photography classes, on-the-road courses, workshops, and a new program called “A Gathering of Women Photographers” are available.
For more information: Visitor information is available from the Santa Fe Convention & Visitors Bureau, Sweeney Center, 201 W. Marcy St., Santa Fe, NM 87501; tel. (800) 777-2489 or (505) 984-6760. Or from the New Mexico Department of Tourism, 491 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe, NM 87503; tel. (800) 545-2040 or (505) 827-7400, fax (505) 827-7402.