Black Boots Ink Workshop

Photography has always been a solitary experience for me. I am lucky enough to have a wife who loves photography too so we talk about photography and art when we browse new photo books as they arrive in our house and as we look at our own and the pictures of others. However, even if I go out to make pictures with Patti or other photo-buddies at some point it is just you and the camera and what you see through the lens. When you get back home it is just you and a pile of virtual pictures to sift through. When you process and post your images to the interweb, more often than not, the result is a deafening silence.

Black Boots Ink Peeps: Emilio & Brad

I am entirely self-taught apart from one afternoon lesson back in the 80's from my uncle on how to use the dark room and one community college class on the history of photography (due to outdated text books, the history of photography apparently ends in the late 80's). Everything else I learned initially from books borrowed from the library and more recently from the web (for the technical stuff) and from pouring through the photo monographs we collect and visiting gallery shows trying to work out for myself what I like, why I like it and how I can take that and apply it to my own work. 

So, I've never really had a live critique or really worked with a group of other photographers in a collaborative way rather that just alongside them. I think it's understandable why I went into the Black Boots Ink workshop / 'Wandering In The Company of Strangers' project with a combination of excitement and anxiety. Would I measure up? Would the instruction be over my head and lose me, or aimed too low? What are the chances that the first workshop I ever attended would be the perfect combination of pushing me to grow in a supportive environment?

Black Boots Ink Peeps: Ibarionex

I hadn't heard of Black Boots Ink until the only photo podcast I listen to religiously (The Candid Frame) mentioned them. I thought the opportunity to work with Ibarionex in my hometown was too good to pass up and a visit to the Black Boots Ink website just gave me a good vibe. Without really knowing what the workshop would entail I signed both myself and my wife up to participate. It was a chance that paid off.

We met up last Friday night in the banquet hall of an Indian Restaurant to meet our instructors and peers. It was great to meet Ibarionex in real life and he comes across just as he did in his podcast; it was like meeting an old friend for the first time. Emilio, the co-leader of the workshop and co-founder of Black Boots Ink, was a revelation who immediately inspires confidence. It was also exciting to meet the other participants whose websites I had been exploring for a couple of days prior. What the websites didn't impart was the diversity that the attendees would bring to the table from young under-graduates from the Academy of Art to a retiree traveling in from Ohio - in age at least, Patti and I fall neatly between the two. Despite of our differences the group quickly gelled through a couple of exercises, chatting and our common love of photography.

After getting home and, upon Emilio's instructions, removing the conspicuous Canon 'steal-me' straps from our cameras and using electrical tape to cover the cameras logos, then packing all our gear ready for the morning it was after 1:30am before I finally got to sleep. The alarm went off way to early so that we could get to Pier 39 by 8am. We had been inundated with rain all the previous week but the weathermen had been promising that Saturday would be fine; what do they know? Amid showers we spent a couple of hours walking with Ibarionex and Emilio and a few hearty locals and tourists at the wharf. The wharf was a great place to start applying some street photography basics - it's like street photography with training wheels; bright, lively and non-threatening. Unfortunately the showers were keeping the crowds down so we had to work some slim pickings and yet everyone seemed to find something of interest. We returned to our Indian restaurant, back room HQ to download our cameras, dry off and eat some lunch. Ibarionex then reviewed some of the raw images we had taken and Emilio taught us some of the finer points about street photography; particularly useful was his descriptions of when to fish and when to hunt for images and the fact that taking photos and making pictures is more than just a matter of semantics.

Black Boots Ink Peeps: Unni

By 2pm we were back on the streets. Patti and I had an interesting excursion into the Tenderloin - I'm not sure why we wouldn't think us middle class white folks carrying expensive looking cameras would not stand out or be particularly welcome in that area. With our tails between our legs we were rescued by a friendly cab driver and safely delivered to Union Square. In less threatening environment we split up and started trying to make pictures in that area and down to Market Street. It's an interesting place to shoot as it is where tourists mingle with wealthy shoppers and street entertainers, preachers and panhandlers trying to make a buck or a point. Looking through my photography you will see I am much more comfortable shooting things rather than people but I tried to force myself not to rely on my old architectural standbys but to at least try to capture some of the life on the street. After several hours of walking and shooting I can't say I was comfortable with shooting strangers but I was getting a little more used to it but as the light began to die we retreated back to our base to download our cameras again.

The next day was a more civilized 10am start but I still had a sleep hangover after staying up past 1am again, this time installing Lightroom on Patti's Mac which had mysteriously uninstalled itself after the Snow Leopard update. The theme for the day was learning how to edit the wheat from the chaff of our images and what to do with those images once you had distilled them down. In addition to Emilio and Ibarionex we were lucky enough to have Ray from Hamburger Eyes show us work from his publications and talk a little about his field. All this content was great but it did seem like we went from having all day to one hour to whittle down our harvested images to five edited images for projection at that evening's show. Working in the software industry with techies not creative types I assume deadlines are solid unless I'm told otherwise so I hacked away to get five images ready for delivery. I was a little surprised as the deadline loomed large to have opportunity to sit down with both Emilio and then Ibarionex for a goodly amount of time each going through my images, to talk about both the photographic process and editing choices. This may have been the most impactful time for me of the whole workshop. It is easy to describe Emilio in one word: intense. Not that kind of humorless intensity but a intensity that looks you right in the face and lets you know you're in a no bull shit zone and that he knows what you're trying to do, what you're doing that works and what falls flat. Ibarionex's word would be 'supportive' but not the wishy-washy kind of supportive you usually encounter. Ibarionex's supportiveness is more focused and decisive and about helping you find and tell your narrative. Both points of view were extremely valuable to me.

Black Boots Ink Workshop: Inside & Out

Somehow both teachers seemed to spend time with everyone and everyone still managed to deliver images in time for the evening's show. The tangle of extension cords, laptops and all their chaotic power supplies and accessories were hastily stowed in time for friends and supporters to arrive. As I drank a well deserved (I think) beer and watched each of my class mates present their work I couldn't believe we'd only been together for a weekend. We'd all been in the same place but everyone had found their own story to tell in pictures as diverse as the participants themselves. 'T' is a ways down the alphabetical list but getting up to present my own shots I didn't feel the usual nervousness I feel getting up in front of a room but just a cushion of support. In my usual solitary photographic pursuits I upload my pictures to the web in absolute quiet. To hear applause when your pictures are seen and see people's faces as they are shown is a new experience for me.

Exhausted, Patti and I crawled home after the show. I need a weekend to recover from my weekend but I take away so much from this experience. I'm not a street photographer but I still learned much that I can take away and apply to my work. I'm not going to go away and try to be a modern HCB or sell my DSLR to buy a 35mm rangefinder but perhaps I'll try to include more people among my buildings and something more human in my abstracts. 

Patti and I are already working out what we can sell to make it to India next year with Black Boots Ink; anyone want to buy a gently used kidney?

Posted on Monday, 25 January 2010 | Canon EOS 5D II, Editorial, ,