Sunday, July 15, 2012

Moments........and Intimacy

I mentioned in my previous post about the subtlety of the learning experience in the Peter Turnley workshop that I attended in Istanbul and, in response to some of the questions I received on it, wanted to give some simple examples by way of explanation.

One of the great learning opportunities in the workshop was the group sessions where Peter would review and edit the previous days work. The objective of these sessions was three-fold; firstly, to create a fifteen shot portfolio that explored a theme on the city, secondly, to provide a platform for Peter to provide feedback on individual photographs and to comment on technique and style, and finally, and I don't know how intentional this was, to show how the editing process works as demonstrated by someone who is enormously experienced at ruthlessly reviewing and editing down to the best photographs for publication. Initially this process was a little unnerving for me as I watched as what I thought were strong shots hit the cutting room floor. Why was this? well, for me and my personal style, it came down to what I think was the question of intimacy in the photograph. Let me try to explain.....

Personal Intimacy

The above opening shot was taken in a side-street that was a little bit off the beaten track near the amazing Galata Bridge. I had decided to wander around the back-streets while I waited for the rich, creamy, later afternoon light that I liked so much at the Bosphorus and I came across this lovely old gentleman sitting outside a cafe. I was immedeatley attracted to the setting and the obvious interest created by his appearance and in particular his face and eyes. Putting some of Peter's philosophy into practice, I didn't sneak around and try to catch a shot on the fly, but simply walked up openly and started to build some rapport and empathy with the old man. He couldn't speak English but that wasn't a problem, I showed him that I was here to take photographs and together we looked at some of the days shots. He recognized the locations and immediately pulled over a small chair so that I could join him for a cup of tea and also showed his willingness to be photographed himself.

I found that I liked the shots very much because of a twinkle that I could see in his lively eyes and a somewhat mischievousness in his expression. But here's the thing, although these are decent, interesting shots the intimacy in them is personal to me. Much of my liking of the shots is based on the overall experience and emotional connection that I had, the friendliness of the old man and the joy of sharing a tea sitting on the street with him and his companions in this wonderfully vibrant city. The problem really comes with the directness of the relationship, he is looking straight at me (and the camera) in all of the shots that I took and as Peter helped me to see, this destroys emotion and takes away the need for the mind to question and extrapolate on what is going on in the shot. Here is another example that works a little bit better because of the humor, but still has the directness of personal relationship that devalues the photograph. It was Peter's advice that more often than not when the subject looks directly at your eyes or the camera, the  photo will not have the same level of mystery or overall interest as a result of the personalization that occurs. 

Moments of Non - Personal Intimacy

By way of contrast, it became very clear in looking at everyone in the groups shots that the intrinsically more interesting photographs had captured a moment of intimacy that had no direct relationship to the photographer. This was also evident in the review of the masters of the craft. Here is a near miss of mine that got edited out for poor composition by clipping the hand of the accordion player but it definitely has a more thought provoking moment of intimacy as the mind looks at the expression and tries to assess the meaning of all of this and its hard not to see a sense of regret or sadness in the expression that is heightened as the mind looks for further detail and information to better understand what is going on. This detached intimacy is critically important to creating a sense of demanding the viewer to think and assess what is happening as opposed to the direct approach where the mystery and challenge is removed. 

This can also be seen clearly when there is more than one person in the shot and its possible to explore them together if they are interacting with each other, or to provoke a more poetic response if they are in a moment of personal thought or reflection. Something that I personally like that I sometimes think adds another dimension is to use mirrors or windows to show another perspective and here is a nice example of that in a simple cafe shot.

Its not the best composed of shots but I like the fact that the intimacy of the moment is explored from two angles and the girl on the lefts face is a little poetic when seen from both perspectives.

This can be seen again in the following shot from a card game in a cafe in the Tarlabarsi area of the city. This area is known for the interesting streets and is consider a bit of a slum being occupied by migrants to the city who come in search of work. I found the people to be very friendly though, and, when approached respectfully, were great fun. After speaking to the men outside the cafe for a few moments we were graciously invited in and furnished with a cup of refreshing tea while the card players laughed and posed for us. After a while the novelty wore of and, as Peter advised, the real moments of intimacy began to emerge as the directness of the relationships to be explored were removed as the men returned to the much more serious business of concentrating and winning at cards. Again, I like the use of reflection to create a little tension but then open up the story of what is happening. By the way, the men in this photo come from an area of the city that is often problematic and the scene of political disputes. I have to say that I have always found it better to view people as you find them and I can assure you these people could not have been nicer to me and my fellow photographic companion.

I hope this short exploration of moments of intimacy makes sense and, although the examples I used may not be the best, that the concept is better understood. It should be clear that there is a critical difference between direct moments of intimacy where the intrinsic interest is reduced, and indirect ones that create much more interest and challenge to the viewer.

If anyone is interested in learning more and taking their photography to a new level then Peter runs ten to twelve workshops a year in all of the most stunning locations for this type of photography. Peter Turnley Workshops

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Istanbul Daydreams - Reflections on a Peter Turnley Workshop

Sometimes beautiful moments just appear and surprise you....sometimes you have to search for them......and persist.

Daydreams & Rhythm

I have just returned from ten days and nights in Istanbul, a week of which was spent in a 'Streets of Istanbul' workshop with Peter Turnley and a small but diverse group of fellow photography enthusiasts. This was my first visit to Istanbul and its rhythm, color and openness took me completely by surprise as did the workshop itself which I eventually learned is a lesson in humanity and creativity, not on how to take photographs. Peter should need no introduction to photography enthuisiasts and his powerful, emotive photojournalistic work is well known. What surprised me a little after having looked at this work was his creative, artistic side and out and out sense of humanity. I found his teaching to be subtle (for me) and nicely paced to create an overall learning experience that not only greatly enhanced my competence as a photographer but instilled a much deeper sense of the moments of beauty, surprise and meaning that are always all around us, waiting to appear or be sought out.

Having arrived in Istanbul with some wildly misplaced and somewhat negative perceptions as to its nature, much to my surprise, I couldn't have been more wrong. What I discovered was a vividly colorful, warm and unendingly fascinating city that welcomed me with open arms. I immediately fell into time with its pace and pulse, stepping easily into its rhythm and flow and, after a day of orientation, I found myself wandering aimlessly, walking the streets, resting in the mosques, and hopping on and off the many ferries that traverse the mighty Bosphorus. This might sound absurd but somehow I felt that I slipped into a dreamy state and found that my walking pace and movement slowed, I saw things more easily than normal and felt more attuned to the life of this wonderful city. I discovered that every aspect of the city seemed to be slower paced and more aligned to my own natural rhythm which I guess I have lost somewhat in recent times in the hubbub of Singapore, travel and the pressures of a working lifestyle. This pace extended through everything that I did from walking its streets and alleys, through the marvelously relaxed cafe and dinning experience until eventually finding its way calmingly into my photography. The idea of photographic rythm is an interesting concept and one of the key learnings that I received from Peter in the workshop is the requirement to create a sense of pacing and timing in your work to achieve a flow and avoid repetition and redundancy. This is something that I believe I have completely missed previously as a photographer and I like to think that with Peter's guidance, the work I created here is much closer to the reflection of how I see the world and I sincerely hope that at least a little of the dreamy mood I felt in Istanbul comes through in the pictures that I made.

Be a Photographer

The second important message that I had from Peter was to take on the mantle and mindset of permitting yourself to 'be a photographer'. This might be a little tricky to understand externally without having experienced the workshop and spent time with Peter, but it really hit home for me. If you want to capture and translate something of the world as you see it, and to crystalize your photographic ideas, its essential to adopt the attitude that you are a photographer, not a part time shooter or hobbyist (despite the fact that you are not making a living from it) This lesson is better understood by watching Peter waltzing into a shooting situation, charming and creating rapport, and more often than not, leaving with a worthwhile shot and some new friends. This is a challenge for most people and the ability to approach and gain the trust of an interesting subject is a skill that should not be underestimated and one that ultimately makes the difference between interesting snapshots and meaningful work. Nowhere did I see that better demonstrated than when I had the good fortune to watch him create the gorgeous reflection shot of the lady on the ferry that you can see on his Facebook page. I watched as Peter engaged with this shy woman and, without giving directions, shot and waited and shot and waited until he made the photograph he envisaged. Peter is clearly a master at this and although I can only aspire to his level of communication with people, I definitely learned the lesson and am now practicing moving confidently into situations with the authority of belonging there, because I am a photographer.


I think the third enduring lesson that I learned from Peter was the most critical and important one for me personally. What Peter taught and showed me was that its not really about understanding composition or the technical side of photography, more importantly its about realizing that you are working with humanity. Through this I came to see that the most beautiful and interesting scenes are best appreciated and the critical moments captured when you become aware that its a human situation that you are in. Then, by both having insights into that situation, and the confidence and ability to enter it as a photographer in a constructive, patient manner, some unique moment will eventually emerge for you to capture using your photographic skills. I do firmly believe that the sequence or process works better once the photographer realizes this rather than the more conventional reversal where the technical skills are learned first before the realization that neither they nor any amount of megapixels or razor sharp, fast lenses will give you the images you desire. 


One of the most delightful moments of the workshop came when Peter took us to the cafe and studios of the world famous photographer Ara Guler . Ara was once voted one of the worlds seven most influential photographers and it was a fantastic experience to meet, talk to and be photographed with the great man. By good luck one of our group Anja, had already bought a copy of his book and he took great pleasure in signing it for her while engaging in some good humored banter. I was very dissapointed not to have had a similar opportunity and all to quickly the moment passed and was gone.

Undaunted, I returned to the cafe at every opportunity while wandering the city and had lunch and dinner there with one or more of the group on numerous occasions. Unfortunately there was no sign of Ara. 

I guess the final lesson from Peter was that of being persistant and sticking with it until something happens. I would watch as he would often take some shots, appear to turn away apparently finished only to return once the situation relaxed to get the moments that presented themselves once his subjects thought the photo was taken and they could return to normal.

On my final day in Istanbul, once Peter and all of the group students had left, I made one final trip to the cafe climbing the  steep slope up from the Galata bridge and wandering along the thouroghfare shooting the buskers and cafe scenes. On arrival at the cafe and much to my delight, there was Ara sitting joking with his friends and what looked like some of his family. Without hesitation I sprinted to the nearest bookshop and bought a copy of his lovely portraits of the shapers of the 20th century and returned to spend a wonderful twenty minutes or so chatting to him as he graciously struggled with my Scottish accent and not only signed, but decorated the book with some little sketches. My lasting memory of this wonderful moment for me was when he paused after signing and decorating the title page and, disturbed by some lack of balance in the composition, flicked a little tick shaped bird onto the blank page opposite quickly bringing it into equilibrium.

Additional Information

The work created by the workshop group can be viewed shortly on Peter's Gallery page and it will serve to give some insight into the substance of the workshop output. I should mention at this point that this was the most wonderful and interesting group of people that I have ever come across and it was humbling to hear their life stories and to see them develop their photographic ambitions with Peter. Much of the enjoyment and learning in the workshop takes place at the review and edit sessions and I am sure we all benefited greatly from looking at and understanding the diversity of each others work. Peter runs the workshops in many of the Worlds most fascinating cities and the full list can be seen here.

Is a Peter Turnley workshop for you? Well, if you have a passion for people and a desire to learn how you can interpret your world better both photographically and in your relationship to it, then I can't think of a better way to spend a week:)