Photography at the Summit

Recently, I spent a week taking part in a workshop called Photography at the Summit. It is an annual event held at the National Museum of Wildlife Art just north of the town of Jackson, Wyoming. The workshop is one of many presented by Rich Clarkson, long-time director of photography at National Geographic, one of the foremost names in the industry, and certainly a champion for photographers everywhere. Once again, Mr. Clarkson assembled an incredible faculty comprised of technical wizards, editorial gurus, and photographic visionaries. Every aspect of modern, digital photography was covered including the latest post-production techniques in Adobe Lightroom, though “getting the image right in the camera” was clearly delineated as the photographer’s primary objective.

Mornings were spent shooting landscapes and wildlife at various locations under the guidance of instructors. Following those sessions, students could select up to three images daily, which were then compiled and projected in the auditorium for the faculty to critique. This was a highly effective teaching technique. Listening to the collective reviews of the more than one hundred photos each day strengthened my consideration of composition, lighting, and subject selection and brought much-needed focus to the work I most enjoy doing.

Below are a few of my images from the week.

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In addition to the group critiques, I was fortunate to have Callie Shell and David Alan Harvey personally review photos from my portfolio. Callie, currently a contract photographer for Time, was the official photographer to Vice President Al Gore and covered his and many other presidential campaigns, including Barack Obama’s. Among many other pursuits, David is a long-time contributor to National Geographic and creator of Burn Magazine, an online and print collection of emerging photographic work.  Capturing unique moments in the lives of people is quite difficult and requires substantial trust that takes time to build. Being able to pick the brains of two masters in that field was truly special, and they offered substantial feedback on image selection, be it for composing a photo essay or submitting work to an art gallery.

In the field, I spent time with Tom Mangelsen, Jose Azel, and Michael Forsberg. There isn’t a better person with whom to chase wildlife in Jackson Hole than Tom. A local resident, he has extensive knowledge of the area and its views, and seems to be on a first-name basis with just about every critter in the valley. He graciously treated us to an evening in his gallery on N. Cache St. in Jackson; a must-see when visiting the area. Jose Azel has worked with National Geographic, Time, and many other publications and is the founder of Aurora Photos and Novus Select, firms that specialize in commercial and editorial photography, including stock, assignment and multimedia work. Published by Audubon, National Geographic and other magazines, Michael Forsberg has also produced books on wildlife photography germane to his native Nebraska, shining light on the abundance of life living in and migrating through the Great Plains.  Jose and Michael each went out of their way to share insight and lend vision while shooting scenes from the Gros Ventre valley. Award-winning and galactically talented in their own right, both stressed perhaps the single-most valuable lesson of the week: working a scene until it gives up the image one wants. It’s one thing to shoot a photo that documents being in a place or seeing a scene, and it’s altogether different to capture an image that composes elements creatively and tells a story. Conversations with those gentlemen produced a more discerning approach to the study of a subject, particularly in advance of shooting.

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Father Don Doll and Jose Azel waiting for emerging light in the Gros Ventre valley

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Michael Forsberg offers guidance on composing a photo of the Tetons over the Gros Ventre river

The workshop offered a wealth of technical information and detailed explanations by pros on how they utilize technology most effectively. Ron Taniwaki, of Nikon Pro Services, covered an array of concepts from customizing camera controls to gear maintenance. Jack Davis, of creativeLIVE, discussed his theories on optimizing workflow and post-production techniques using Adobe Lightroom. Highly regarded wildlife photographer Bob Smith spent time at the beginning of the workshop sharing his vast understanding of animal behavior and how best to compose images that capture natural character and gesture. He also spoke on numerous other considerations for photographers such as methods for backing up data, montitor calibration and profiling, and ideal computer workstation requirements.

Formerly director of photography at Time, MaryAnne Golon currently serves in that role at the Washington Post. She led a thorough presentation on the Post’s expanding digital presence and how stories are designed differently for presentation on laptop, tablet, and mobile devices. Further, her feedback during photo critiques was elaborate and incisive, offering explicit rationale for why photos did or did not work. Providing an informative tutorial on marketing for photographers was Allen Murabayshi, co-founder of PhotoShelter. In his talk, Allen discussed the most effective methods by which photographers can market their work, and just as importantly, measure the effectiveness of their web-based presences. There really was no corner of the industry into which this faculty did not shine a bright light.

Each night during the week, two presentations were held in the Wildlife Art Museum’s auditorium. From candid photos of presidents and foreign heads of state, to scenes from the Pine Tree State, to shots in the midst of parades during Carnival in Brazil; we were blessed with a personally-guided tour of the profound work of these fantastic photographers. Father Don Doll, a Jesuit priest and professor at Creighton University, took us back through his history with photos of the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, his first Jesuit assignment. From there we traveled the globe with his images from numerous countries where the Jesuits are hard at work supporting communities and caring for those who live in them. Jodi Cobb, staff photographer for National Geographic, and world traveller herself, took us into the secretive world of Japanese Geishas and the dark horrors of modern-day human trafficking. Sometimes enduring great physical and emotional danger to immerse herself in these shadowy places, Jodi demonstrated her commitment to bringing awareness to and correcting the misperceptions of the contemporary forms of these centuries-old conventions. Her bold work proves again that positive change can occur from photographic documentation. And in a brilliant denouement, she revealed for the first time publicly, a series of photos taken of reflections on the water of the myriad colors of Venice. Words here cannot begin to adequately describe what Jodi was so adept at capturing; my hope is that she’ll soon publish those images for the world to enjoy.

A remarkable week did come to an end, but I’m left with pages of notes, inspiration from some of the world’s finest minds in photography, and the blessing of friendship with good people who, with a mindset toward inclusivity, genuinely care about helping emerging photographers find their voice and contribute to the industry and world of visual arts.

4 thoughts on “Photography at the Summit

  1. Great writeup of a fantastic workshop. I’ve had the pleasure of attending Photography at the Summit twice, but have missed the past few years. Sounds like it’s continuing its tradition of providing the perfect blend of beautiful scenery, insightful photographers and photo editors, and diverse perspectives. I’m sure you left the week exhausted but creatively charged. (Looks like you also had some diverse weather — great for photographing!)

    • Thanks, Scott. As you well know, Rich Clarkson runs a great program. Just a fantastic week, and you’re right, we were very fortunate to have some snow roll in; it brought some nice variety to the days in the field. Take care.

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