Monday, December 5, 2011

Visual Narratives - a workshop with Susan Burnstine

"A great photograph is a search for meaning. It asks questions that lead to a lot of other questions."

And so started a weekend adventure in identifying personal inspirations and motivations for the twelve photographers in Susan Burnstine's workshop Visual Narratives given this weekend at Lúz Gallery. In many ways, that lead statement was prophetic for the work we did in this class, because to make great photographs really requires that an artist understands what meaning they are searching for and that they are most strongly connected to. And finding out what that is for each individual involves asking questions that in turn lead to many more questions. It involves looking at each person's work and asking questions that dig deeper and deeper for meaningful answers.

If that sounds intimidating and raw, the kind of deep introspection that you've avoided because it makes you uncomfortable and wiggly, you're getting the right idea. It's the magic of Susan and the workshop that she's developed that you will, with her guidance and the help of your fellow workshop students, drill down and find true understanding of what you are strongly drawn to, what meaning that has for you, and how that informs the work you've done and can even more strongly inform the work that will come.

I think it's fair to say that for all of us the realization at the beginning of the workshop that this was what was in store for us was at least somewhat frightening (or a whole lot of frightening). Through careful structuring of the progression of activities in the workshop, and by being very open, genuine, caring and quietly relentless, Susan helped guide us through this daunting task. Sure there was some resistance, sure there were a few tears, but there was also a lot of laughter and good will shared by all of us, and that sense of going through something together that made for an incredible experience from which each of us will grow as artists.

I find myself reluctant to talk about the process we went through during the workshop, not because it was so traumatic (it wasn't). Although we all did the same exercises, there was enough attention given to the specific needs of each individual during those exercises that each of our experiences was unique. This was not a cookie-cutter, "one size fits all" workshop - each participant was given the time, energy and level of inquiry that was appropriate for where they are in their development as an artist. Each person had the support and help of all the other participants during each stage of the workshop. It was an incredible group of people from diverse backgrounds who contributed an astonishing array of information and insight as we talked about the current work each person showed.

In my own case, I feel that I left the workshop with a greater understanding of what is driving my photography, what deep meaning I'm connecting to and searching for in my images. I learned a great deal about how key inspirations are the foundation upon which I have, and can continue to build my own visual language. With Susan's help, I identified some key words that succinctly connect me to that deeper meaning of my work, that I can use as cues when going on to make more images. There were also suggestions from Susan of other artists that will act as further inspirations more closely related to the deeper meaning that informs my work. We were also introduced to the work of some of the most important storytellers amongst current contemporary photographers that will serve as a reference from which we can draw wisdom and inspiration for some time to come.

I have to admit that I don't feel what I've written comes close to doing justice to how great this workshop was. I've found it difficult to put into words what this experience has meant for me. I can say that as a teacher myself, I was in awe of Susan's unwavering commitment to each of the students, her generosity in sharing her experiences and knowledge, her discerning eye and ear and the empathy she had for each person during the process. If you have the chance to take a workshop with Susan, don't hesitate for a second. It will definitely change your life as an artist in the best possible way.

Another important factor in the success of the weekend was the wonderful environment created by the fine people at Lúz Gallery. Quinton, Melissa and Tom made sure the workshop ran smoothly and were wonderful company during the  weekend. I've been quite fortunate this year to take four outstanding workshops at Lúz - wet plate with Joni Sternbach, photopolymer gravure with Don Messec, marketing with Lauren Henkin and now visual narrative with Susan Burnstine. Each workshop lead by not just a knowledgeable expert, but also an outstanding teacher who offered an outstanding experience. Thank you Quinton and Diana for your vision in bringing such consistently high quality workshops to my little town, and thank you to Melissa and Tom for helping to create that welcoming environment.


jim rohan said...

Thanks for posting this, Paul. I have always wanted to take a workshop with Susan Burnstine. But for now, I will just have to live surreptitiously through you.

J. M. Golding said...

Wow, Paul, that sounds amazing! I appreciate your posting this. I'll be looking out for any workshops that Susan Burnstine gives near here.