The Alentejo Workshop

"All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. [...] Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. [...] And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. [...] It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions." - Ira Glass

A few years ago, I went to Morocco to learn how to cook. Well, not exactly. I already knew how to cook when it came to finding recipes, choosing ingredients, and following directions. What I didn’t know was how to improvise, and so I felt I wasn’t really a cook. This trip I went on – a workshop of sorts but really just a lot of food and fun with crazy, spontaneous people – was a way for me to challenge myself and learn something new. I looked at the roster beforehand, and found that I would be there with folks who knew what they were doing – award-winning food bloggers, restaurant owners, food and wine PR people, company owners. I knew I was out of my league, and the combination of excitement and nerves was strangely familiar, like I was once again on the way to my first day of school.

I look back at that workshop – which was marked not by uncertainty about cooking so much as wet shoes, a terrible cold and cancelled trips to the beach, as it turned out we were in Morocco during a storm so severe it practically washed out the streets of Essaouira, our home for four days, and neatly matched the TV images we were seeing of a washed out US East Coast during Hurricane Sandy. But I look back, and I think about that feeling of uncertainty, of only knowing enough to know how little I knew, and then I compare it to how confident I feel in the kitchen now. I routinely plan meals based on what I see at the market – something that would have been unconscionable to me then. I tweak recipes to come up with my own, better versions; I rarely simply do what’s written on the page. This was a skill that had to be learned through practice, and I think of this now, upon my return from another workshop that has challenged me, bashed me up a bit where ego is concerned, introduced me to new ways of looking at the world and new creative yearnings, and once again, taught me just enough to know how very little I know.

This time it was in Portugal on the Alentejo coast, and this time I found myself surrounded not by food industry professionals, but by 12 photographers who knew a lot more than I did. The learning curve was steep, the frustration keenly felt, and of course, by day two, I found myself in the midst of a kind of personal crisis. How to keep your spirit up when you find yourself at the beginning of something that all others around you have seemingly mastered – and effortlessly at that? How to keep trying to get the right shots in the right light after a technical discussion that makes you realize how severely limited you are not just by your skill, but by your camera? Indeed, to paraphrase a famous book, play and film, how do you succeed in photography without really trying?

I found out that photography, more than most other forms of creativity, is where visual art meets performance. Photography is actually a lot more like dancing than it is like painting. It is only when you produce a photograph that looks highly natural, spontaneous, graceful and exciting that your viewers begin to think your process really was all of those things. Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly made it look easy – what’s more, they made it look joyful – and these women I was with seemed to me to do much the same, tapping out a cacophony of shutter openings and closings (most of them, of course, artificial these days, on digital SLR cameras), waltzing and twirling around the room, appearing to know without looking, feel without seeing, where the best light was, where the best angles were, and exactly how far they needed to crouch down or climb up to capture them. Sometimes the entire thing was so complicated and enticing, I had to stop for a moment and watch. Perhaps because I’d given up on getting my own perfect angle, confronted by the sharp elbows and tilted heads and furiously working fingers of so many woman who were better at this than me, I could step back and observe it like a theater scene. Once I did, I could marvel at how each and every person in this room seemed to know the movements of being a photographer. It really was something like a dance.

Here, then, is a tribute to those dancers, myself included. I can think of no better way to give my thanks for the moves they taught me then to present my own collection of photos, which came out better than I ever could have hoped. I feel my own steps getting better now, a few weeks later; I’m more sure-footed when I take them. I can also perceive subtle changes in my attitude, an objectivity that makes me more likely to say, “I did my best, and there are some great shots here” than “I’m sure somebody else would have done better.” I look forward to many more opportunities to improve my camera skills. I know I have a long way to go before I become Fred Astaire.

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