In the Face of It All: My First Portrait Workshop by Elizabeth Beall
“Even though I had a working understanding of what my camera settings should be and some idea of how I wanted the portrait to be shot - things began to get tough from the first moments being left alone with the cowboy standing patiently in front of me. I had no idea what to say or what directions to give this kind man who I could tell was under no illusions of my abilities after enduring the few false attempts to pose him. My confidence was plummeting rapidly.”
My story did not begin with that embarrassingly vivid moment, but several weeks later in early April. I received a late afternoon phone call from Cindy Lane, Workshop Manager and Director of Karmic Activity at Eloquent Light Photography Workshops. Cindy told me they just had a spot open up suddenly for a much coveted spot in a Craig Varjabedian led Faces of the West: Portraits of the Cowboy and Native American boutique photography workshop. At Eloquent Light a “boutique workshop” is a smaller size class with only four to six participants rather than the usual ten students per class and is more specialized in subject. The workshop is crafted to provide individualized instruction while working alongside Craig and his staff in unique locations and subjects not available to the public or perhaps even offered again as a class. The theme of this workshop was intriguing and the opportunity to even meet the people who would serve as models for the class would be amazing.
I had taken a landscape workshop with Eloquent Light the previous fall. Based on that incredible experience—I had been dying to be involved in another workshop. The classes I had been interested in were either unable to fit into my schedule or they had already been reserved months before. Cindy and Craig remembering my efforts, thought I might enjoy participating in this special portrait workshop and even though I would definitely be stepping out of my comfort zone as a photography student - I jumped at the chance!
Craig and Cindy enthusiastically greeted me and my fellow classmates early on Monday, May 14th - the first morning of the 4 day workshop. This was definitely a small class with only 3 students - Tim, an experienced photographer who knew Craig well and had taken several Eloquent Light workshops, me and Bill from Boulder, Colorado who was a friendly face from the landscape workshop we both had taken the October before. Craig began our first meeting by introducing another gentleman who had joined us, Frederick, who would be helping him with lighting during the photo shoots (and providing me with all sorts of useful tips and information during the next five days too- yay Frederick! ). He also explained a little of what we would be doing during the workshop. Our schedule would find us meeting in the mornings for technical instruction and review of the previous day’s work with a break for lunch and then on-location photography work with the models until after sunset each evening. One day would also be spent taking pictures indoors with a “picnic lunch” provided by Eloquent Light.
Craig, the founder of Eloquent Light studios, is a well known and accomplished photographer who has authored several beautiful landscape photography books. He explained that he was preparing to release his latest book Into The Great White Sands with gorgeous pictures taken at the White Sands National Monument in southeastern New Mexico. This project had taken six years to complete and though he was thrilled with the book, Craig was well into his next inspiration—portraits and specifically Faces of the American West, the subject of our workshop! He had already completed several portraits he had been working on and so treated us with a slide show of his current project.
Craig’s portraits are definitely inspiring to me. I am amazed at how he is able to capture not only a beautiful image of his subject, but is also able to convey such emotion from his model. Each picture tells a story, captured forever in their faces but emanating from their soul. Wow. That first morning viewing the slides of Craig’s portraits of Native Americans had a profound effect on me and would certainly affect my future as a student of photography. Though I was certainly excited to be broadening my photographic skills with this workshop, prior to our meeting I had not had a deep compelling desire to take portraits - I was not even sure if I had the right lens I needed for portrait photography. In those few minutes though, that first day - I realized that I wanted to somehow learn how to do what Craig is able to with his models. Can such magic even be taught or is it a gift?
The workshop began in earnest that afternoon and it was challenging for me. We arrived at an outdoor location - truly scenic with historical old buildings in a setting near the Rio Grande river and were introduced right away to our models. They were a mixture of local western male actors dressed all in 19th century clothing period “cowboy” costume and then a single female Native American young woman from one of the Pueblos near Santa Fe. We all got to work right away paying careful attention to the direction of light, settings on our cameras and positioning the models. We each would start with one model and then rotate in order to be able to photograph each one that afternoon. Even though I had a working understanding of what my camera settings should be and some idea of where I wanted this portrait to be shot- things began to get tough from the first moments of being left alone with the cowboy standing waiting patiently in front of me. I had no idea what to say or what directions to give this kind man who I could tell I was not fooling one bit with the few false attempts of self-conscious posing instructions. My confidence was plummeting rapidly.
Thankfully given the small class size my quiet distress was immediately recognized by the instructors and Craig invited me to set up my tripod next to him. Watching Craig work with the model was a wonderful way to learn how to photograph a portrait. He would first build a rapport with his subject, asking them questions and as they would open up and begin to reveal their personality. Craig would subtly pick up on this in certain ways and intuitively begin to pose the model. The models would then really be engaged, relaxed and enjoying themselves. That’s where the magic comes in - somehow Craig would know when the perfect shot was happening and with a quickly spoken “There it is” he would take the picture and be done. I would be taking 2000 frames and have no clue it was “there” until after it happened !
Setting my camera up next to Craig also allowed me to take some pretty decent portraits reaping the benefits of his work. Frequently throughout the class he would invite his students over to observe the settings of his camera - inviting us to look through his viewfinder to see what he was seeing, what he was looking for as he placed his subjects, he made sure his models were correctly lighted for the shot adjusting as the sun moved across the sky. (One does not realize how fast our earthly planet moves until you are chasing after the light.) Observing Craig while closely following his lead allowed me to learn in a natural, comfortable way, all the while building my confidence - a vital personal element I would need for the remainder of the workshop.
The next afternoon the class drove outside of Santa Fe to a movie set. Several John Wayne movies had been filmed there which made the setting absolutely amazing for our cowboys and Native American subjects. Shooting both inside and out of the movie sets until the sunset was atmospheric and just an incredible experience! I was more on my own that day with each individual model and location on the movie set. Once again our instructors paid close attention to facilitate our efforts and answer any questions. I was learning to be more comfortable directing my subjects. Our models were such fascinating people and conversation was interesting. As they told their stories you could literally see them change - revealing themselves through the lens of the camera.
My favorite day of the workshop was actually our last day of shooting. We spent all day at an abandoned building that Craig frequently uses for his own work as a professional photographer. Shooting indoors required the use of lights and backdrops. Rather than having our models’ mood and tone set by the ambience of a novel location, the feeling of each subject’s unique character was the driving force of each portrait. What characters they were too! Most memorable was a local musician who could be mistaken for an Amish farmer resplendent with his long gray beard, twinkling eyes in an old hat, guitar in hand followed closely by his elderly dogs. The older dog , certainly a character on his own - who in his younger days, as his story goes, loyally trotted beside his master as the vagabond minstrel rode horseback from Michigan, across the great plains to Santa Fe. Another notable character was an older man who could easily pass for Santa Claus who seemed to channel the soul of a carnival side show personality, draping affectionately a live snake around his shoulders and neck. That day I was transformed from a self-conscious to an eager, enthusiastic student with ardent desire to learn and pursue more opportunities learning the art and mysteries of portrait photography.
Surprisingly, I had absolutely fallen in love with portrait photography. I found I loved all aspects of the process and can easily say the “Faces of the West” workshop was the most enjoyable photography class I have taken.
Our final morning was spent in reviewing and processing our work. The photographs we had taken were analyzed and critiqued by the group - which was a fantastic learning experience and so helpful. The pictures I had taken were better than I expected given my amateur status and initial lack of knowledge about the art of portraiture photography. Craig’s were amazing and in a class of their own providing inspiration. I began the workshop in a fairly nervous and tentative fashion and not exactly sure if this type of photography was really “my thing”. Surprisingly, I had absolutely fallen in love with portrait photography. I found I loved all aspects of the process and can easily say the “Faces of the West” workshop was the most enjoyable photography class I have taken.
Craig has a magical ability to capture in his subjects the raw essence of a person—coaxing through his lens emotions of that inner place where deep stories are kept. His portraits allow us to see into the heart of another even if just for a moment.
When it was all said and done, I am so pleased with the pictures I made during this workshop. While the workshop was definitely “out of my comfort zone” I learned so much and cannot wait to attend this workshop again next year.
©Elizabeth Beall and Eloquent Light Photography Workshops, llc