Back to School — Trapeze School behind the scenes

I’m good at being uncomfortable, so
I can’t stop changing all the time

I’ve gone back to school. Many years ago I took a documentary course at the International Center of Photography. It was intense. In the land of the Internet, the average critique you get is about as deep as “Nice photo!” or “This has colors!” I was still getting my photographic feet under me in a lot of ways, but my head had already swollen with the weird world of Internet photography culture. People were favoriting my photos on Flickr! Someone recognized me on the street! Clearly I was big time. So it was a shock when someone said that my photos made them physically ill, when critique got so intense and personal that I dug my fingernails into my skin. It was exactly the shock I needed, and helped make me a much better photographer than I was then.

There are a lot of things that are amazing about the Internet culture of photography, and it has helped raise the bar on the industry of wedding photography astonishingly quickly, but there are a lot of photographers out there, and especially the very good ones, who would be helped by the occasional “This is a terrible photo and I hate you for showing it to me.”

I love weddings. I love them so much. I love the craft of them and the art of them. There are so many special skills that it takes to turn out good results every time that even many great documentary photographers and photojournalists don’t have at a high level. But to do that, sometimes you need a big bag of tricks, and those generally conceal far more than they reveal. Where’s the soul, man?

So I’m back, even though my schedule is way more crazy than I thought it would be by mid-January. I should be planning my own workshops right now, not taking one that crams 10 weeks of work into five days. But I refuse to ever stop learning. I happily still take classes and workshops, and will never stop. I love it when extremely experienced wedding photographers take my workshops, because they know that it doesn’t mean that I’m better than them, whatever that means, but that we’re all different from each other and we have some things we can learn along the way.

But I particularly recommend this course, “Passion and Personal Vision” by Andre Lambertson. I don’t use flower-child language like “beautiful soul” easily, but Lambertson has one, and you can see it in his work. I like to think I make people so comfortable I become invisible — and I’ve had brides and grooms say “Where’s Ryan?” when I was three feet in front of them — but we’re talking about a guy so invisible and who inspires such trust that he has photos of kids helping their mothers shoot heroin. His images have soul and patience, and he pushes past discomfort. And I know I have learning left to do on that front.

So yeah, I’m back in school. It’s nuts, and so are the other students. Picture being given two assignments — document a local business and get a stranger to let them into their house and photograph them — at 10 p.m. They’re due by 6 p.m. the next day. I gave the last assignment to one of my workshops and gave them weeks to do it, and maybe a quarter of them did. In those few hours, 85 percent of my class did it. That’s the sort of dedication you only get in art school.

First, my business assignment. I went to Trapeze School New York because it has an interesting story and I was seeking discomfort. TSNY is a second home for a lot of its students, and in a some way a first home for more than a few. They say the way to understand the character of Batman is that Batman is the real person and Bruce Wayne is the costume. And for a lot of flyers and aerialists, that’s exactly how it works. They are circus freaks, they just happen to wear the clothes of a lawyer most of the time. This is a place where a man can practice a strip tease act (the tricks, not the stripping), while 11-year-olds have a birthday party. Where a woman will climb up and wrap herself in silk 15 feet in the air — and just sit there and think for 15 minutes. A lot of the real story of TSNY is in the pauses in-between. It was something I could only begin to tell in my short time there, coming in cold with no prior permission, introducing myself and shooting.

I started with just my Fuji X100 on totally silent mode, trying not to interrupt the scene, to get people used to me, but I soon wanted more ways to tell the story. I felt myself get closer and closer to where I wanted to go, and I wonder what I could do if I had weeks to tell these stories, instead of minutes.

I don’t. Not yet. But I can already feel that yearning to shoot, to tell stories that are deeper and more comprehensive than the ones I’ve told before, even on wedding days. To answer the question “What’s behind that door? What’s behind those eyes? Who are these people?”

Exactly what I need.

James - A great read and interesting way to think about the approach about being better!

Claudette Carracedo Photo - Thanks for sharing this Ryan!

Dennis Pike - awesome all around. ““This is a terrible photo and I hate you for showing it to me.”” I think that on a daily basis… but I also feel it’s kind of wrong to give critique without being asked. I need to go back to school.

Mark Higgins - Very cool personal project.

Jeanette LeBlanc - You know, I already liked you, but those song lyrics at the beginning totally sealed the deal. One of my personal anthems.