Very recently I had the pleasure of taking a photography workshop with Gerd Ludwig, on the art of storytelling. In just 5.5 days we six students were taught to develop our eye and came out better photographers because of this. We first met at Gerd’s home to review each other’s portfolios. This was followed by learning about the theory behind photographic story-telling, and then instruction/theory on the importance of light (including strobe). Afterwards, we headed out for three days of shooting at the Salton Sea, which ended with a full day of editing and sequencing and a final slide show of our work from “the sea.”
Gerd demanded much but in return gave us his all (as did his assistant, Molly Peters – thank you both so much!). He was a tough task master (with a terrific sense of humour, thankfully!) who was very generous with his knowledge. He is equally genuine with his compliments and his criticism. He pushed each of us a notch or two beyond where we, as photographers, had been before we met him. He astutely took note of our strengths and weaknesses, pressing us to make the best use of those strengths and acknowledge but then set aside the weaknesses. I was able to build on the lessons I learned from Ernesto Bazan’s workshop a few weeks ago and am grateful to both men for being brilliant teachers (and marvellous photographers).
The following may appear obvious but is not something most people think about: it is easy to take one only shot of something or just keep clicking away and not work the scene by moving about one’s subject from different perspectives, so that one shoots with intention. Both teachers reminded us to take various shots of the subject so that alternative angles/contexts are shown (it will be fairly obvious when you really “capture” the essence). As both Gerd and Ernesto stressed, it is more difficult to photograph with purpose. It is critical to pay attention to the complete frame (so that the photograph is self-contained and conveys a story and/or feeling with consistency, and is composed so that all elements in the image play a role). We were reminded that when something catches our eye we need to move beyond eye-level and change perspective by walking around the subject, getting low, climbing high, pointing up or down. Simply put, don’t wait for your subject to move – instead, move yourself. Shoot from the feet, so to speak.
Insightfully, Gerd noted that I tend to not consider the role of colour – critical to colour photography (perhaps this is why I have recently started experimenting with black and white and why it feels good. With black and white I do not worry about one colour or shade overtaking another and I can focus on the subject). So, during the three days of shooting I tried hard not to have tunnel vision as I concentrated on composition and subject. Colour became an important element rather than something that is there by chance (whether I can keep this up is another story but I shall work on it – along with black and white).
Now on to Calipatria…
It turns out that we did not actually stay by the Salton Sea but rather in Calipatria, California. As much as I fell in love with the landscape of the Salton Sea I realised that it was Calipatria that really held me captive. Located in the Imperial Valley (and, if you have not caught on yet, near the Salton Sea), this semi-rural “city” is 3.7 square miles, with farming as its main industry. According to Wikipedia, “Calipatria is one of the state’s poorest cities in income per capita due to agricultural paychecks and a declined economy in the 1990s.”
California has been in a state of drought for several years now and, so far, most farmers have not been targeted for their water usage – but now there is some discussion about water being redirected to more populous areas like San Diego. This does not bode well for the environment nor for an economy that is already in decline and people whose health is suffering because of heat and drought.
The desert, fiery weather, and lack of rain do not bode well for people who rely on farming for their livelihood. Yet the people of Calipatria (and Imperial County) are used to working hard despite adversity. Country Singer Justin Moore says it all in his song “Small Town, USA” :
A lot of people called it prison when I was growin’ up
But these are my roots and this is what I love
Cause everybody knows me and I know them
And I believe that’s the way we were supposed to live…
…Around here we break our backs just to earn a buck
We never get ahead but we have enough
Calipatria, at most, is 10 square blocks; “downtown” is a mere two short ones. It comprises a post office, library, city hall, police/fire department, elementary/middle/high schools, a supermarket, a convenience store, two small restaurants and a doughnut shop, a laundromat, a liquor store, and not much else. There are three churches. The inn is at the end of town (most visitors to Calipatria are family members or friends of those in the prison at the edge of the city). If residents need to shop they travel to nearby Brawley. Children attend school during the week, adults work. The streets of Calipatria were desolate on both weekdays and weekend. Possibly the time of year had had something to do with this: temperatures were over 100F. No matter, there is little in the way of amenities, thus there’s nothing to do but stay indoors, behind closed blinds that keep out the searing heat and bright sun. I saw only a few residents hanging out in the shade of their yards. Even the park was deserted. This left Calipatria silent – aurally and visually.
At first glance, Calipatria appears an ordinary, homogeneous, suburban terrain. Some homes are dilapidated and protected by dogs and chain link fences – the people who live inside have precious little. However, just as many of the humble homes I saw are obviously lovingly maintained. It was the everyday things, the small moments, the details of this place that first struck me and the details that I sought out: tilted telephone poles mirroring palm trees, neat lawns and fences, debris, rusted vintage automobiles, a lone person in the landscape. The sprinkling of people I spoke with grew up in or near Calipatria and chose to stay; each one was fiercely proud of place. Perhaps this is, in part, what had captivated me about the setting of this city, and which I, in turn, tried to capture in photos.
For three days I walked quietly up and down the streets, trying to immerse myself in and find the beauty of the City of Calipatria – 184 feet below sea level. It was another opportunity to learn to be true to myself and my voice, which my workshops with both Gerd and Ernesto had supported. Through all of this, I have figured out that I do not have an interest in telling narratives. Instead, I prefer to create images that hint at memory, emotion, or understanding.