Photojournalism students at the Maine Photographic Workshop delve beneath the picturesque surface of the Pine Tree State.
By Gerald Peary
Editor: Jim Hughes - Picture Editor: Monica R Cipnic
The Maine Photographic Workshop in Rockport, Maine, is the sort of place where you might expect to see Ernst Haas tiptoeing from his class on the color essay to photograph some late-blooming flora beside a silent country road, or the summer's artist-in-residence, Paul Caponigro, contemplating rock formations being pounded by chilly Atlantic waters. But it's a fact that in recent years photojournalism and documentary courses have become a greater part of the workshop curriculum. For example, during consecutive weeks this past summer, the busy program of one-week master classes included:
"Photographing People" taught by Eugene Richards, that was described in the catalog as the photographing of "strangers, friends, families, groups, nudes, children, men and women -people of all kinds... and a variety of social situations."
"Documenting the Human Condition," taught by Mary Ellen Mark, which "explores human relationships, people, social situations, aspects of today's culture."
"The Investigative Photographer," a workshop offered by Rich Clarkson, in which students examine "the social fabric of the area around Rockport -the country clubs, resort workers, the elderly, laborers, and the fishermen… searching for pictures that tell us of our culture and ourselves."
For Eugene Richards, the placidity of Rockport, a sleepy coastal village, must have been especially jarring. He had just returned from his first major overseas assignment: shooting Beirut under siege for Life. With the exception of one odd, abstract assignment -to photograph "the past, present and future of an environment"- Richards' classes turned inward, exploring psychological and emotional issues instead of social ones, explorations that Richards feels are valuable to aspiring or practicing photojournalists.
"Photographing People" proved to be a rigorous course, with shooting assignment after shooting assignment mapped out by Richards. "Many of you have never really pushed yourselves," he told his students. "I don't want to be presumptuous, but most people have the same little box of pictures for years."
Richards himself set a serious tone on the first day of class, Monday, by spending six hours showing slides of his work. The 37-year-old photographer's portfolio is a parade of have-nots: the impoverished rural blacks of his first book, Few Comforts or Surprises: the Arkansas Delta (MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1973); the hard-nosed working class people of Dorchester Days (Many Voices Press, 1978), who live in the deteriorated Boston neighborhood Richards called home until recently; the inmates at the Lima, Ohio, State Hospital for the Criminally Insane-a bold 1981 color essay that the new "upscale" Geo never published, and a black-and-white series of photographs documenting the valiant bout with cancer waged by Dorothea Lynch, his closest friend.
Richards first sent his class out on a "know-your-camera" exercise. Without physically moving, each person was to take 36 different shots of another person in the course. The teacher's directions? Change the shutter speed. Adjust the aperture. Move the frame. And note how each variation produces a slightly different feeling.
It was Richards' second assignment, however, that, in his words, "broke the class open" and turned out to be the overwhelming favorite: several persons matched up, went off to talk and have coffee, and then took 72 color slides of each other in the nude. As an overture, Richards read aloud Walt Whitman's poem of self-celebration, "I Sing the Body Electric."
"Most people have stereotyped ideas about what 'nudity' means," Richards said. "For some, it's the classical ideal; for other it's pornography. But Whitman stretched the idea of nudity way out by running through an incredible range of ways to view the body parts. After reading him, you could concentrate on photographing the bottoms of someone's feet. Or you could go all the way to procreation."
Susan Ferguson, an ex-New York advertising executive who has switched to freelance photography, commented on the sensuality of the nude exercise. 'There were three of us women. We all lived in tacky motels around Rockport, so we rented a beautiful room in a local inn for the afternoon We had a lovely time and were very appreciative of each other. And we were quite proud of our pictures."
Were women less inhibited about this assignment than the men? Men photographed women mostly in a classic style, like Edward Weston," observed Renée Jacobs, a student at Penn State University. "Usually men photographed other men from far away, or as 'I Sing the Body Electric -Minus the Penis.'"
"Photographing People" was a class that almost everybody adored. By the end, Richards was regarded as a kind of guru, despite his disclaimer that "I've got no wisdom; I'm no teacher, though I teach." (The class expressed its regard by presenting him with over $200 as a "scholarship" to be used in publishing a book of his photographs of Dorothea Lynch.) The only dissatisfaction in the course was caused by the disparity between Richards' intimate style in leading the group and his trouble communicating one-to-one with the same students, a problem Richards is aware of: "Shyness," he says. "It never goes away. It pains me every time I go to work."
Unfortunately, Richards' reticence extended to students portfolios. "He had nothing to say about my portfolio," was the refrain sung by many of his students. It is not that Richards is indifferent; he just finds it impossible to talk about other people's work on a personal level. At least one talented photographer, Meri Houtchens-Kitchens, was openly angry at him. Sensing a kindred spirit, from looking at Richards' tough personal photographs, she had come all the way from Atlanta to show him a series of pictures of her six-year-old son, Aaron, who has acute verbal communication problems. They fought all week, in class and out, and finally came to terms with one another while driving to Boston after the workshop was over. Houtchens-Kitchens summed up the experience by saying, "Gene worked more on our heads than on our photographs."
Conversely, Mary Ellen Mark, in leading “Documenting the Human Condition," worked more on her students' photographs than on their heads. "I don't believe that students in a workshop can grow to the point of ecstasy," Mark explained. "As a teacher, you hope they hang up some mistakes. If people are inhibited, you can free them a bit. But I always believe, above all, that people should shoot in a workshop."
Throughout the week, Mark was vocal in her enthusiasm, unstinting in her demands for better work, and to-the-point in her technical critiques. She didn't go drinking or dancing with her class as Richards did, which frustrated many students who wanted to be with the master both in class and in more informal situations.
In the mornings, Mark met with her students individually and looked at contact sheets. She gave advice for the afternoon shooting, from technical corrections-These all look overexposed. If your stuff is even half a stop off, it can be sensed-to urging a more committed and intimate approach to portraiture.
"You are afraid, I can sense that," she told one photographer. "That's why you are using a 105mm lens. Work with a 35mm this week. I want to see this guy's environment, and don't be afraid to come in close." Over and over, she recommended shorter lenses, virtually banning the telephoto lens from the course and even questioning the efficacy of the 50mm, the so-called "normal" lens. "It's a beautiful portrait lens, but very few people except Henri Cartier-Bresson ever used it for journalism," she said. "Most of the time, Robert Frank used a 28mm. So try a 35. It's easier, easier."
In the afternoons, Mary Ellen Mark's students took pictures. She asked that each one find a family, or a unique social situation, and stick with it. Visit with the people and get to know them. Wait until they begin to trust you before starting to photograph. Return a second day with presents-prints of the more complimentary pictures from the day before. Go back each day. Keep shooting. Catch them at as many activities and in as many moods as possible.
Such persistence has been Mark's style. For Ward 81 (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1979), a book of black-and-white photographs taken in the women's ward of a mental institution, she spent six weeks gaining the inmates' trust. For Falkland Road (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1981), her color work of prostitutes in Bombay, she took eight or nine trips to India during a ten-year period before she felt qualified to begin the project.
Her class learned from her persistence. The seeming ordinariness of life in Rockport was a blessing in disguise because it forced students to go out and find a subject that could sustain an entire week of photography.
Joyce Jennings, a 20-year-old college student at the University of Virginia, drove to the nearby blue-collar town of Rockland and simply started entering business buildings in search of a subject. She ran into her story in Woolworth's, where two craggy, salt-of-the-earth people in their 60s were eyeing a clothes counter. Kenneth Brann sported a rodeo jacket decorated with bucking broncos and his name painted on the back. His ex-wife, Flora, stood by proudly. They had been married 21 years ago in Niagara Falls, New York, separated, then divorced when Flora's new boyfriend had demanded it. The boyfriend then departed and now the ex-marrieds were true pals again, living together in Rockland for one month each year. Jennings spent a day and a half with the couple, during which time they posed without apparent inhibition or mistrust. She ended up treating them to a two-hour cruise around Rockland harbor. Two days later, Kenneth and Flora were seen walking arm-in-arm through the streets of Rockland, happily clutching their 8x10-inch portraits.
Marianne Gontarz took Mary Ellen Mark's class with the express purpose of turning her own style of photography upside down. She decided to photograph three generations of women who lived on a farm in Jefferson, Maine. She was disappointed, however, when the pictures turned out to be much like the ones she had taken of senior citizens and mental patients while employed as a social worker in Boston. "They're so static and predictable to me," Gontarz complained.
"I like your pictures a lot," Mark rejoined. "Why change? If you learn this week that what you have isn't bad at all, that's good."
Mark wanted more than business as usual from the professional photojournalists in the class. Ironically, some seasoned pros had the hardest time adjusting to an unhurried, in-depth assignment, which required them to get to know the people they were photographing. Normally, their editors tell them exactly what to photograph as they whiz through the day.
'At home I work for the Canadian Press, a wire service," Toronto's Richard Plume said. "I see two innings of a ball game, half a speech. I come in for ten minutes and don't even talk to the person I'm photographing."
So how do such photojournalists survive on their own? Several lost ones traipsed into the office of David Lyman, director of the Maine Photographic Workshop, in search of leads. He gave them the cold shoulder and said, "Look for yourself."
Richard Plume ended up sharing a fisherman with a photojournalist born in Czechoslovakia, Peter Honcu, who now works in Edmonton, Canada. "I've never spent so much time, from 5:15 am, to 1 p.m., with one person," Plume said afterward.
Nobody made a more drastic change in style than Mark Gaier, a young photojournalist for the Bristol (Connecticut) Press. Normally he works with a 500mm lens. "If kids are on a street corner with a lemonade stand, I might hide behind my car, take pictures secretly, and then drive away. Should I just walk up and say, 'Hi, can I take your picture?"
Gaier thrust himself into the middle of an unhappy drama in which three widowed sisters, two in their 70s and one in. By the fourth day, Gaier was so emotionally drained that he refused to shoot anymore. "The women's negativity is getting to me," he said. "I'm feeling negative myself." But his pictures were strong, intimate portraits of the sisters' psychological struggles and a dramatic change from the photographs he was taking only weeks before. Gaier had changed markedly during the course.
By Friday, Mary Ellen Mark was openly excited by the photographs students were bringing in. Perhaps the most remarkable pictures were those taken by three of the youngest photographers in the course-Renée Jacobs, Jackie Bell, and Steve Rubin-in Belfast, Maine (population, 6,142), a nearby town with a high unemployment rate.
Rubin, who had been enrolled as a full-time journalism student at the Maine Photographic Workshop during the spring semester, "discovered" Belfast. "One day last April I hitched up to Belfast," he recalled. "I met an old man on the street. We had a few drinks. He told me in a rich, gravelly voice, 'This town is a ghost town.' I'd been looking to do a project both personally and politically meaningful I didn't want to take pretty pictures."
Rubin returned to Belfast several more times, finally meeting a group of families who lived in a large, decrepit house and who had one thing in common: they were all unemployed. He remained for four months, coming up from Rockport several times a week. In that time he photographed several family fights, a near suicide, and a funeral. Rubin's photographs are a gloomy record of the day-to-day life of marginal America. A workshop member aptly described them as "like the heavy drone of bagpipes."
Renée Jacobs and Jackie Bell went to Belfast after looking at Rubin's pictures. Jacobs struck up a relationship with Cynthia Trask, an unemployed woman struggling to retain custody of her three children. Jacobs spent several days photographing Trask in her cramped apartment. Jackie Bell produced an essay on a group of people who had simply given up and passed the time playing games on the front porch of their house.
Mary Ellen Mark photographed by her student Mark Gaier.
More people headed into Belfast the following week when Rich Clarkson's 'Investigative Reporter" course began. Not all the residents welcomed the attention. Photographer Lori Traikos found out about a young man, recently discharged from the Army, who had just been killed in a motorcycle accident. Traikos hung out for a day with the young man's tough friends and then, dressed in the New York punk style, attended the funeral, where she took pictures. 'Everybody was wearing suits," Traikos recalled. "The dead guy's sister came over after I had taken some pictures and said, 'You better get out of town.'"
Rich Clarkson is the graphics director at the Denver Post. He is an old-fashioned guy with a journalism school approach to education -experience is the best teacher. On the final day of his workshop, he displayed his formidable ability as a picture editor, by using students' photographs to show how he creates a picture story.
For instance, he took pictures that Carol Egan, a student from Columbus, Ohio, had made of a mentally retarded man at a small mental hospital in Belfast. Clarkson held up what seemed to be a minor picture of the man listlessly leaning against a door. The class said, "Get rid of it." Clarkson answered, "No, let's make it a full page. That's the key picture-he has nothing to do all day." When Rich Clarkson was finished editing, the story on this man was a three-page picture essay that might have made W. Eugene Smith proud.
Susan Ferguson was the only student to take all three classes. "They were in the right order," she said at the conclusion. "They started wide-angle, went to 50mm, and ended at 200mm. Gene Richard's was the most beautifully designed course. There was some spice, some flour, things you wouldn't think would go together. And I appreciated his ethics. I will take away with me the need to be a straight shooter, protecting my people and doing well by them.
"In contrast to Gene, you got individual attention from Mary Ellen Mark She taught the craft of making a story. Rich Clarkson brought in the practical things: the captions, the layout on the page, how to think like a picture editor. And this morning, he gave us a lecture on how to apply for a job on a newspaper, whom to write, what to say."
Ferguson had come to Maine to decide on a career direction within photojournalism. At the end of the workshop, she still hadn't found her niche, but she did have some advice for next year's students who plan to take photojournalism courses. "You can't take three courses in a row," she said wearily. "If you are going to give 100 percent, you just can't do it."
Gerald Peary is a contributing editor of American Film and was a film critic for the now defunct Boston Real Paper. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Peary is an assistant professor of journalism at Suffolk University.