BEYOND THE FRAME PHOTOGRAPHY WORKSHOP
WITH WILLIAM ALBERT ALLARD
23rd to 28th JANUARY, 2015
A recent edition of The Telegraph carried an article reporting that Italian scientists have been studying a phenomenon known as Stendhal Syndrome. It's said that visitors to the Italian city of Florence can be so overwhelmed by the beauty of the artwork that they "swoon".
"Staff at Florence's Santa Maria Nuova hospital are accustomed to dealing with tourists suffering from dizzy spells and disorientation after admiring the statue of David".
Don't you just love that? The art in Florence is so abundant and gorgeous that medical staff are regularly caring for people made dizzy by the very sight of it.
I'm only surprised that Italian scientists are actually studying the phenomenon. I would have thought it more likely for Italians to be studying the responses of visitors who do not swoon at the sight of Michelangelo's "David".
What is about art that can affect our sensibilities so profoundly? Art does not sustain or protect our physical selves. Music will not clothe us. Paintings cannot provide shelter (unless you have a lot of sturdy frames). Admiring Michelangelo's statue will not feed our bellies. Yet we respond to great art with our most fundamental instincts and emotions. Soon after we have found sources of food, water and shelter, we seek art. We need art. Perhaps where food and water can sustain us and shelter protects us, art connects us.
Florence, which can boast a greater concentration of evocative art than anywhere else on the planet, is the visual equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet. Is it a surprise that visitors require medical attention after feasting to the point of bursting?
Girls Running Home
My guess is that most of us have experienced bouts of Stendhal Syndrome when coming face-to-face with great art. It happens to me all the time. I remember unwrapping a Christmas gift from my good friends, Sabrina Henry and Ray Ketcham, a couple of years ago and revealing a copy of William Albert Allard's impressively hefty "Five Decades" retrospective book. I stood at the dining table and leafed through the pages, anticipating some undisturbed free time ahead when I'd be able to really concentrate on the images. I recall very clearly the moment I first saw the image below, which still induces a sense of dizzying admiration every time I see it.
The photograph doesn’t show an event of historical significance, it’s not a portrait of a famous person, it doesn’t document a disaster, it’s not a photograph of a Kennedy or Monroe. It wasn’t taken in Vietnam or Beirut and it doesn’t show a rare natural phenomenon. It’s a photograph taken on what appears to be a sombre afternoon on a country lane in rural France. Not, you might think, a place where such a memorable image might be made.
The photograph shows two girls, running along a lane towards a village in the distance. The lane curves gently from the bottom-left corner of the frame, disappearing from view as it rounds a corner towards buildings. A hint of a mountain is visible beyond the village and the hills form a background against which one white building is highlighted.
Much of the photograph is monochromatic, there’s a hint of muddy red in the distant rooftops but, otherwise, it’s an image of largely dark and subdued greens and browns.
But there, in the centre of the frame, no larger than the end of your thumb, is a splash of sunshine yellow and two spots of vibrant red. A girl’s yellow jacket and red shoes. Her arms are outstretched and her feet have lifted from the ground and… in the words of the photographer…
“…the two girls were not running, they weren’t skipping; they were weightless, floating in the air, as if forever suspended in grace and innocence.”
It takes a fraction of a second for your eye to fall upon the yellow jacket in the centre of the frame and a fraction more before you realise that the girls are “floating, weightless”. That time is enough to leave you feeling that you’ve discovered a secret treasure in the image. It’s not just a photograph of a rural scene, it’s not simply a road and village at dusk, it’s indisputable evidence of magic! The magic of childhood innocence and liberty. In the moment we realise that the girls are floating, we are children once again. We know that childhood sense of believing that we can fly. We can recall that lightness of being. Perhaps it is because we now inhabit bodies which are weightier, fully grown, and because we possess minds which tell us that it is impossible to leap up and fly that we might feel a sense of affectionate, nostalgic longing when we look at that photograph.
On one sombre afternoon in 1967, near a village in rural France, two girls running towards their home were momentarily weightless. And William Albert Allard captured that scene.
As you look more carefully at the image, you might begin to wonder about the perspective. The photographer appears to be looking down upon the scene. To capture the two girls, the lane and the village from that angle, he must surely have been fifteen or twenty feet above the road. The only logical explanation is that he too was floating. Sure, some might suggest that he could have been standing on a rock or on a bridge or a gate or on the top of a double-decker bus… But those are disappointingly practical and unromantic notions.
How might we also make such a beautiful image? If you’ve ever picked up a camera and tried to take a “great” photograph, you’ll know that the results can sometimes be disappointing. There can be a gulf between what your eyes saw, what your mind envisaged and what the resulting photograph shows. I’ve taught photography for many years and it’s very common during review and critique sessions to hear students eagerly providing a commentary on the circumstances surrounding their image-making. “Well, the light was much more golden than that”, or “A second before I took this, he was laughing”, or “It doesn’t look anything like I remember”. We are all familiar with that discrepancy between the final image and the scene as we recall it in our mind’s eye. Nevertheless, we continue to pick up our cameras in the hope that we might successfully capture something which conveys a moment as we saw it.
Sometimes, if we're lucky, we might find ourselves looking through the viewfinder and feeling certain that we have found the most evocative light, organised the perfect composition, waited patiently for the decisive moment and… click… our senses come together in that instant and we firmly believe that we’ve captured something truly memorable. In that moment, when all the ingredients conspire in a fraction of a second, we might feel giddy, weightless. I think that’s what happened to William Albert Allard on that country lane in France in 1967. I believe that he looked through the viewfinder, composed the scene, waited for the girls to run into the perfect spot and, realising that he was about to capture an image of magical beauty, simply lifted from the ground to float above the earth, weightless.
I accept it’s a fanciful notion but I’m an artist so fanciful notions are in my job description.
Great art connects us. It reveals our humanity, illustrates our vulnerabilities, describes our aspirations and defines the human condition. Great artists, it must follow, are those who are most willing to reveal their humanity, showing us their vulnerabilities, sharing their aspirations and wearing their hearts firmly and proudly upon their sleeves. When you look at the work of William Albert Allard, you quickly realise that you are not only looking at photographs of this place or that place, this person or that person, you are seeing a reflection of the artist himself and Allard's passion is soaked deeply into every image.
Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to attend a photography festival in Cortona, Italy, which included three memorable days with William Albert Allard. Perhaps it was the heady infusion of medieval architecture, golden light and a rather perky lunchtime Chianti but when I suggested to him that we ought to offer a photography workshop in Bangkok, he was immediately and unreservedly enthusiastic. I'm delighted, therefore, to announce our Beyond the Frame Photography Workshop with William Albert Allard.
You want to know the secret of making great images? It's got very little to do with cameras or lenses. It has even less to do with apertures or shutter speeds, focal lengths or megapixels. It has everything to do with your approach, your integrity, your determination, patience and your authenticity. Great images are a product of undiluted passion.
That is why we're calling this workshop the "Beyond the Frame Photo Workshop". Participants will be helped with the technical aspects, for sure, but, more than that, we will be exploring what it really means to be a photographer. We will be looking at what happens behind the scenes when we prepare, research and plan. We will examine intentions and see how our expectations can influence the outcome. We aim to look at much more than the final result, hence, Beyond the Frame.
It was noticeable that in my three days with William Albert Allard, we did not discuss cameras or lenses even once. We did not compare notes about apertures or metering modes. We walked into Cortona and we looked, observed, waited and, eventually, photographed. When we paused for lunch or dinner, we talked about light, texture and form. We shared our experiences, talked about people we'd met, places we'd visited and the photographs that got away. We talked about being present, about patiently waiting and about living inside the story. I hope that we will have an opportunity to share similar conversations in even greater depth in Bangkok next year.
Beyond the Frame Photo Workshop
William Albert Allard has been a National Geographic photographer for over fifty years. I'm not about to find any more eloquent words about the man and his work than these:
"Mention the name Bill Allard and images that are indelibly inscribed on my memory instantly appear in the foreground of my mind. And so do words - soulful, idyllic, muscular, elegiac, textural, human, authentic. Allard is more than a master of his medium, he is what he photographs."
James Nachtwey, Photojournalist
"He shows us the potent magic of living, the luminous mystery of the transitory, and all with a deftness and compassion unique to his vision"
Sally Mann, Photographer
"How would I define William Albert Allard? He is a master of content, color, light; a poet; and a great artist"
Mary Ellen Mark
I hope that you will be able to join us in Bangkok for our Beyond the Frame Photography Workshop next year for what promises to be a memorable learning and sharing experience.
Places will be limited so please register early.