Industry News

An Rf Editor’s Account of Creative Soul-Searching Overseas

July 22, 2019

By Jacqueline Tobin

Photo © Manuel Ortega

Held in a land known for its vast wilderness, glacial valleys and lakes, and castles everywhere, a Scotland-based Parker Pfister workshop combined the perfect amount of education and networking with deep soul-searching and creativity.

Far beyond enjoying gourmet meals by a five-star chef in Burgundy, France, shooting through an extreme blizzard in Iceland, or even living in a castle on a 2,500-acre estate for a week in Scotland, there’s more to travel workshops than meets the exotic eye, according to photographer Parker Pfister, who has been running sold-out, intimate educational events in the U.S. and abroad since 2012.

Calvery models for attendee Debbie Labrot (of Lily Rose Photography in California) in the most gorgeous of settings on Isle of Skye. Photo © Debbie Labrot

”It’s all about experience and process and channeling your inner creativity,” he explains. “I want people to leave my workshops knowing their personal process,” which is why, he explains, attendees of his Burgundy workshop in 2018 enjoyed a five-star chef who discussed culinary arts while preparing the nightly meals as everyone huddled in the kitchen and talked food and photography. It’s also why Pfister played classical music in Scotland as attendees hunkered down in a castle every morning in intensive journaling sessions to explore what makes them tick before a single image was ever taken. 

I first met Pfister in 2008 while I was working on my first book, Wedding Photography Unveiled (Amphoto Books, 2009). I wanted to include him as one of my featured top 20 photographers from around the country and when I asked, he was extremely generous and made himself available for several interviews while also handing over hundreds of image files for me to choose from for the book. 

Fast forward to me running into him at a Sue Bryce Portrait Master conference last year (where he did a presentation) when the conversation turned to chatter about some of his upcoming workshops in Iceland, Scotland and the Badlands in South Dakota. I jumped at the chance to go to Scotland but was a bit nervous to commit because it also meant I would have to admit that, even though I grew up spending almost every spare moment I could in my dad’s black-and-white darkroom and could work an old film camera like nobody’s business, I was rusty on a digital camera and its settings—especially my awesome new Sony a7R III mirrorless camera. My eye, sense of composition and storytelling were still strong, I think, but my grasp of f-stops and shutter speeds and ISOs—not so much.

After the workshop, Ortega and some other attendees piled in rental cars to travel to Isle of Skye and the Highlands for more incredible Scottish landscape images. Photo © Manuel Ortega

Pfister assured me that being a tech head was not what he wanted out of an attendee and that as a self-described novice, I would be an asset. As he put it, “the camera gets in the way of you being a photographer. The photographer gets in the way of you being an artist. Novices come with ideas and can see beyond the camera settings.”

I breathed a sigh of relief and thought, good, because I am a total novice compared to who I imagined would be attending. Those who ended up going included Andrea Calvery, a Texas-based photographer who shot weddings for 15 years before switching over to family portraiture and studio shoots; Manuel Ortega, a very accomplished wedding photographer in California who had already attended a few of Pfister’s previous workshops; and a big Hollywood film and television director (as well as novelist) named James L. Conway, whose workshop images were both incredibly cinematic and stirring.

There were nine attendees in total, plus Pfister’s trusted crew, as well as his partner and fellow educator, Elizabeth Alina (a writer, TEDx speaker, and spiritual coach and motivator). The week had been marketed as a “photographic workshop for the soul.” It even came with homework assignments months in advance (which, in full disclosure, I did not do) and attendees connected months before our feet even hit the ground in Inverness when Pfister created The Scotland Happening Facebook group. There we forged friendships, traded packing tips and laughed a lot. By the time we all entered the castle on the Kellas Estate, we were old friends. 

“I am creating community,” Pfister says, “and having these Facebook groups really helps everyone stay in touch, bounce ideas off each other and connect well after the workshop ends and everyone goes home.” He says he still has two Facebook groups formed during workshops from 2015 and 2016 that are in communication to this day.

Cyndi Hardy’s final project was fulfilled in a very spiritual old cemetery drenched in sunlight.
Photo © Cyndi Hardy

Before we all met in person, though, there were invoices, payments and contracts—all the usual “business side of things” that had to be wrapped up before the workshop began. When I received the contract six or seven months prior to the arrival date, I noticed several things right away: a certain amount of days of instruction that included lodging, meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner), and model and location fees. Transportation to and from the airport would not be included but, as previously mentioned, we were put in touch with our fellow attendees to coordinate ride shares. Some of the particulars included statements like, “Lodging and food will be provided during the workshop dates and times. Attendees will be expected to share rooms and possibly beds with other attendees”—but in Scotland, we all had our own beds! “During the workshop if you run into any issues, please let us know as soon as possible so we can alter your arrangement.” In other words, whatever you want your attendees to be aware of, says Pfister, it should be in the contract. “Sit down with a lawyer and make sure to cover every scenario you want covered,” he advises those looking to start their own workshop.

A kick-off dinner the night before things officially commenced included wine, local cuisine (no, I did not have the courage to try haggis) and talk of what was to come. Groups of three to four piled into rental cars—most of us didn’t know how to drive on the other side of the road, but some fellow attendees sucked it up and went for it (thank you Natalie Licini!). We stopped off at Lochness Castle, photographed our in-residence model for the week, Kristen Rider, and bought some Scottish caps and heavy sweaters along the way. Day one wasn’t even over and we were already feeling like one big happy family.

One thing Pfister stresses when discussing his approach to setting up his workshops’ curriculum is that “it’s not a vacation. I don’t want attendees thinking that it is. It’s all about experience and switching it up to see what we can create. It’s not an easy ride.”

It certainly wasn’t easy in Scotland, as we faced personal obstacles, and as par for the course, there was the occasional gripe or mini drama that can often arise in such a setting. But we all dug deep and really tried to think outside our respective boxes. “I offer the opportunity for one to find his or her unique voice, leave the workshop understanding your artistic translators and understanding your own creative process,” Pfister says.

In Scotland, students were presented with challenges each day (read about my final challenge and see my image below). Even the most veteran photographers in attendance had to work hard to do something original and unexpected. It was refreshing, as well as encouraging, to know that I was not the only one sweating the challenges!

Says Ortega, “I attended my first Parker Pfister workshop in Asheville, North Carolina, in 2015, and it forever changed the way I shoot weddings. Parker is an amazing teacher who has a unique way of making you a better photographer by making you realize what is most important in getting the shot.”

Ortega continues: “The image I created for my final project was very personal and powerful. The print hangs in my studio and I see it every day. It always puts a smile on my face because it takes me back to the process of how I made it, which makes me feel so proud and gives me a great sense of accomplishment.” 

Photo © Jacqueline Tobin

My Final Challenge: How It All Unfolded

During the workshop, we were given many challenges to complete, all culminating in a final project. Pfister planted the seed early on as to how we should approach this last shoot—subtly letting us know that we should be aware, looking and seeing, thinking and plotting. We had the option to execute our final vision either at a nearby seashore, historic ruins and castle, or somewhere around the very Kellas Estate we were residing in. I was all ready to tackle my final project outdoors, at the beach—I had this idea of birth, renewal and a christening in my head, all centered around my mother’s Catholic communion ceremony when she was a 7-year-old girl. Then I walked past the laundry room on the first floor of the castle, and it was all over for my beach idea.

“Parker, Parker,” I said, tugging at his shirt like a kid, “I have to shoot my final image here,” as I pointed emphatically towards the messy area. There was an ironing board set up, along with clothes scattered on the floor, open boxes of detergent, and a wash bucket and mop outside the doorway. It was a dream come true; my mom was the eternal caretaker and housewife who spent most of her mom days in a similar routine. She is no longer with us, hence the shadowy figure blurred in my final shot (below), done with a lot of help from Pfister and fellow attendees Ortega, Conway, my lovely “mom” model (photographer Min Yang), and Natalie Licini and Sorya Gopalan, who lent me a wedding dress and veil. 

Yes, it sometimes does take a village, and many of Pfister’s challenges and assignments confirmed that it’s okay to ask for help on a shoot. Just make sure to come prepared with an idea, concept or vision that is uniquely yours because that is when your creativity thrives, resonates and flourishes.

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