These were images that did not make the final cut by Mary Ellen. These were chosen during my daily critique with her, made into work prints, and part of the work presented to the other students on the final day.
This one shot was my favorite. I knew it when I exposed the film.
This one has the strongest Mary Ellen Mark feel to me, only because the image contains the most sourly unhappy child I have ever met.
This one of Valeria was not even marked for an initial work print by Mary Ellen but for some reason I like it.
Mary Ellen killed this one for the tiny smile growing on her face.
These were my images that Mary Ellen chose to be part of the final review. I am proud of them but there were also others that I am immensely fond of that she did not choose.
After 14 years of shooting, I had reached a point with my photography where I felt stuck. I was rehashing ideas, relying on a standard bag of tricks, not feeling that creative spark and excitement.
My photos were becoming staid and repetitive, the locale and the people changing, the images not changing much at all.
Mary Ellen Mark’s famous Oaxaca workshop was coming up in a couple of months. This was exactly what I needed.
I needed to shake things up. There was a natural growth progression and I was not able to get to the next level. I had been operating in a vacuum which I think can be very desirable for a photographer, to not let the trends and fads and habits of my peers affect me. But I found myself without a feedback loop. There was no one but myself in my daily struggle to push me further with my images.
My Personal Goals for the Workshop
The goals I had set for myself were huge. I had been in a rut with my images and process for the past year or so. Of all things, I had the feeling of complacency and satisfaction with many of my images recently. I was very pleased with my recent images from Morocco and Napoli (though my images from Granada were a disaster). For me, satisfaction was the death of creativity, the killing of desire. I am at my best behind the camera when I am driving myself crazy, pushing things, never being satisfied, always knowing that I need to take leaps, to push, to fail and learn.
This fire, this unnerving disorder that drives me to create and push the limits for myself had been missing. I was stuck and did not know how to break free. Hopes were high for this workshop.
I had written these goals down in my journal upon first arriving in Oaxaca:
- Produce a great body of work in Oaxaca
- Learn as much as possible from Mary Ellen
- Chart the path for my photo career with a fresh perspective
- Raise the bar for my work; breakthrough to the next level
- Break free of the stagnant creative holding pattern I have made for myself
Yeah. Pretty much: save me, goddamn it.
You can read more about the structure of Mary Ellen’s Oaxaca workshop here. This post will deconstruct my creative experience and what I learned from the workshop.
Initial Portfolio Review
The first day of the workshop is devoted to reviewing each student’s work in front of the entire class. There are a lot of students and while everyone wished for more one on one time with Mary Ellen, her critques are incisive and cutting. She was able to identify some things with my work very quickly, things that I had to write down and chew on over the next few days.
I had more experience as a working photographer than the other students but my work was not necessarily the strongest or the most striking. The quality of the work people presented was varied but the level in generally was really high.
The one noticeable thing was that my voice was more defined and articulated than the other portolios being shown. I think that this helped Mary Ellen zero in on my problem areas.
These were the points from her quick appraisal:
- My portraits are stronger
- I have too much noise in my street work
- I am losing the graphic elements and strongly designed frames of my portraits in my street work
- I need to add a 28mm to my suite of gear (I only shoot with a 35mm on the streets)
As she was going through my photos and making her selects, I had some of my own revelations:
- My street photos have become very literal, very straightforward
- I record and capture now more than I create, especially on the street
- My portraits reflect me controlling a situation and creating and the result is very different
- Because my candid street shooting has been my priority, I have been solely focused with the ability to get close to people and fire off that shot, in focus and properly exposed. In other words, speed and closeness have trumped other values
- I have lost the lyrical, weird, quirky aesthetic to my work, qualities that I used to have years ago
- There is a surreal, disconcerting to many of Mary Ellen’s images that I have always loved. I have never been a very strong surrealist and it is time to incorporate this quality into my work if I can
Portraits – Selects
Mary Ellen pulled these images out of the mix and were part of her final selects from my portfolio.
Street Shots – Selects
She liked this shot, thought the girls were cute though they were smiling which she normally hates. She admonished me to watch out when shooting wide as I had distorted their bodies in this vertical portrait.
Street Shots – Fail
There were numerous images that Mary Ellen did not like because of the noisy backgrounds. In her opinion, these images were losing their integrity because there no strong lines of composition, a quality she continually described as graphic.
Dead Static Images
There were dozens of images that did not make the cut during her review of my work. I realized looking at the prints scattered over the table that I had become very static in my compositions. I had moved away from dynamic angled compositions to very flat shots, framing things dead on, the subjects dead center. Kind of a Wes Anderson lock-down shot facing the background at a straight ninety degree angle. Except without the appeal of those compositions.
The centering of my subjects in the frame was also a result of being bored with the rule of thirds and sticking faces and centers of focus in corners for years and years.
This dead on centering is not necessarily a bad thing but the results for me were images that had lost their dynamism.
The Noisy Streets
I like busy street scenes, the noise of a city, a crowded frame full of life. Mary Ellen did not. I understood her point completely but I will always gravitate towards the crowded scenes.
This is a great example of a super noisy street scene, shot dead on and flat. I think it works but I do understand what she was saying.
Mary Ellen’s Tasks for Me
The charge I received from Mary Ellen was simple and was repeated almost daily to me:
- Stop being safe
- Put my lens in different places
- Be bold
- Be conscious of everything in the frame
- Reduce the background noise
- Compose with strong graphic elements
- Take risks
Daily Portfolio Reviews
At the close of each day’s shooting, I would return to the Bravo Center and drop off my film, picking it up the next morning in time for that day’s review with Mary Ellen. She would review the previous day’s proof sheets and inspect the work prints.
Progress could be measured on a daily basis which was wonderful. She would pick out the successful shots, point out the shots where I had failed, look to see how I was working with a single subject over several frames.
This daily process was of enormous help. I was able to receive immediate feedback on a work in progress, then to hit the streets again to attempt to put the lessons learned into practice.
Continuing Old Tricks
I found it hard to break my habits, ingrained after so many years of shooting. I would find myself in front of a subject and framing the shot in the same way I had always done before, choosing those same fractions of a second that I had captured for years just with different subjects.
Learning how to shoot with fresh eyes was akin to learning how to change your walk. I struggled mightily. The first couple of shooting days were enormous sources of frustration. For example, I was photographing this beautiful woman and I was completely conscious that I was framing this girl exactly like I had framed every girl for the last ten years, putting her by the window, strong side lighting, strong profile shot. I quickly moved her away from the window and changed my position but the resulting shots were flat.
My early proof sheets showed the same types of images I had always created. It took several days to finally break free and only the last day of shooting was I able to really produce different images, photos that pleased both Mary Ellen and myself.
Mary Ellen’s Aesthetic vs My Own
One of the challenges and great benefits of the workshop is that Mary Ellen’s feedback is very specific and it ends up driving you to shoot more like her because the qualities she values – the surreal, well-composed, dramatic images – are the qualities of your images that she will look for you in your proof sheets.
Myself and other students remarked on this, that we were adopting these traits to try to produce images that she would approve. This was not a pejorative thing as anyone of us would have been more than happy to acquire any of these aesthetics.
It was fascinating to watch my style change in small and subtle ways over the nine days. My images were improving along the subjective lines that I always sought out and they were also improving along the Mary Ellen trajectory, becoming pale imitations of her style.
The important thing is that during the workshop, I was learning how to shoot like her without abandoning my own style. Kind of incredible.
Tomorrow, I will post the images that Mary Ellen chose for the final selects to be presented to the workshop on the final day.
In June 2012, I participated in Mary Ellen Mark’s legendary Oaxaca Photo Workshop, running in its sixteenth year.
My review of this workshop will be in four posts. This, the first, will detail the workshop as a whole. The second will be my personal experience, goals and results from the workshop. Then I will post the images that Mary Ellen selected, followed by the honorable mentions.
Besides a previous weekend workshop with Mary Ellen two years ago and a class when I was a college freshman, I have never received formal training or instruction. I learned photography by being on the streets, taking lessons from my contact sheets, studying the masters and of course, learning job by job.
This workshop was a chance to have the eyes and mind of a living legend focused on my work, teaching and shaping my next moves. I could not wait.
This workshop is not cheap. In the first day or two of the workshop, I did hear people griping about the cost. And at the end of the workshop, there were no complaints. I believe that every single person in my workshop felt that they got their money’s worth if not more.
The tuition does not include anything else. Flights, accommodations, meals, etc. will have to be covered by you. This is Mexico, so the exchange rate is favorable, daily life is very affordable, and there are inexpensive but quality restaurants and hotels.
For Film Shooters
Yes, you must buy your own film before you leave for the workshop. No surprise here. But you must also buy negative sleeves and photo paper for your contact sheets and work prints.
I brought 50 rolls of film. On a normal 7 – 8 day trip for me, I normally expose 20 – 30 rolls of film. I thought these 50 rolls of Tri-X would suffice but I ended up exposing all but the last roll of film and could have easily shot more than I did. For the next workshop, 75 rolls would be in order.
I also purchased a box of 100 sheets of Ilford photo paper and this barely covered my needs. You need paper for contact sheets and work prints, you will also need to have prints made for the families and subjects that you have photographed. This is not only good manners and a requirement by Mary Ellen, but returning to a subject with darkroom prints can go a long way towards helping establish trust with the people that you are shooting.
Towards the end of the workshop, I gained a huge appreciation of Fausto, the darkroom printer at the Alvarez Bravo Center. There were numerous images I had printed out for my own purposes, images not chosen by Mary Ellen but images that I wanted to see printed.
The costs of B&W film processing and developing and darkroom prints were much lower than film labs in the states, especially the ones in Manhattan. You will get a bill at the end of the workshop from the lab that may be shocking. When you are in the middle of the workshop, you can get caught up in the desire to see work prints and to take advantage of Fausto’s great touch.
For Digital Shooters
The prices of the main lab that was used by the digital shooters was also very affordable compared to US labs and I saw some quality prints. Since I did not use the digital lab, I do not know what the prices were but I think it was similar to the film lab in that the prices were cheaper than the states.
The Structure of the Workshop
Over the ten days in Oaxaca, eight days were to be spent shooting, with the ninth day a shooting day for those who needed or requested it.
Day 0 – First Group Dinner
The workshop is kicked off with an informal dinner with the whole group, including Mary Ellen and her great team of assistants. It was a great way to meet your fellow shooters, chat with Mary Ellen, and eat some great Oaxacan cuisine. You will leave stuffed, maybe a little tipsy from the Mescal, and motivated to get out and start shooting.
Day 1 – Portfolio Review
The first official day was spent at the gorgeous art institute outside of Oaxaca, the Centro de las Artes de San Agustín. For the July 2012 workshop, there were 18 students which meant for a long day and critique fatigue set in for everyone towards the end.
Each student spreads out their work and Mary Ellen makes her selects, commenting on the prints, asking questions. What do you do, what do you want to do, where are you now, where do you want to be, where do you want to go. Other students will chime in with their opinions and suggestions.
It is a good critique though we all would have liked more time with Mary Ellen on a one-to-one basis. But Mary Ellen’s critique is tight and focused. Based on your work and what you would like to tackle as a goal during the workshop, Mary Ellen will confer with her staff and suggest projects and subjects for you to shoot during your stay.
The group then heads to a local restaurant for lunch.
Days 2 – 9
These are shooting days and make up the meat of the workshop. Every student has a set time to meet with Mary Ellen for a critique of the previous day’s work. For film shooters, this means bringing the contact sheets and work prints. For digital shooters, this means editing the previous days images down to 150 or less and bringing work prints from the digital lab. Film shooters can expose up to five rolls a day on average.
Whichever project, subject or theme you have chosen, Mary Ellen’s excellent staff will help coordinate transportation and fixers for you. Whether shooting in a school for children with Down’s Syndrome, a slaughterhouse, or impoverished families that work at a local garbage dump, the workshop staff will set you up and provide everything you need to gain access to these people and their stories.
This is also southern Mexico, so do not be surprised if things run a little late or a scheduled event does not take place.
Every day, film must be dropped off by a certain time, digital files dropped off at the lab, to be printed out for the following day’s meeting with Mary Ellen.
Each evening, a short event is planned for the students. It might be a presentation of Mary Ellen’s work or that of great Oaxacan photographers, watching films, or visiting art galleries. A group dinner follows at a a local restaurant. Attendance is not mandatory but it is nice to review the days challenges and success with the other students. Head to a bar afterwards for some Mescal after dinner and hang out with some locals. There is a great bar scene and plenty of expats to chat up.
One of the best bars / venues is Café Central but I did not get a chance to check it out.
The final day of the workshop, this is where all the work by each photographer is presented for the first time to the whole class. Up to this point, no one has seen anyone else’s work the entire time.
Selects are made by Mary Ellen with lots of healthy opinions from the other shooters. Mary Ellen’s appraisal of the shooters progress and creations during the workshop are offered.
The final images are selected which will be included in a book which students can order online afterwards.
There is a final dinner for the workshop that night closing out the experience with food and drinks. It’s a great time to close out the workshop, celebrate with new friends and get buzzed to help with the packing that awaits.
Photographing in any new locale and foreign city always presents new challenges and opportunities. With the mandate set by Mary Ellen and the charge she will give you creatively, you will find yourself richly rewarded and challenged
The Range of Subjects to Shoot
- Old age home
- Ballet school
- Boxing gym
- Bus station
- Tattoo convention
- Lucha Libre (Mexican wrestling)
- Special needs school for children with Down’s Syndrome
- Municipal garbage dump (and the families that work there as salvagers)
- Livestock auctions
- Local families in nearby villages
- Street shooting in Oaxaca
- Street shooting in the Zocalo
Other Tips and Thoughts
Just some other tidbits and miscellany.
Flying with Film & Photo Paper
If you are connecting in Mexico City, your carry-on bags will be scanned again. I had some difficulty with my film though I had done my usual job of placing it in ziploc bags, clearly labeled. After a fair amount of explaining and showing them examples of my work (always carry a business card and some work examples if you can), I was able to get through security without having my film scanned.
The box of photo paper, however, was not as lucky but I decided to pick my battles and it was hard enough to get past the X-Ray machine as it was. If there was damage to the paper, I did not notice it in the prints or the proof sheets
For those flying straight to Oaxaca with film, there will no such issues.
One of the most amazing things about the workshop is the fact that, unannounced in all of the program’s literature, is that Mary Ellen will be shooting a portrait of you for the resulting book. For me, this is worth the price of admission alone. She is a living legend and a hero. To sit before her lens was an unimagined treat.
Mary Ellen surrounds herself with a group of young Mexican photographers that help coordinate and manage the workshop. They do a wonderful job and all are artists, so they can relate to you and your work or struggles. Several of them live in the states and some live in Oaxaca.
They will be willing to help you at any time of day with taxis, suggestions or to help coordinate a shoot.
There is a vibrant artist community in Oaxaca and the city has many great galleries from the high end upscale to the low brow hipster offerings. Definitely make some time to visit these galleries and you will find also that you may even get to meet some of the local artists.
In addition to the art for sale in Oaxaca and all of the traditional crafts, including the Day of the Dead dolls, do not leave Oaxaca without checking out some of their famous textiles and of course, the chocolate, the source of the seven varieties of Oaxacan mole sauce.
Amazingly, Oaxaca must have more photo labs and camera gear stores per capita than any city I have traveled to. I did not need to make any emergency purposes but it was good to know that gear was available just in case.
This workshop is expensive. It is an eleven or twelve day trip and adding on the cost of the workshop and all the other expenses that you will incur on a daily basis makes for pricey trip. So, was it worth it? Absolutely.
Regardless of what your experience or skill level is at, if you are a working photographer or someone who just bought a camera, you will gain so much out of this workshop. For some of us students, this was a lot of money and out of the 18 students in attendance, every single one of them had an amazing time and there was not a single regret voiced. A few students have taken the workshop several times, with one woman making her sixth appearance. Some of the new students also signed up for Mary Ellen’s Iceland workshop which immediately followed.
Go. The math is simple: you will not regret it, but you will always regret not attending.
I started out by posting pictures of myself and my ex boyfirend and friends on flickr and on this website. I was really just doing it because I loved doing it. Some people started to post my work on their blogs, and it started to spread over the internet. One day (in 2008) a photographer’s agent found my work through one of the blogs and contacted me. She was wondering if I would be interested in doing it professionaly. Absolutely terrified, and not at all sure if it was a good idea, I said yes. Two weeks later I had my first job from her – a portrait of Charlotte Rampling for Dazed and Confused. And since then it has been a lot of more work , and here I am. It is pretty much all thanks to the internet though.
– Lina Scheynius
I get ideas while walking in big cities or forests listening to good music.
– Lina Scheynius
I tend not to think too much about what I am doing, if I see something that interests me I shoot it. I like bringing my camera into situations people wouldn’t normally bring a camera. And I like showing people in moments and moods they wouldn’t show out in public.
– Lina Scheynius
I usually shoot people that I know pretty well and therefore already have developed a trusting relationship with. It’s important for me that they can feel relaxed, but also that I can!
– Lina Scheynius
I only ever work with light sources that exists in our everyday life and never use my flash. I am very interested in light of every form, and how it can change a place, a situation, a mood or even an object.
– Lina Scheynius
I love using this type of photography! I love anything where the result can surprise you. I just wish it wasn’t so bloody expensive and hard to hunt down the Polaroids.
– Lina Scheynius
My dad was taking a lot of pictures of us as kids and I used to always want to borrow his camera. There are a few pictures in our family albums of my family’s heads and a great space of nothing above them. When I turned 10 I got my own camera and finished two rolls of film that same day. Since then I have just kept doing it. It comes very natural to me. Probably more so than brushing my hair!
– Lina Scheynius
When I work on my personal pictures the viewer doesn’t enter my mind until I start the selection process for my website. And even then I try to not think about him or her. If I did, I think a larger section of my work would remain unseen, as a lot of it is extremely personal to me and not initially captured to be viewed by others, but more as you mentioned, to document. Or experiment. I guess that it is my almost forced disregard of the viewer that gives you the impression that I am fearless.
– Lina Scheynius
We had a photobook at home that used to fascinate me. It’s by photographer Åke Hedström and called ‘Emma’. It’s a father’s photographs of his very allergic daughter. She dies after eating a brazilnut. Extremely sad but amazing photography.
– Lina Scheynius
But I am definitely not someone who has a camera around at all times. Fact is that I take very few photographs, and I am very selective when I take them. I don’t hunt for images. I let them come to me through moments in my life, and occasionally I create them.
– Lina Scheynius
I don’t actually have a favourite photographer. I like quite a few but I get more inspiration from painters like Egon Schiele. I love his work for leaving me feeling slightly uncomfortable. And also because it feels very real and intimate.
– Lina Scheynius
There is a tiny section on my website called “red” with photographs against a pink sky. I was in my room on the phone to one of my best friends and noticed how amazing the sky looked so I told my friend to hold on for a sec, and then I climbed out on the roof with my Polaroid camera and very quickly shot some self-portraits against the sky. That is exactly how I love working.
– Lina Scheynius
For my magazine work I try to always work in an as similar process as possible to my personal work. I like to keep it intimate by working in really small teams of people that I enjoy having around. I also try to be spontaneous and not plan anything more than where I will be and who I will be there with. Furthermore I want it to be fun and I never take 100 similar versions of the same picture. I was a model before I became a photographer and I think the process of most fashion shoots I have been on is very draining and gives a pretty stale result. Usually there are too many people around all trying to do an amazing job and too much time is spent on things in general.
– Lina Scheynius
In my opinion the instant itself can never be changed. Yes, bringing out a camera has already made the moment different from if one hadn’t brought it out. But the fact that there is a photograph of it doesn’t change what happened. Only perhaps the memory of it. My memory of it. The importance of it in relation to other instances that might be similar but not remembered.
Bringing in a viewer gives the instant even more importance in relation to others. It doesn’t really make the single picture more important to me. I am not sure, but it could even be the contrary as it is no longer a secret personal thing but some kind of official object.
But the image itself gets a new and perhaps more important life with all these eyes viewing it and hopefully relating to it in whatever way.
On another note I have noticed that bringing out these instances in public has an effect on the future ones. For better or worse.
– Lina Scheynius
I have never experienced any problems due to my lack of education. Things have happened very quickly for me and there has never been anyone asking for a paper where I can prove my skills or merits. I personally don’t have much faith in creative education and I am very happy I have never chosen to do one.
– Lina Scheynius
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