I’m just getting back from a week in an 11th century French château with 11 other photographers having my melon twisted by the amazing, inspiring Parker J Pfister, gentleman, scholar and artistic genius. Those who know me know I love spending time stepping back and recharging my creative and artistic batteries whenever I can and this was a great opportunity to do so surrounded by a group of fellow creatives and professionals. Over the course of 7 days, we dived deep, unpacked our mental luggage, analyzed our artistic selves, dreamt up some crazy visions, learnt new techniques, ran amok through an abandoned abbey, communed with the spirits, and consumed a fair amount of Burgundy wine in the process.
This was my fourth venture down the rabbit hole of a Parker J workshop and it was by far the best yet. The amount of planning Parker had put in, combined with the amazing venue we were staying in, meant all the groundwork for success was in place when we arrived. The biggest difference this time around, though, was the sheer amount of time we had. 7 days may sound a lot when compared to other workshops, but there was so much great content, it pretty much flew by. We spent the first two days getting to know each other as a group; talking, thinking, listening to music, running through some mental exercises to open our minds a little and generally getting the creative juices flowing.
Parker came into the workshop with a set of 5 goals he wanted to accomplish. Here they are:
- Each person will know that they are creative.
- Each person will find the path of their why.
- Each person will find their creative translator.
- Each person will walk away with self-inspiration.
- Each person will understand their own creative process.
Each one of Parker’s workshops is different. And this was no exception. Parker’s workshops are not designed for portfolio building, but for development of the individual style, skillset and creative toolkit of each photographer. These are not the type of workshops where there are models being set up by the organizer with all the photographers shooting pretty pictures over each others’ shoulders, in fact this kind of practice is pretty much banned. They’re more about you being put into challenging situations where you are forced to be creative for yourself and come away with a series of images that you had to fight to achieve and you are proud to call your own. You can (and will) watch and learn from the other attendees as they talk through their creative process and shoot, but seeing in your own unique way is the name of the game and you will definitely all come away with very different images indeed.
Parker had also brought along a team of amazing creative professionals to help us focus on the ideas of process and developing our ideas and art to the best it can be. Stacey and Steelie of Marigold Hill and The Bloom Room who took care of the styling, florals and wardrobe, and Zhenya of Salon Zhenya, who did a fabulous job with hair and make-up for the three models, Jackie, Jenna and Elle, all with multiple looks pretty much every day we were there.
Here’s how the week ran: On Monday we all met up at the Château d’Autricourt, which is located in the quaint Burgundy town of Autricourt (population: 133). We took a quick tour of the château before heading off for a walk into the village to explore a little. Monday evening we had dinner, our first of many excellent French meals prepared by the amazing chef Anthony and his son Gabe of the Strada Italiano restaurant in Asheville. We then sat around the fire, introduced ourselves formally (and informally!) and we went over some of the homework we had to done to prep for the week.
Tuesday and most of Wednesday day time were spent as a group in the kitchen getting into the nitty gritty of who we are as artists, why we do what we do, how to recognize and translate our thoughts and dreams into concepts for artistic development. In this time, we each came up with a concept for a single image which we would then have to work with the creative team to realise by the end of the week. The first time we picked up a camera for a challenge was on Wednesday, almost 48 hours into the workshop. This may seem a lot, but the time actually flew by pretty quickly especially when you understand that one of Parker’s basic tenets is that, a lot of the time, the camera can get in the way of how we see things and this can negatively impact our work. These first two days were key for the work to come.
Thursday was a play day designed to help us come back to the surface and have fun after two days of some pretty heavy soul searching and self-discovery. We headed off to the neighbouring village of Belan-sur-Ource, where we ran some more challenges around and inside the beautiful Church of the Assumption. From there, we drove over to one of the most amazing locations I have ever had the luck of working in: the incredible Abbaye de Fontenay, which is an abandoned 11th century Cistercian abbey. It’s difficult to convey in words the size and beauty of this place, and we could easily have spent a whole day there shooting. As it was, we made great use of our time there by dividing into teams and running through quick-fire challenges with specific restrictions around designated areas of the abbey. This was probably the highlight of the week for me given the history and beauty of the architecture there.
Friday we spent back at the château going over more challenges using different types of lighting in the myriad different rooms. For one of my challenges, I was restricted to shooting a portrait in the kitchen, which was where we had spent all our time working and eating, so it was pretty much a disaster area in terms of clutter. The image I got from it, after working on the idea with the creative team actually turned out to be another one of my favourites from the week.
Saturday and Sunday were spent with each member of the group working on realising each of the image concepts they had dreamt up on Tuesday. This was a collaboration between all of us and we pretty much all worked to help each other execute their image. On Sunday, we also took some time in the morning to learn the encaustic process from René of Luxe House Photographic studio in Asheville. It was great to see our images printed, mount them on gesso and then hand finish them with hot wax and resin. I will definitely be adding this process to my print offerings moving forward.
All in all, it was an incredible week spent with an amazingly inspiring group of people. Thanks to every single one of the attendees for making it such an amazing experience. And, of course, I have such incredible gratitude to Parker for having the vision and strength of character to dream up and deliver such an incredible week of learning for us all. Incidentally, Parker has just released details of a new workshop in Asheville in August. You can check out the deets on Parker’s website here. If you’re even remotely thinking about going I have 3 words for you: JUST DO IT. You will be forever thankful you did!
And I guess I better close out by sharing some photos! Here are just a few of my favourite images from the week…
Chateau d’Autricourt under Orion and the Pleiades constellations. Light pollution at night was almost zero so it made for great astrophotography when there was no cloud cover.
The team taking their lunch break outside. There is a moat surrounding the chateau, so we all had a bit of fun shooting it in our town time. Here I was just playing around and experimenting with the reflections.
The village church which was at the bottom of the driveway into the chateau. The pollarded trees surrounding it were amazing.
One of the 133 citizens of Autricourt takes his dog for a walk.
Playing with shadows and composition on my walk.
Let the games commence. One of the first challenges involved us having two minutes to take a portrait in a basement toilet. Here’s the lovely Jackie lit by candlelight.
Jenna praying. The was a challenge in the church in the neighbouring village. I was drawn to the light coming through a stained glass window and hitting this altar. Again, time limits were in place and this was a challenge I struggled with a bit.
My first image in the three minutes I had with Jenna in the Abbey of Fontenay. All these were made with available light. There is a large open door right behind me giving us this beautiful soft light source.
Image two in my three minutes with Jenna. I’d scouted the location and seen this pool of light coming from a window opening way up to the right behind me. I placed Jenna in it, exposed for the highlights and composed to bring in the window behind her. I really liked how the colours coordinated with the palette of Jenna’s hair and skin tones as well as her dress.
Image three from this three-minute challenge: I asked Jenna to stand in this spot to be framed by the arches whilst a doorway camera left is letting light in from the courtyard. The expression is all Jenna’s as I think this is when the 3 minute timer went off. Happy accidents! :).
The lovely Elle running through the arcades at the abbey. The challenge here was to show motion somehow. Either the subject moving or the camera moving.
Challenge here was to shoot with a shutter speed of at least ½ second. So this is Jacqui at ½ second handheld (no tripod). I basically sat down, braced the camera, held my breath and took a series of shots. This was my fave.
This was the image I shot in the kitchen. As mentioned, it was really cluttered in there, so I tidied up a corner and we headed over to a window for a classic portrait using soft window light.
Jacqui in the boat on the moat. I shot this with a tilt adapter on my Sony. The boat was drifting around a fair bit, so keeping Jacqui’s face in the sliver of focus was tricky but fun. This is the image I mounted and hand finished using the encaustic process we learnt on the final day.
Jenna in the window light at dusk. I’ve always loved the dramatic look of high speed B&W film.
Jenna in the window light at dusk. I wanted a grittier feel for this image to match Jenna’s look.
Elle in the abandoned room.
Elle in the blue room.
The legend himself. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mr Parker J Pfister!
Artemas waiting for the wax and resin to melt in order to finish his print.
Jenna in the chapel.
Parker preachin’ & rockin’ out! My final image of the workshop was the concept I had been working on since Tuesday. Thanks to everyone for helping me pull it off.