Oct 212011

It’s the Harvard of photography workshops!

Well, that may be a bit of an overstatement, but the Leica Akademie has almost as long and illustrious heritage as the camera itself. Established in 1930 in Wetzlar, Germany, the birthplace of Leica, the Akademie has attracted avid scholars of the art of photography to its seminars worldwide. Students learn the proud traditions and ongoing innovations of this celebrated camera that has won the devotion of famous photographers from the legendary Henri Cartier-Bresson to current master Craig Semetko. So when I learned that the Akademie was coming to L.A. with none other than Semetko himself as guest instructor, I had to sign up.

We began our Leica Weekend with a meet-and-greet on Friday evening to get acquainted with Craig, Leica company instructor Tom Smith, Ebi our Leica equipment representative, and our fellow students. We also got to salivate over a veritable banquet of Leica gear, much of which most people might never be able to afford.

On Saturday morning, the seminar began in earnest, with Tom giving us an abundance of hands-on practical tips and advice on how to use our M9’s to their best advantage in this digital age. He gave particular attention to the Leica’s superior rangefinding capabilities and how to focus and adjust the depth of field prior to setting out on a shoot–a significant advantage when taking pictures on the fly in street photography.

Craig then gave a lengthy and fascinating talk about how he came to compile the photos for his widely heralded new book UNPOSED. A successful comedian and actor by profession, he was inspired to try his hand at photography by the work of Cartier-Bresson. Thus, it was a huge thrill for him when the Open Shutter Gallery in Durango, Colorado, chose to feature his work alongside that of his idol in the exhibition “Street Photography: From Classic to Contemporary–Henri Cartier-Bresson and Craig Semetko.” The exhibit caught the attention of the cognoscenti at Leica, earning him an invitation to display in a gallery at one of their stores overseas. That showing, in turn, attracted the interest of a publisher… and the result was UNPOSED.

Echoing a sentiment expressed by his colleague Eric Kim, Craig stressed that, although aspiring photographers should study the work of greats like Cartier-Bresson, we must still strive to cultivate our own individual styles and viewpoints. Semetko’s own work, for example, exudes his generous warmth and humor.

Craig also emphasized the importance of only showing one’s best work–a lesson that would benefit all those photographers who upload the entire contents of their memory cards to Facebook. Even the most renowned photographers are known for perhaps five to ten images of all those taken during their careers. Practicing what he preached, Craig treated us to a mere handful of the shots he is accumulating for his new book, a panorama of the current state of the nation that he has taken while touring the country.

Craig’s sage counsel really sank in and stayed with me on Sunday as we all went out for a street photography free-for-all in that quintessential SoCal playground known as Venice Beach. With its faux-Italian canals, psychedelic storefronts, and motley assortment of surfer dudes, street people, and outright eccentrics, the shore-side city looks like it was designed as a kind of Disneyland for photographers. Despite the ridiculous number of photo-ops crowding around me, I wasn’t satisfied with most of the shots I got during the weekend. In fact, only two really pleased me, Flight (above) and Attitude (below).

That afternoon, we were asked to submit five of our photos to the group for critique. Remembering Craig’s dictum about only showing your best work, I found myself reluctant to share any photos but my two favorites, but I eventually settled upon three others to include in order to complete the assignment. I was chagrined yet oddly gratified when Craig himself agreed with my assessment: he liked the same two photos I did, but remained unimpressed by the others. It confirmed that I should trust my instincts, and I have now vowed to be far more selective in the work I choose to make public. For that wisdom alone, I found the Leica Akademie an invaluable step in my development as a serious photographer.

To celebrate our “graduation” from the Akademie, we students joined Craig and Tom that night in the rooftop bar at our hotel after the workshop concluded. As we toasted each other, Craig ended the weekend on a high note by giving us each a signed copy of UNPOSED. With an academic reward like that, who needs a diploma?

The Leica Akademie just released their class schedule for 2012, check it out here, and be sure to sign up soon as classes fill up quickly.

  2 Responses to “TOP OF THE CLASS: Matriculating at the Leica Akademie with Street Photographer Craig Semetko”

  1. Ouch. Burn. Great article though. That bird shot may be a one in a lifetime! I still personally like the orange graffiti as number two, but I love color. Keep up the good work. Wish I could get back to LA for your show.

  2. I couldn’t agree more, Todd. In addition to the priceless instruction by Craig and Tom, I learned a great deal from the other students, many of whom — like you — are fine photographers in their own right. I came away from the weekend with techniques, skills and principles that have already taken my photography to a new level.

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