“Composition is the music you hear as you walk past a photograph that tells you if you want to come inside to the party” ~ Sean Kernan
I’ve just spent seven long, tiring, excited, fulfilling, mind altering days at the Maine Media Workshops and College. If you’ve never heard about them look them up. Photographer Sean Kernan took our small class of 10 through his “Portrait as a Doorway to Creativity” workshop. If you’re looking for instructions on lighting and posing and exposure, this is not it! Sean encourages you to take everything you know and pack it away someplace for the week. The plan is to take us on a journey to the edge of the circle, outside what we “know”.
Each day we would start class with 15 minutes of silent meditation. Some mornings we do this sitting in the classroom while trying to empty our minds. More often than not however he tells us to walk outside in silence, but practicing “seeing everything”. This is an exercise where you try to be conscious of all that is around you, to the limits of your peripheral vision but at the same time not focusing on anything in particular. It seems odd and uncomfortable at first. I would start but soon find myself looking at the sailboats in the harbor, or the yellow wildflowers growing in the cracks of the pavement or the couple walking their Labrador; I would have to mentally tug myself back into my not-focused state. But like many things we did this week, it became more natural and intuitive as the days went by. One of my favorite movie as a teenager growing up was “Enter the Dragon”. In one scene, a man is trying to pick a fight with Bruce Lee. After repeatedly taunting him he asks “What’s your style”? Bruce Lee replies “the art of fighting, without fighting”. This exercise could very well be the art of seeing without looking. And it made me feel the way I do when I am in a foreign place trying to make photographs. That heightened sense of awareness, that acute consciousness of all that is around you, seeing small details but at the same time seeing the whole scene in front of you. It’s a way to put you into this state without having to travel to some exotic destination.
Besides studying the works of Irvin Penn, Richard Avedon and Duane Michals to name a few, the week is filled with exercises in dance, calligraphy and improvisational acting. Like the “seeing” exercise, they all seem a bit “touchy-feely” at first but having done them and reflected on them, they all do have a direct relation to creative portraiture.
On my last day at MMW I am chatting with Tim Whelan who owns the impressive fine art photography bookstore above our classroom. He says “With Sean you leave with more questions than answers”. And I think that is the point.