A Trip to the Moon

May 1st, 2012

Notes on a Magnum Photography Course with Trent Parke – Fremantle, March 19-23

It has been more than a month since I arrived back from the Magnum workshop I attended in Fremantle, so it is well past time for me to tell you about it. The first part of this report will be of most interest to photographers. If you’re just interested in seeing photos of Little Creatures Brewery and The Monk Brewery then scroll down to the second half or go and check out my fifteen slides from the presentation on final night of the workshop.

My week in Fremantle was one of the best weeks I have had. Beautiful weather, relaxed people (Western Australians are even more laid-back than New Zealanders), and best of all, the exceptional but exhausting workshop with Magnum photographer, Trent Parke. Over five days I rose at 5am, fell asleep between 10pm and midnight (usually while editing photos), spent 24 hours photographing in two breweries, took 1687 photos, edited the best photos into a small book, lost 5kg, and then spent two weeks catching up on sleep when I got back to NZ. My days were so hectic that one day when I had a piece of pizza at 8pm I realised I hadn’t eaten anything since the two Weetbix I ate for breakfast at 5:30am. I had been too busy to realise I was hungry. It was a wonderful week totally focused on photography, no distractions, no everyday worries.

For the past year or so I felt that my photography had reached a plateau. I kept on working on The Beer Project but was frustrated that I couldn’t seem to improve. I applied for the Magnum workshop with the hope that it would help kick me up to another level. Instead I have gained a whole new way of thinking about taking photos, a new style, and a new way of putting together the final pictures. I’m still on my plateau but the plateau is now on the Moon.

Trent Parke is an extraordinary photographer and an inspirational teacher (have a listen to him talk about how he works and his new book, Minutes to Midnight). Here are the best of his tips that I remember:

1. “Shoot the shit out of it”. I think this is Trent’s favourite phrase. It doesn’t just mean “take a lot of photos”– there is more to it. It was more about trying as many different things as you can: change angles, play with the light, go back at different times of day, return to the same subject over and over trying to find a new way to shoot it. It was more about obsession than repetition. Work hard for your shot. A corollary: “Stop thinking and just shoot”.

I photographed Little Creatures Brewery four evenings in a row. I had enough photos on the second night to make a good edit of ten photos that we needed for our final presentation. Trent said “now you have two days to get better.” The third night I got some more shots I was happy with. The last night I struggled. There were two particular shots I was trying to get to complete my “story” (to fit the narrative of my edit) but I just couldn’t quite pull the elements together. I almost gave up and went for a beer but I kept working and working (and had a beer). I shot the shit out of it. I still didn’t get the two shots I was after but I ended up with a bunch of other great shots that I hadn’t expected or imagined getting. Of the eighteen photos in my final edit, eight were from the last night.

The T-shirt I had made for the final presentation night. Photo by Charlene Winfred.

2. Turn your camera into a black box so that you don’t need to think about it. Set it to f11, 1/250th, pre-focus, then just concentrate on the light and subject. Subject is key. Light is everything.

3. For every project always have a book in mind. “I never start a project without thinking if I can make it into a book.” The book is the most important thing for your career. Trent Parke was nominated for Magnum because a couple of members had chanced upon his book.

Make a dummy of the book as you go. It can become valuable in its own right. Trent showed us his mock-up of his new book, Minutes to Midnight. Each page taped to the next to make a concertina book. This makes it easy to flick through and easy to chop a page out to move it to a new spot. It was more like film editing.

Students in our workshop looking at Trent Parke’s mock-up of Minutes to Midnight. Photo by Fiona Rogers.

4. Sequence your photos to tell a story. Most of Trent Parke’s photos are documentary style but he arranges them to tell a fictional story.

5. If you can get photos out of your backyard you can get photos anywhere.

6. Anyways think “how can I shoot this so it will look different to how everyone else would shoot it”.

7. Trent told us many stories about how he worked. One was about how he started projects. Normally he wouldn’t have a pre-conceived idea of what the project was going to be. He might start with a very broad idea, e.g. I’m going to shoot on the street. Each day he will go through the photos he took that day, print 6x4s of the best and put them on the wall. Keep adding to the ones on the wall each day. Move them around. See what photos work together. Eventually (sometimes it takes months) he’ll start seeing common shapes or common themes and he might come up with specific shots that he will look for to contribute to that story. His story becomes clearer over time until he has the final edit. We put together our edit in a similar way during the workshop.

My wall of photos as my final edit was coming together on the last day of the workshop.

8. A bonus tip from Donovan Wylie, one of the other Magnum photographers taking a workshop: “work hard and the luck will follow.”

All of these tips are quite abstract, they provide guidance for how to go about taking pictures. If you’re not a photographer you’re probably just here for my photos of brewers and breweries, and you’re wondering what impact has the workshop had on my photos. From my slides you’ll see that there is a huge change in style. Before the workshop I relied on available light (some breweries make this harder than others). The low light levels in most breweries meant I was using wide apertures which give you out-of-focus backgrounds and a bit of a romantic look to the photos. The subjects were mainly the brewers. I never used flash, in fact I refused to use flash because the light was too harsh. With my new style everything is the complete opposite. Small apertures (f/11-f/22) mean almost everything visible is in sharp focus. Flash is used in every photo. Using off-camera flash provides me with complete control of lighting the scene and provides a way of creating great contrast between the foreground and background. In addition to the brewers, the plant and ingredients have become important subjects. The resulting photos have been described as dramatic, moody, abstract, sharp, crisp, ultra-real, naughty, and, my favourite, “high in artistic interpretation”. (Trent said to me “This week forget about documentary photography. This week you are making a work of art.”)

So, what led me to make such a dramatic change? On my first day at Little Creatures I photographed in my usual Beer Project style. The light wasn’t as good as I would have liked but the giant walls of glass at each end of the building meant there was plenty of light to work with. I did return at sunrise the next morning to see if any dramatic light would stream in the windows but it seems as though the architect aligned the buildings to perfectly avoid helping any photographers. Another problem was that Little Creatures is actually quite an industrial brewery with a lot of automated processes. There is little hands-on work, which is what I’m used to capturing. It’s a long way from Townshend’s to Little Creatures.

Each day we presented to the class our best thirty images from the previous day. Trent Parke would comment on each photo as we went through them. When mine were shown he was silent for the whole slideshow. I got worried. At the end he paused, then said, “Well they’re good but they’re missing something.” The light was too flat. “Have you got a tripod?” “No.” “Have you got a flash?” “Yes.” “Can you use it off-camera?” “No.” “I can lend you something to use,” someone else in the class said. Then Trent spent 10 minutes showing me techniques of using off-camera flash and sent me to back to the brewery looking for interesting textures and shapes.

To illustrate the difference here are some photos I shot on the first day alongside photos of similar subjects taken later in the week.

Old Style New Style

I don’t think that any of the old-style photos are bad but I do think that all of the new style photos are better. The last old style photo I thought was pretty damn good but the new-style version is one of the best photos I have ever taken.

These two photos of Steve Brockman brewing at The Monk were taken less than a minute apart. The lighting in both is pretty good but the new style seems more dramatic.

I took a lot of photos during the week. There were a lot of great ones that didn’t fit with my final edit. Here are a few of those to reward you for making it this far.

Where to from here? Ask me in another month. I have a lot to think about.


Thanks to everyone helped me get to Fremantle by buying prints from my exhibition at Hashigo Zake. I am incredibly grateful for those funds, which covered around a third of my costs. I am also humbled that you enjoy my work enough to make a contribution. I hope you like the new direction my work is heading.

Thanks to the crew at Little Creatures Brewery for giving me unlimited access to the brewery any time of the day, all week (did you know that they brew 24 hours a day?). Thanks especially to Tom, Jack, and Charlotte (who used to work at Three Boys), the afternoon shift brewers who put up with me pointing a camera and firing flashes at them for 18 hours. Thanks also to Jonathan, manager at The Monk, and the brewers Paul and Steve who were not only great subjects but also gave me a guided tour of the breweries in the Swan Valley the day after the workshop finished.

Thanks to Trent Parke for being such an inspirational teacher during the week. Thanks to Fiona Rogers for keeping the week well organised. And a big congratulations to the others on the workshop who not only survived the week but also produced some great work.

The biggest thanks must go to my partner, Sarah, who not only supported me but actively encouraged me to apply for the workshop. Big hugs to our daughter, Isabella, who coped for nine days without me making her breakfast and lunch, and reading bedtime stories.


One Comment

  1. Stu as "Stu" Says:

    Your new style is so erotic!

    reading this just made me remember I owe you money!