This Saturday just gone I ran our first public workshop in association with Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery. I’ve done bits of work with them over the years, mostly with their youth group, and based on that the head of learning Simon Taylor asked if I’d be interested in doing a photography “summer school” riffing off their current exhibition, a retrospective of Japanese artist Shimabuku.

While I leapt at the chance I was slightly concerned about the subject matter. Shimabuku is very much a modern artist, working in a wide range of mediums including performance and is potentially hard to understand. Also, I had to devise the workshop before seeing the exhibition itself and the pre-publicity material was rather obtuse.

As an artist, Shimabuku holds an intense fascination with the natural world and the countless manifestations of human culture within it, encouraging us to break with established habits of perception and enjoy experiences as if they are happening to us for the first time.

Having now worked with this it all makes perfect sense, but back in June, not so much. Workshops based on famous photographers like Ansel Adams or techniques like light painting are easy to get your head around. This, not so much. Still, I was sure it could be done. A hook I managed to find was myths and legends, so I put that in the brief, but as the exhibition emerged that seemed to be missing the point. It was really only a week before that I finally got it. Shimabuku doesn’t make art for its own sake. He makes art in a playful way to start a conversation with people about things they take for granted. This was my in.

The workshop was structured in the way we’ve run all our classes. A period of framing the day, usually through a class/lecture, followed by a practical session of actually taking photos, and concluding with a period of reflection and discussion. Learn, Shoot, Reflect, with the really important stuff happening at the end.

Simon guides the group around the exhibition - photo by Rob Glover of Ikon

Simon guides the group around the exhibition – photo by Rob Glover of Ikon

The Learning this time was split between Simon and myself. After a quick hello, Simon took us on a 45 minute tour of the Shimabuku exhibition, prompting people for responses and helping them make connections across the works. We dwelt on the photographs, naturally, and considered why he chose certain styles of photography, from the huge, lush landscape prints of Cucumber Journey on a canal boat to the low quality, badly composed snapshot of Christmas In The Southern Hemisphere

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It was useful to remember that the quality of the print and the composition is a deliberate decision, taken because it prompts a specific response. This helped us think about how approaching a subject in a different way can radically change our reaction to that subject; that a photograph is not a neutral record of the world but an interpretation, constructed by the photographer. This is one of the benefits of a shooting as a group, where we get to see the different ways people have photographed the same things, and in doing so understand why we did what we did.

Thinking about Shimabuku’s aesthetic decisions led to us thinking about his approach to the work, and how we might approach our photography. The playful, childlike way he thinks about the world is a lovely way to take pictures. I often get people to stop and explore what’s in front of them with their eyes, to see thing that would usually be missed. By using “What Would Shimabuku See?” as our guide we could pick out all manner of oddness and make the mundane look fascinating.

After the gallery tour we had an hour to bash this stuff out as a group and to add other ideas and notions to the pot. While talking about how juxtaposition can be powerful technique, Lesley told us about how by putting two random images together you create a relationship between them. Some of the group questioned this as sometimes they had visually nothing in common, but we settled on the understanding that the simple act of placing them together makes a connection in our minds. If they have nothing in common then that’s as much a connection as having something. The important thing is that juxtaposition and context forces us to consider the subjects in a way we might not have done otherwise.

Having rationalised our reactions to a few key points we headed out with out cameras to explore Brindley Place, the canals and back streets of Broad St.

These photos were taken by Rob Glover of Ikon.

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I look very serious in these. I get that frown when I’m concentrating but my memory was of having a great time. We walked slowly, we looked before shooting, we explored the nooks and crannies and soaked in the atmosphere. Most importantly we had fun, like Shimabuku would.

I was also delighted to see a good spread of cameras being used. We had a Samsung smartphone, a basic compact, an Olympus 4/3rds, a standard DLSR and a huge Canon SLR you could brain an elephant with. All equally valid cameras up for the job.

Back at base we picked a few photos from each camera that we wanted to talk about and threw them up on the big screen. The session followed was really good, getting people to discuss about how and why they chose to take that shot, what worked and what didn’t, and for the others to comment. I really love these reflection sessions – it’s where the learning happens and caps off the whole experience nicely.

The participants kindly said I could put their photos online as they came out of their cameras since this reflected the how the workshop unfolded – to allow them to crop and process the photos would spoil that. So I’ve taken their photos and made a large image of them in rows, so as to approximate how we saw them at Ikon. (Click image for full size.)

Click for full size

As always in a workshop, these weren’t necessarily the “best” pictures (although some of them were lovely). I was more interested in those where people had pushed themselves out of their comfort zone and tried something new. By talking about these experiments and where they had succeeded and failed I hoped the participants would be able to apply their new knowledge to their everyday photography. The workshop really is a process and not about the results.

While the Curse Of August Holidays meant we only had five people attending (8 would have been a good number for Ikon and myself) feedback so far has been very positive from the participants and Ikon staff. I particularly enjoyed myself and, having taken my eye off Photo School for the summer to concentrate on other projects and was wondering if it still held interest for me. This, plus an enjoyable Photo Walk and Beginners class on the following Sunday, reinforced that Photo School is right at the centre of everything I do at the moment. Which is a fantastic thing.

I’m hoping to do more workshops with Ikon in the future, though that’s obviously in their court. I’m also interested in working with other organisations who think a photography workshop could compliment their programme. Please get in touch.