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Photography in Brooklyn: The Williamsburg Workshop

Seize the opportunity. Really. If you are a photographer—or just love photography—Jessica Murray’s photo workshops here in Williamsburg are not to be missed.

On a sunny May morning I arrived at 31 Grand Gallery to document the Williamsburg Workshop’s itinerary. It was here that I met Jessica Murray, who worked at Magnum Photos for two years, where she met many people working in the photo industry. After leaving Magnum, she coordinated photography workshops in Havana, Cuba for the Maine Photographic Workshops. She first visited Cuba in 1996, and the workshops seemed to be a great opportunity for her to go back and spend extensive time in a new environment.

“I like the idea of the photo workshop,” Murray says, “because it’s a way for young photographers to meet and work under some of their favorite photographers, to create new networks with the other participants in the workshops, and at the same time build a body of work.” She strives to work with photographers whose work she loves and admires and whom she believes will give a dynamic workshop.

Jessica was raised in England and Kenya, spent some time in Spain after leaving Magnum, and seven years ago she returned to New York. Recently she has been living half the year in Spain and the other half in Williamsburg. She’s always liked the idea of trying to set up a photography program based strictly in Brooklyn as opposed to the already inundated yet well-established photography scene of Manhattan. “The idea is to bring the world’s great photographers to Brooklyn to teach—as an alternative to Manhattan. I run a similar program in Sevilla, Spain.” 

The first workshop that Jessica held was with American Magnum photographer Alex Webb in Sevilla, April 2002. The first workshop in Williamsburg was taught by Bruce Gilden—also from Magnum—in September of the same year. She spoke to me with excitement of how the first of the Williamsburg Workshop series was held at the Fishtank Gallery (on North 6th Street between Berry and Wythe), and how the students were able to have an exhibition in the space when they completed the week’s course. She’s particularly fond of how the Williamsburg community has embraced the program: helping financially and with much needed supplies for the students. Patrons with sun-filled locations like 31 Grand and Fishtank Gallery lend the space. Many of Jessica’s own friends in the neighborhood have also helped by providing rooms for students who come from outside New York.

But most important for her students is that Jessica creates a warm, inspiring environment to learn in. She introduced me to as many students as possible (11 in total: a comfortable size crew for a workshop), and the participants were from varying backgrounds. I’d managed to meet and talk to a writer from Manhattan who was working on a book about a local firehouse, a middle-aged woman from Boston who worked for a software company and shot as a hobby, a professional freelance photographer whose work appears in the New York Times and the Boston Globe, a student of Alex Webb’s from Peru, and a translator from the U.N. who was exploring photography to accompany her writing.

One student, Anne Duncan, was up from Massachusetts and staying with friends in Bergen County in order to attend the workshop. “This course is great in the sense that Alex and Rebecca will tell us to go out onto the street and shoot as much as possible, but with very little specific direction at all. That’s also bad because there’s just so much exciting stuff to see through the lens in New York City and Brooklyn.”

The Workshop’s mission is to be a “project with minimal boundaries and which maintains a tuition price low enough to keep the doors open to most everyone.” For seven consecutive days roughly 12 photographers work under the instruction of someone as prestigious as Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb (Alex’s wife and fellow photographer/publisher). The morning I visited, Alex and Rebecca entered the gallery with two tin can/recycled toy cameras that they bought during their recent travels through Cuba. After glossing over the toys, students returned to lightboxes where they edited the work they shot the day and night before. They had been directed to focus on shooting with transparency film—as opposed to the more forgiving/flexible process of shooting with print film.

Alex explained that he wanted to focus on the “spontaneous process of shooting” and then the very important skill of being able to edit. He likened the skill of editing to a writer who “knows how not to send too many words to an editor—if you write 10 pages and have only a few paragraphs that are worth it or are high notes, you have to know to use only those high notes to create a completed piece.” He spoke of photography as sometimes being “a lonely vocation, where you have to build a photo community of people who will be honest about your work and help you edit.”

Alex had hoped that by weeding through everything shot and by editing day by day, by the end of the week each student would have a body of work, “and then we could also talk about the ‘link’ within each individual’s body of work—point out what mood or element or interest or perspective may show up over and over again, and maybe encourage a student to work with that—or at least be aware that it’s there.”

During the viewing session, each student’s slides were viewed from a projector, and everyone offered up comments as to which were the strongest photos for the final cut. Along the way a number of topics came up: technical questions about which filters to use to enhance slide film, or the subject of cropping. The Webbs talk about cropping through the camera lens (and not after a photo is developed) and how this offers “the vocabulary of mistake that carries you into the spontaneity of journalistic photography.” Along the way they constantly reiterate that there is no right or wrong way in terms of how you choose—either through the lens, or while editing. “I want students to choose their own work without too much influence from me. There’s nothing worse than when you go to a workshop and find all the students in there start creating work that looks just like the instructor’s. It’s about finding your own voice in photography.”

In general, the Webbs stress the importance of “not just photographing a subject, but of looking at the totality of the scene and how the light falls on that,” stressing that a photographer must feel the light because light is full of color and emotion, and is the most important part of photography. After all the students’ work was reviewed, Webb reaffirmed much of what was covered by pouring over books that he brought. Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank, Rio Branco, and others were discussed—and compared to some of the elements found in the students’ work—before breaking for lunch. The rest of the afternoons are usually spent creating more photos, when students are let out into the street to find interesting moments of light to capture on film.

Before leaving I asked Jessica if she herself is a photographer: “Yes, I love to photograph. I am a self-taught photographer and I guess these workshops are also an excuse for my own photography education.” Jessica says that the Williamsburg Workshops are not an institution, rather a project which tries to collaborate socially and economically with the communities in which the workshops are held. As a photographer myself, I can vouch for their value.

For more information contact Jessica Murray at: [email protected].


Paula Trotto

PAULA TROTTO is a Long Island City-based photographer.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN-JUL 2003

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