Hands-On History

by Jim Cornfield

Gustave Le Gray

This 1856 image by pioneer Gustave Le Gray, showing schooner alone on a vast indifferent ocean, was the most famous photographic image in Europe in its day.

February 06, 2013

On a drizzly Saturday morning last fall, I slipped into the back row of a darkened classroom in the building that houses UCLA Extension’s Visual Arts Program. I was visiting my red-bricked alma mater to peek in on a new photography course that’s been getting some positive buzz: Richard Langendorf’s “Shooting Like the Masters/A History of Photography.” It combines photographic history with digital imaging—a sort of takeoff on the time-honored practice of training painters to copy the work of old masters. I was intrigued.

The scene was a familiar critique session: digital images projected on the screen up front, the instructor, off to one side, orchestrating things from the shadows, dimly lit by the glow from his laptop. Anyone accustomed to this format knows that it’s usually the teacher who does most of the talking. But in Langendorf’s course, each student conducts a personal show-and-tell session from a small lectern, as his or her images cycle onto the screen. Every assignment interprets the work of someone from a roster of history’s photographic superstars. The key visual in each of these presentations (Langendorf insists on PowerPoint software for consistency) is a side-by-side comparison of the student’s work with a historic image that he or she attempted to emulate.The student is asked to explain the genesis of the idea—why a certain picture was selected for the project—and to break down the workflow involved in creating this particular version of the “master’s” image. Afterward, there’s some lively dialogue between class members and Langendorf, touching on the stylistic idiosyncrasies of a given photographer or genre, and the challenges of replicating that look  using contemporary tools of digital after-capture.


Not for Dabblers

Richard Langendorf is an M.I.T. graduate and technophile with a passion for history, and he eagerly pitched the idea for this course to UCLA three years ago when the Extension division initiated its Photography Certificate Program. He felt then, and still believes, that understanding the motives and methods of the photographers who’ve most prominently advanced this craft adds dimension to his students’ perception of the visual world. What better way to acquire that understanding than by trying to recreate the look and feel of these historic photographers’ great images? “When you look at pictures in a book,” he says, “you see photos; when you try to simulate them, you have to look much deeper.”

Langendorf takes this process seriously. He makes that abundantly clear to students in his opening lecture, distributing an imposing stack of handouts that address the course’s academics and imaging assignments. He’s specific about  his guidelines for analyzing the photography of others and his rules for managing workflow and submitting assignments, including details like file compression and naming conventions. “Shooting Like the Masters” is clearly not for a dabbler who wants to kill three hours on the weekend watching slide shows and sipping lattés. Over its 12-week span—with each meeting divided between an illustrated lecture and the student presentations—Langendorf lays out a dizzying, encyclopedic exposition of photography’s 160-plus years of history, interlaced with demanding assignments to produce imagery that can evoke or recreate what the students themselves deem high points. A sampling of their results appears on these pages.

Recounting the Saga

Knowing that many photographers have limited knowledge about the science, industry and creative genius that brought their craft from its clumsy origins to the digital golden age, Langendorf launches his illustrated lectures with the birth of photography and early pioneers—Henry Fox Talbot, Nicéphore Niépce, Louis Daguerre—and seminal artists like Gustave Le Gray and Julia Margaret Cameron.

In successive class sessions, he unveils the whole extraordinary saga, through photography’s emergence as a documentary medium at the hands of Roger Fenton, Timothy O’Sullivan, William Henry Jackson (and scores of others), through the 1880s-1930s era of pictorialism, which brought us the genius of Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, Minor White and Edward Weston, to name a few. That same era saw the development of documentary photography—Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, Eugène Atget in the early years, followed by their natural heirs, the photojournalists who documented the Great Depression and beyond—Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and hundreds of others. Then there’s the evolution of “street photography,” with names like George Brassaï, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Manuel Álvarez Bravo. At these, and at every juncture that follows, up through Modernism and Post-Modernism to contemporary fashion imagery, fine art and portraiture, such celebrated shooters as William Eggleston, Jerry Uelsmann, Annie Leibovitz, Eliot Porter and dozens of other groundbreaking practitioners, are all fair game for Langendorf’s students to emulate in their personal projects.

Langendorf makes no pretense that “Shooting Like the Masters” puts his students anywhere close to actual photographic processes from the past. They never have to experience the rigors of handling a collodian wetplate or gum-bichromate printing, or loading film holders in a light-proof changing bag. In fact, the nearest to anything “wet” most of Langendorf’s students will ever be is when they swap cartridges on an inkjet printer. The reality of historic imaging processes is not the point of Langendorf’s teaching model. The illusion is the point—capturing a specific “look” after analyzing photographs so hard-wrought by the artists who wrote the history of this medium. The power to do this is now in the sliders and menus of Photoshop, Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw, Nik Silver Efex Pro, etc. “This course,” Langendorf is quick to admit, “is the obvious beneficiary of digital technology.” But that doesn’t make it any easier.

Award-winning screenwriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz-Huyck (American Graffiti, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) are seasoned collectors of fine-art photography and alumni of “Shooting Like the Masters.” Accustomed as they are to the pressure-cooker world of film production, even they found Langendorf’s assignments surprisingly ambitious. “The class meets on Saturdays,” Huyck says, “and if you work full-time, that leaves Sunday as practically the only day to shoot your weekly assignment. You have to manage post-production during your spare time in the evenings. It’s a demanding regimen.”

Obviously the Huycks have no career ambitions as still photographers. For those students who do, “Shooting Like the Masters” is a valuable platform for acquiring the disciplines to survive in the photographic marketplace.

Beyond handling the deadline pressures of Langendorf’s assignment schedule, the course offers useful training in interpreting and executing a client’s wishes. “Shooting Like the Masters” provides the perfect training ground for pre-visualizing and fine-tuning highly specific atmospheric details, color balance, proportion, composition and mood using both in-camera and after-capture tools. Every time you replicate or interpret someone else’s image, you’re executing a strict self-imposed assignment within the narrowest parameters. There’s no better way for acquiring the discipline to function in the competitive commercial world.

Former Langendorf student, Vince Campi, Media Arts Director at Los Angeles’ Charter High School of the Arts, says that “Shooting Like the Masters” is “a combination of software and eye-training, and it’s great skill-building—seeking out the important elements that make up a great photograph, which is a key foundation in learning to see artistically.”

“For me,” says retired aerospace executive Edie Levenson, “this course—dealing with all those iconic photographs—gave me the tools to look critically at what makes a powerful image. And it’s given me a new goal in life, to shoot at least one ‘wow’ picture.”

Writer and veteran commercial photographer Jim Cornfield (www.jimcornfield.net) is a regular contributor to Rangefinder. He formerly taught courses in studio lighting technique and magazine photography at UCLA Extension. 

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