ELY, Minn. – One after another, after another.
Even $20,000 of camera gear can make a 100-picture slide show of majestic landscapes boring. To hear renowned photographer Layne Kennedy explain it, the photos all look the same after a while, with the audience checking the clock just minutes into the presentation.
A photography teacher for more than 30 years, Kennedy offers workshops he calls photo tours. They began exclusively with adventures like dogsledding and canoeing. Then he expanded internationally to places such as Cuba, Ireland and Kenya. At home in Minnesota, he teaches at North House Folk School in Grand Marais and instructs a series called 72HOURS that follows a theme (think “Minnesota State Fair,” for example.)
Kennedy and a class of five students from assorted professions paddled into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness through Ely Outfitting Co. in September. Within the group, the experience in photography was mixed — as was the participants’ gear, which ranged from high-end to GoPros to iPhones.
Kennedy’s photographic philosophy focuses beyond the equipment and captures storytelling with just four to 10 images. He said the class was not primarily a technical workshop. His goal was to expose students to things they might not have seen before, to “see” with the equipment they have, and capture the shot of a lifetime. The storytelling concept also is more than waiting for mystical fog in the morning and serene sunsets at night.
“We’re covering all the nuts and bolts that are in between,” he said “We’re not just shooting pretty pictures. We’re shooting everything.”
For any picture-maker, quality storytelling opens with a photo that makes viewers say, “Wow.” It’s followed by two other wow-shots, one in the middle and one at the end.
The “nuts and bolts” Kennedy refers to are photos that provide layers of content to make the story complete. They might not be the wall-hangers, but without them an audience won’t know what happened between Point A and Point B. “They connect the dots,” he said.
For a wilderness story, these pictures might include portaging canoes, cooking lunch, close-ups of food cans, fellow paddlers eating on the ground, the campfire, a tarp that illustrates rain or shade. It’s in the attention to smaller details nearby.
“Once you do that, gosh, your world just seems to open up and you start finding that a picture of marshmallows in front of a fire is a really good picture,” Kennedy said. “Most people will just eat it and they’ll say, ‘Oh, this is so fun.’ But they won’t photograph the fun.”
He added that shooting layers of content can also force people to slow down. One student went exploring for lichen and algae to photograph. “That’s part of a wonderful wilderness experience rather than go, go, go, go.”
Kennedy tries to help students understand why they select various settings, because photographers must make conscious choices every time they trigger the shutter. It’s like learning to play a guitar before making music.
“You’ve got to learn how a camera works before you can make visual music … If you want to control the camera and be an artist, you have to know what the visual tool does.”
Kennedy’s class members came from several states. At the completion of a tour, he assembles a book of their photos. He said it’s another educational tool for tripmates to see the variety of interpretations generated from their creative instincts on the same visual adventure. “It really helps others give themselves permission to be creative, too.”
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached through writingoutfitter.com.