04 March 2012

Interview: Catherine Karnow on Her Italian Photo Workshop Adventure

All photographs by Catherine Karnow©
Used with permission.

The photography of Catherine Karnow is familiar to even occasional readers of this blog: she took the picture of me that appears on the upper-right corner of every page. She’s also shared many other images with us, and generously so, since her work is regularly featured in many of the leading magazines in the world, notably including National Geographic and National Geographic Traveler, Smithsonian, both French and German GEO; she’s also been published in a number of travel and photojournalism books.

“Let them see your smiling face”:
Catherine Karnow at work.

Now my friend has launched an exciting new project, a 10-day photo workshop in Umbria, May 10–19. She’s planned a number of excursions with great potential for photographic opportunities, and she personally selected the base of operations, La Locanda della Quercia Calante, But because Catherine isn’t content merely to provide her students with fabulous scenery and sightseeing in a region known for its excellent food and wine, she’s also including daily yoga classes which, like the photo workshop itself, will be geared to all levels of practice.

It sounds like heaven, but at the moment it’s requiring almost every bit of her phenomenal energy and organizational skills. Reached by phone, “I’m gonna workshop until I drop!” she exclaims. “That’s kind of how I feel right now.” She took the time to tell us more about the workshop and, as a bonus, she shared the key to taking good pictures of people — surely the reason she always makes me look far handsomer than I deserve.

Benvenuti! Dining at La Locanda.

WVM: The plan for the workshop sounds like the greatest wish-fulfillment ever devised: it’s almost everything you love, all at once: travel, photography, cooking, and yoga.

CATHERINE KARNOW: Cooking is a tiny part of it! I wouldn’t say pizza-making is really cooking. But eating and learning about delicious Italian food, yes.

WVM: I’m not going to ask where you got the idea, because that seems pretty obvious — but where did you get the idea that you could make this work?

CK: [Laughs.] I figure there’s a lot of people out there like me, who love photography, eating delicious food, doing yoga every day, having great experiences, and Italy. That’s it. People like me love all those things.

You’ve got to have yoga if 1) you’re going to be enjoying that much Italian food, and 2) if you’re running around, taking pictures, going to festivals, getting up before dawn to shoot. Yoga is counteracting all that pasta and all that craziness.

WVM: Tell me about La Locanda della Quercia Calante.

CK: I fell in love with La Locanda the moment I first saw it. I went there last year for a yoga workshop, and within a day, I knew it was the perfect place for my photo workshop. It’s got rustic cottages spread out — two stone cottages with eight rooms each — in a lovely, serene setting of grassy lawn and tall trees. There’s a spring-fed swimming pool. It’s so peaceful and beautiful, [providing] an opportunity for people to slow down, learn about photography, talk about photography, and to bond with each other.

There’s also a beautiful yoga room. If the weather permits, you dine at a long table underneath this arbor. It’s so, so beautiful. I am extremely particular when it comes to lodging. This is tasteful, rustic, and serene.

WVM: It’s in the Umbrian countryside, right?

CK: Yes, it’s in the countryside, about 20 minutes from Orvieto. It’s flat with low rolling hills. Sometimes it looks like that classic Italian countryside with the row of cypress trees lining a road to a farmhouse. You’ve seen those scenes: vineyards, rolling hills, hilltop villages. The light’s nice.

The people in Umbria are genuinely happy to see you because they haven’t been overrun with visitors and tourists, which is the case with areas of Tuscany and other parts of Italy.

Umbria may not be as well-trodden by tourists as other parts of Italy, but it’s full of treasures.

WVM: What will a typical day entail?

CK: A typical day will have one or two exciting photography experiences, such as going out with fishermen at dawn, as they fish the traditional way on the beautiful lake nearby, and then perhaps visiting and photographing and learning about a classic ceramics studio in a town famous for its ceramics. Lunch at a local restaurant, an hour of yoga, time for individual and group critique of photographs. Dinner at La Locanda, where the food is absolutely delicious — and a lot of it is organic — with free-flowing wine. That would be a typical day.

Hungry yet?

The other great thing about this workshop is that almost everything is included. Every meal but maybe a couple of lunches and a dinner. All wine, everything. You don’t have to pay extra for this and that: it’s a generous workshop, with no hidden charges. In sum, this workshop is the kind of workshop, the place we’re staying, the food that I would want if I were going to spend a week in Italy. And my standards are very high! [Laughs.]

WVM: What kinds of issues will you be addressing in the workshoppers’ photography? What will you be trying to correct, and what will you be looking to draw out more?

CK: First of all, there’s no required ability level for this workshop. I just ask that people use SLRs [single-lens reflex] to shoot with, rather than point-and-shoot. And we will be photographing landscapes, people, motion. We’re going out with the Cinquecento car club so that we learn to shoot motion. Dusk. Scenes. Festival activity. Food. Churches.

My goal as a teacher is to guide a student to be able to express him or herself. I don’t place a big emphasis on buttons and dials, the technical aspect of photography. It’s important to know the basics, and beyond that, if people want to know more, I’m happy to tell them more. But this isn’t a class on photo shop. I don’t think that fancy equipment and advanced technological skill guarantee good photographs. They’re not essential. We will be learning what does make a picture good, quote-unquote.

WVM: What do you look for in a picture?

CK: Emotion. Energy. Sometimes, not always, it’s getting the moment. A picture should make you feel something. But there are no rules. It’s important that students understand that.

Orvieto at dusk: Twilight poses a challenge to many photographers. Catherine will show her students how to rise to the occasion.

WVM: Your photographs of people have always knocked me out. Is there a secret to getting good photographs of people? Why do you succeed when others don’t?

CK: The secret to good people pictures is that your subject trusts you and feels comfortable with you. Their first impression of you has to be that they see your smiling face. I do think that’s important. They need to see your smiling face, not some camera that you’re hiding behind. Because you want them to feel like the photography is collaborative, and you want them to feel encouraged and affirmed.

I am honestly interested in them, and I’m thrilled – I literally feel a frizzle of happiness that the camera can be this way – that I can stop somebody and we can meet. I can be quite shy without the camera, and the camera — instead of being this tool that intimidates, it can be this excuse to meet somebody.

Daylight, camera, action! Catherine and her students will join traditional Umbrian fishermen on their morning rounds.

But my enthusiasm for people is genuine. I’m genuinely curious about who they are, what they’re doing, what they think. And I want to have a conversation. If they or the situation is particularly beautiful, I want to capture it. I want to show that. It’s actually hard to articulate this thought, because any way I say it sounds aggressive. It’s almost like a need to make this situation or this beautiful person into a beautiful photograph. The camera gives you this reason to stop and talk with people, encouraging them, giving them a sense of affirmation is so important.

It seems to me that what I’m saying is extremely obvious, and to some it might seem obvious. But I’ve watched other people at work, with all kinds of cameras, and I’ve watched them approach people. I just shake my head, because it’s not effective. They lift their camera before they make eye contact. And let’s just say there are a lot of ways. It’s not the same every time. Sometimes I shoot more journalistically.

A dish fit for a king:
Catherine plans a visit to a local ceramics studio.

But in a certain kind of photography, where people are aware of you and you’re kind of making the photograph together. I just watch other people work, and 1) they have the camera in front of their face all the time, and 2) if you see their expression as they approach the person or situation, it’s either impossible to read the expression or they’re somehow projecting something a little bit negative. They’re not thinking of the person or the people they want to photograph.

If you put yourself in their shoes, what do they see when they look at you? They should see somebody who looks positive and open and happy. It sounds so cheesy, and of course it’s not like that all the time with me, but their first impression should be positive.

WVM: They’re not defensive. They’re at ease.

Hot wheels: A member of the Cinquecento club shows off his Fiat, an object lesson in motion for photography students.

CK: Of course! I mean, if you invited guests into your home, wouldn’t you greet them with a smile on your face? Wouldn’t you invite them in, in a gracious way? You’re not just going to leave the door open and look over with a confused expression.

WVM: People think about the picture, not the subject.

CK: Exactly! They’re thinking, what setting should I put this on. And then the subjects just walk away.

The other key to photographing people is to join in. Be a part of what they’re doing or feeling. Blend in, join in. That means you yourself have to adjust your body language, your tone of voice, whatever it is. If everybody’s having a great time at a festival, be joyous. That doesn’t mean you have to drink or dance, but exude joy. If it’s a funeral procession, be humble, be serious, keep your head bowed, get permission, even just with your eyes to make sure it’s okay. Adjust yourself.

The swimming-pool at La Locanda is fed by a mineral spring.

WVM: Again, it sounds like you’re showing your interest. What they’re doing and feeling matters to you.

CK: Right. I always talk to people, too. I chat with them. So the third important thing is that they see me as a human being. I chat with them about anything. If there’s a language problem, just gesture and smile and nod. You can say, “Aww, she’s so beautiful,” whether it’s a baby or a dog, and yet everybody knows what you’re saying, in any language. I always try to have a translator – and we will have a translator, by the way – but there are different ways to communicate. So I always try to talk to people or communicate in some way.

“Awww, they’re so beautiful, too!”

WVM: What else do we need to know about the workshop?

CK: There’s hundreds of workshops out there right now. I can tell you that this is very special. A) you have yoga. B) you have as a special guest a National Geographic Traveler photo editor – that’s pretty amazing. C) you have all these special, unique, insider experiences, going to people’s homes to watch them and to prepare with them a fabulous lunch or a ceramic dish. Every experience is unique and special.

It’s how I work. Sometimes I walk around a village, more or less like a tourist, of course. Sometimes I set up a tripod at dusk – anybody can do that, it’s not an insider experience. But as I say, I’ve handpicked the fun parts, so we don’t have to visit ten different shepherds, I’m going to take you to the best one. I’ve already done all the scouting for this. I’ve handpicked all these people and places. I did go to see a lot of shepherds, now we have the good shepherd!

The best Umbrian shepherd,
taking a break from his day’s labor.

Catherine Karnow’s Photo Workshop in Umbria:
A Unique Experience.

For more information and registration, click here.

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