Focus and beauty, like the light in the south of France, are precious ingredients in a creative life.
—Katharina Bosse, photographer, mentor
Over the course of three decades, as a Director of Photography at publications like The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, U.S. Geo and Stern, Elisabeth Biondi has been instrumental in helping countless talented photographers produce their very best work. A living editorial legend, five years ago, Biondi decided to step away from her career in publications to focus more on independent curating, writing and teaching.
Martine Fougeron is a fine art photographer based in the South Bronx. After a successful career in the fragrance industry, Fougeron came to photography with a well-seasoned creative process and a focused desire to manage her own artistic output. She quickly found her own professional successful but recently, has begun to focus also on teaching and mentoring, hoping to give back some of invaluable guidance she has received during her career.
View from the window of the house where the retreat takes places. “Easily the most nurturing learning environment I’ve ever been a part of.”
The two women have teamed up with two other skilled teachers to form The Photography Master Retreat, a unique, week-long master’s workshop that affords the participants the chance to escape the daily demands of an artistic life in order to pause and refocus. This is not only a career-enhancing opportunity for professional critique and artistic introspection but a rare moment for contemplation, reflection and inspiration.
Managing editor Alexander Strecker spoke with both of them at length to learn about their approaches to photography and their insights into the teaching process. This is an edited transcript of their conversations:
LC: You worked for respected publications all over the world, spanning different contexts and styles. What are some of the constants about strong photography? What has changed since you started?
EB: Some things are timeless: fundamentally, I believe photographers need to project their own voice in their work. Throughout my career, whenever I was looking at someone’s portfolio, I tried to see—Who is this person? What is singular about him or her? And only after that would I ask, “What is the perfect story to assign him or her in the future?”
In short, a voice is essential. This is especially true now, a moment when everyone can take a decent picture. Given that we are inundated by images, it is a distinct point of view that will set one person’s work apart. I believe good photographers should have a personal vision, a maker’s stamp.
Aside from this, I believe that being a photographer has changed fundamentally in the past 10 years. These days, a photographer has to be his own businessperson, his own promoter. They need to spend a lot of time on the “business” side: getting assignments, becoming known and finding a way to have their work seen far and wide. So it’s a much harder time economically.
The positive side of that trend is that there’s a greater freedom for everyone involved. The internet changed everything, for example: it empowers anybody to be able to get their own work out into the world. As I was discussing on a panel recently, the internet has freed photographers from “the yoke of magazines”—in many ways, a good development. Still, we all have to be careful not to get stuck on the computer…don’t forget to get out into the world and shoot once in a while!
LC: You collaborated with some of the biggest names in the business—Leibowitz, Helmut Newton, Avedon. Did you learn things from the way they worked that you think are applicable to aspiring photographers?
EB: What we all appreciate about the great photographers is that they had a very distinct vision—and they carried that vision through every step of their work. Not only did they make their pictures, but they made sure to follow which pictures were given to the editor, how the pictures were printed, and how they would look on the page. They watched over their work at every step until the magazine was taken to the printer.
As an editor, that made me respect their input even more. Since their vision extended to each step, I had to serve as a bridge between their point of view and what the magazine needed. But it was their commitment that made their work turn out so strongly and even stand the test of time.
Every single one of the greats was like that. I can’t think of any exceptions. Which means that others, who aspire to be them, should think, “How did they become successful? What was their path?” Well, the first place to go is to look at their pictures. Look at what they produced and analyze what they have done.
LC: Did you have any great teachers in your career? What was special about them?
EB: Coming into the photography world in the 1970s, Magnum had a really strong influence on me. They made it clear how central the photographer must be to the process. From them, I learned that the pictures can’t be violated. The rights of photographers need to be respected. The images themselves were key and the stories they told had to be heard and taken into account. During my whole career, I wouldn’t have a picture cropped unless I spoke with the photographer first. The photographer’s vision was always at the heart.
Besides that, I have a tendency to personally like pictures that are a bit strange. In my years at magazines, I needed to find pictures that said, “Read me, read me!” So now, as an independent curator, I prefer to look for images that have a question mark. Pictures should never immediately say, “That’s what I am!” You should have to look and think a little bit before the answers begin to emerge.
LC: You came to photography after a long professional career in a completely different industry. Can you say more—how did this prior professional development help inform your photography?
MF: Yes, photography was a second career for me. I began by working in the fragrance industry, as a creative director. I was managing about 20 “noses”—scent-makers—and helping them come up with the new perfumes. In short, I was the “nose of noses.”
But eventually, I wanted to manage my own creativity more directly. I returned to school at the International Center of Photography and became a professional photographer. I focused my efforts in the fine-art arena and did a long-term project on my two teenage sons. I wanted to look at this age as a liminal state, between boyhood and adulthood. But not only that—I was trying to avoid portraying it as a grim catastrophe. Instead, I highlighted the internal metamorphosis, the moments of intimacy.
After several years as a professional photographer, I began to focus more on teaching (while still pursuing personal projects). I really wanted to give back what I had learned. In my first career, I had managed a team of over 100 creative people. This involved figuring out where people are going and what they do best. Teaching is not really so different, so I found it to be a natural fit.
LC: Did you have some great teachers in your career (photographic or otherwise)? What was special about them?
MF: I think what’s special about any great teacher is a sensitivity to the individual student’s own voice. A gifted teacher is able to let a student shine without imposing their own style—fostering the best in another without dictating.
This has become increasingly important as the photographic world has undergone drastic shifts in the past two decades. In the past, photography was divided into distinct camps—digital vs. analog, documentary vs. fine art. Today, these boundaries are breaking down, which means it’s both a confusing time and a very interesting time to become even more creative. Photographers these days have so many ways to express themselves, they can’t be bound by dogmatic principles and old-fashioned precepts. There’s such a diversity of possibilities out there that we all need to foster each other’s growth without forcing each other down arbitrary paths.
As a teacher, I don’t have an agenda. I only want to take the assets that a student is bringing to me and allow that student to go even further. I want the student to go on to their next level, within their life context and their personal vision for their work.
A small group session with fine art prints. Several students join mentor Elisabeth Biondi.
LC: What were the inspirations behind The Retreat?
MF: A key moment, for me, was when I started attending portfolio reviews as a photographer. In two or three days, I had over 20 separate meetings with 20 very opinionated individuals. I was completely bombarded by differing critiques and a multitude of aesthetic perspectives. There was very little chance for follow-up. At the end, I was exhausted. It was very valuable, in some ways, but mostly I was left wondering, “How are you supposed to wrap your head around that?”
It seemed like there was a need for something different. A master retreat, where you could spend an extended amount of time immersing yourself in these intense discussions while also building creative relationships around them. In short, a way to engage with a wide variety of opinions and then integrate them meaningfully into your work and your life.
I wanted to create a space where you could push yourself to the limit—but in a safe environment. I would bring together four mentors, with four very distinct opinions, while making sure to take into consideration where each student was coming from. Thus, instead of smashing together four contradictory critiques, we would create a space for four (or more) complementary views, fostering a fruitful and dynamic conversation. Also, each student would benefit from the combined experiences of all the varied trajectories of the other participants. Thus, in one week, we would build a supportive environment, a little community. A place to take a moment of retreat, which would allow for a great creative leap forward.
LC: What were some of the highlights of last year’s edition? I’m sure there was reflection and refocusing—but were there any surprises? What did each of you learn?
MF: First, it was a great help that there were four mentors. At various points in time, different mentors were able to help individual students in very specific ways. This helped make the feedback more cumulative and less subjective. It wasn’t just one instinctive reaction, given in the span of 10 or 20 minutes. It was four carefully considered, deeply informed points of view offered over the course of a week’s time.
As for surprises: I simply could not have expected the level of enthusiasm that we found in the students. It was beyond all my expectations. In terms of energy, warmth, camaraderie and hope, the result was wonderful. But not only that—we also saw a big jump in everybody’s work. Alongside the positive feelings, there were concrete ideas: maybe a book, or a new project, or an understanding on how to finish something. Ultimately, there was a real sense of purpose and focus that emanated from the retreat in each student’s life-work.
“Coming from the commercial world, the ability to immerse myself in fine art photography and do a general, mental reboot on personal projects was extremely valuable.”
EB: As I said earlier, a photographer’s voice is key. So the greatest surprise for me was to discover how many professional photographers attended the retreat who were looking to find their own personal voice. The initial projects they brought were strong and well-done but they were missing the photographer’s own mark. So it was a real pleasure to see the transformation that occurred from professional work to their personal output. Seasoned veterans were able work with their own ideas in a freer way. To find (or rediscover) their own voice through the retreat.
I was also amazed to see how well the group interacted. The people came from Germany to Morocco to India, and ranged in age from 26 to their 60s. But everyone melted together in a very positive way.
Of course, being in a beautiful countryside, in a splendid house, with a fantastic French chef helped. Over three meals a day, disconnected from the rest of the world, we really harmonized together very deeply. I suppose the retreat attracted a certain kind of personality and a certain kind of photographer who was ready for this experience. When we left, people were hugging and crying. It was a special and wonderful group of people.
As for the highlights? Well, there was no alcohol at lunch, but at dinner—lots of French wine. I think that certainly helped make the whole thing a great success.
—Elisabeth Biondi, Martine Fougeron interviewed by Alexander Strecker
Editor’s Note: The fourth edition of The Photography Master Retreat will run from July 7-14, 2017 in the south of France. Each of the participants will be chosen by application. “Early Bird Special” ends December 10, 2017.