Workshops Compared: Steve McCurry and Neil van Niekerk

Discussion in 'Education' started by marvin_israel, Sep 19, 2009.

  1. I recently attended two workshops within a few weeks of one another. One workshop was led by Steve McCurry; the other by Neil van Niekerk. The McCurry workshop cost $1500 and was a total ripoff and waste. The van Niekerk workshop was everything a workshop should be and was a bargain at $500.

    Details: Neil's workshop was on flash. He would first present the principle under study with pictorial illustrations. We would then be asked to apply the principle by photographing the two models present. Neil would then check each person's results, make suggestions for improvement, then recheck. We would then return for another presentation, following the same procedure. We photographed under different lighting conditions: indoors with bright window light and with soft tungsten light, outdoors in open shade, bright sun, twilight, and darkness. We used on-camera flash, off-camera remote flash, softboxes, umbrellas and video lights. My lens was not fast enough (Nikon 18-200 f3.5-5.6) so Neil loaned me the Nikon 70-200 f2.8. He also loaned each of us a Pocket Wizard for use with the remote flashes which he supplied.
    We learned the use of gels to balance our flash with the ambient light; we learned how to make our use of flash almost imperceptible. Neil was ready to answer any and all questions. The models were totally accessible. The workshop ran from 9AM to 8PM with 45 minutes for lunch. All in all, an incredibly worthwhile learning experince from an excellent teacher.

    McCurry's workshop: The schedule was supposed to be:
    Fri 6PM-9PM critique of the four prints we sent in ahead of time
    Sat 9AM-6PM walkabout NYC taking photos in different venues (Union Square, Highline Part, Chinatown, for example)
    Sun 9AM-4PM back to Steve's studio to work on our shots and pick four for presentation and critique.

    Friday Evening: much time spent just hanging out, eating snacks, getting acquainted with other participants. Finally, Steve walks around at random, occasionally asking a question about a shot like where was it taken, occasionally commenting favorably on a shot. No semblance of critique. Then much time is spent projecting *his* photos and chatting about them. Finally, well after the scheduled quitting time of 9PM, the most aggressive student in the group asks when we will get the critique. I get a one sentence comment. Others don't get much more.

    Saturday: Each group is assigned two young interns who are supposed to help with any photographic problems. My group's interns are just kids out of college. They do not initiate any interaction. They do not ask to see what we are doing. Everyone just goes off and does their own thing. After a few hours of this we are told via our cell phones that Steve has changed plans and we should all meet at Washington Square Park rather than his going around to the separate groups. Supposedly, he will then spend 30 minutes going around with each individual. He used the thirty minutes with me to take photos for himself. He did not ask to look at the photos I had spent the morning taking. He did not ask me to shoot and then critique my shot. Upon request, I got a few tips about getting candid street shots. That was it. I asked two other people how their "personal" session with Steve had gone. One said that he had taken her up to his office and pulled open file drawers without even showing her anything. Another said that he had asked about the technical features of his camera and then talked about the features of the new Sony camera he was using. A third person stonewalled my question and merely said that he was determined to have a positive outlook.

    Sunday: We get to Steve's studio, carrying our laptops. We are to choose four photos for the presentation and critique and work on them post production in Photoshop, Capture NX, or whatever software we happen to have. A few of the older interns walk around giving advice when asked. After everyone's photos have been loaded onto a thumb drive, we are again treated to a lengthy presentation of Steve's photos. What happened to the critique of *our* photos? A few of us approach the hapless workshop organizer who has been coping with Steve's erratic, unplanned schedule changes all weekend and ask her to tell Steve that we have to catch planes and trains and to get on with the presentation of our photos and critique. Finally, shortly before the official ending time of the workshop, the show begins. The critiques are minimal and brief and often non-existent.

    Summary: Steve McCurry is a great photographer. I love his pictures which is why I signed up for the workshop. What I learned from the workshop could have been communicated in under five minutes. Maybe some people are happy to rub elbows with a celebrity and are willing to pay handsomely for the privilege. I wanted to be taught. A few weeks later at Neil van Niekerk's workshop I was taught.
  2. Did you actually communicate your concerns to Mr. McCurry? I know we're hearing from you, here, and not him ... but you might at least present how he responded to you on the topic.
  3. No, I did not and to the best of my knowledge, neither did anyone else. Why? Probably because we intuited from his behavior that it would not do any good and probably also because we wanted to avoid an unpleasant confrontation. I agree with your implied opinion that we *should* have.
  4. My thinking is that he's not such a prima donna that he wouldn't LIKE to know if his events are actively pissing off the very people that are paying for them. Well known already or not, his income depends on his reputation. I'm sure he'd rather preserve it than squander it on a matter of style and tone-deafness in his workshops.
  5. I do not think he is a prima donna. I think that he's passionately involved with taking pictures and these workshops along with his commissions and assignments and commercial sales are a means for him to earn enough to continue his worldwide travels and photography. He is a photographer, and that is what he cares about, but he is not a teacher. I am an experienced teacher of 38 years. It was never my students' responsibility to develop a curriculum or to beg me to evaluate their work. That is the teacher's responsibility. His website quotes a number of enthusiastic recommendations from other workshops, so I doubt whether he's worried about having pissed off a few people. I neglected to mention that van Niekerk handed out a booklet which summarized the points he taught and illustrated them with his photos. We were given no handout in McCurry's workshop.
  6. Both workshops are perfect for the right people.
    While Mr.Van Niekerk teaches a lot of technical stuff (how to use flash etc) and does it brilliantly, Mr.McCurry assumes that in his workshop you already know all of that, so he shows his ways of doing things.What he looks for when he’s out there? How to achieve that moment, light he’s after and all “little” things that one is not able to pick up if you’re struggling with aperture value etc.
    That’s why mr.McCurry let you take shots and later on talked about them or perhaps what could have been done to make the image better .
    Learning about his shots for me is a privilege. To know how those iconic images were made (that is what you’re paying for).
    So a few years later with lots of practice and hard work you can produce some of magnificent images and be much more successful photographer.
    I hope this helps solve the dilemma.
    keep shooting :)
  7. I find it hard to imagine who the right people might be for a McCurry workshop unless they are the kind of person who finds it inherently rewarding to be in the physical presence of a celebrity. I have copied below a comment about Mr. McCurry taken from a blog which supplies at length a review of his workshop to SE Asia, a *very* expensive workshop, I might add.
    Neil Moskowitz - You were actually TOO kind to Steve. I travelled with him to Tibet in 2005 for the same reasons and all 20 of the photographers on the trip came away with the impression that this man has no consideration for his subjects and has no interest in teaching anyone anything other than paying a few minutes lip service to say if the photos they took were simply decent or bad. The Tibetan drivers (who didn’t speak English didn’t even want to drive him because of his condescending and arrogant attitude- they could simply sense it!). No teaching occurred at all. He actually took a photo of me without my knowledge and used it for an advertising campaign for the new software Apple came out with at the time (Aperture). When I discovered that photo by pure coincidence I asked him why he didn’t tell me or even offer to have me get a copy of the software for using my image in the ad campaign he hemmed and hawed. It took over a year of constant calling him to finally have him make an effort to get me a copy of the software. I have heard the same comments from many others who have taken photo workshops/trips with him. He is only interested in himself and what he can get out of the situation photographically. He is not a teacher at all. He is an egotistical indifferent man who pretends to be a caring soul. Your description of him making children cry to get the shot is at the heart of his problem..

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