September, 2014



A panorama from Valle de Vinales from Cuba, Her People & Culture

Judy Sherrod: Let’s start with a question about the photographer’s “vision.” In any given workshop, you two are working with twelve individuals who bring with them distinct histories, knowledge, and priorities. How do you go about helping each find his or her own unique vision? 

The Barefoot Contessa: First, we talk about the creative process, that copying what has been done before is not creative. “Be inspired by the work of others; don’t copy them.”
“The first person who tries something new is creative; the second one is just a copycat.”
We find out what attracts them to a certain scene and get them to ask this question of themselves. “Remember what attracted you to the scene. Make sure it is your only subject. Then, simplify and isolate.”

Arnie and I work individually with everyone, so it is not a one-size-fits-all scenario. One person may have a concept in mind, while another may have that deer-in-the-headlights look.

For the person who has an idea in mind, we help them refine their vision by reminding them of various aspects of our Principles of Photography, our book that we hand out to every participant at the beginning of all our workshops, then showing how possible tweaks to their initial composition might dramatically strengthen their photograph.

Working on a tripod is essential to our participants’ success. Sometimes those tweaks mentioned above are what might seem to some miniscule – a little rotation here, an inch or so to the right there, possibly raising the camera a snitch… One cannot do this with someone whose camera is not on a tripod.

For the person who needs more help – and this has nothing to do with experience levels – we have techniques to help them figure out what they want to photograph.

Arnie and I always tell our participants that if they can turn what to them is a sow’s ear into a silk purse, imagine what they will do with a subject that excites them.

We also hand out what we kiddingly call our Machiavellian Exercises, assignments designed to stretch their powers of seeing and ability to be creative.

JS: Asking students to identify what attracted each to a scene, and to then simplify and isolate, and do so using a tripod, feels like a lesson in large format film photography. You each have a rich history with film. How does your background in film influence the ways in which you teach digital photography? 

TBC: There really is no difference between teaching film and teaching digital. Sure, the tools may be slightly different, but the principles of photography have remained the same down through the decades.

Composition is composition is composition. Vision is vision is vision. The camera matters not. So often, people will say, “Wow, you have a great camera; it must take great pictures.” That is like telling a chef, “Wow, this meal is delicious; you must have great pots and pans!” It is what you do with your tools that counts. Start with the concept, use your vision to compose it, and show the passion you have for that particular subject; that is what is important. Henry Fox Talbot made wonderful images back in the early 19th century. Are his images any less compelling than some modern-day photographer? We love it when a newbie with little more than a point-and-shoot makes images that are admired by a working pro with fancy equipment.

JS: David L. Robertson, in his blog “Through a Lens Lightly” (January, 2009), compares The Barefoot Contessa workshops with several others. He ranks you number one in a thoughtful and well written review. 

It appears he has now been on eight of your adventures and is signed up for two more. What do you believe sets you apart from the many other photographic workshops out there? 

TBC: Probably the individual and group attention we give to our participants. Many entities out there bill themselves as workshops, while some of them are really photo tours (nothing wrong with those if they are billed as such). We are with our groups 24/7. We teasingly say, “The only time we aren’t with you is when you are in bed or on the loo.”

In addition, we push our participants beyond their comfort level, don’t let them do less than they are capable of, not allow them to get lazy, and encourage them all along the way. The fun factor is critical to our workshops. If people are having fun, they are willing to take chances. “Mistakes” that they might make may, in fact, end up being wonderful successes. By the end of the first 24 hours, people comment that they feel as though they have known the others forever, or certainly far longer than 24 hours! Friendships are made in our workshops that last long after the workshops are over.

The critiques are another area in which we think we stand out. We do not pat people on the head the way their Great Aunt Minnie might (we invoke Great Aunt Minnie’s name a lot). “Oh, dear, I love everything you do.” Instead, we insist that our participants critique each other’s work honestly, but also tactfully. “I like what you tried to do here, but it doesn’t work for me because…”

Arnie and I then jump in and give our own critiques that don’t always agree. This is good for our students, because there is rarely one right answer. We will tell them where an image succeeds or fails in our view and what they might have done differently to make it more successful.

We also encourage our participants to work with one another, to see what others are doing and be inspired by them but not to copy them. We feel our workshops are very participatory, thus the reason we prefer to call our clients “participants” instead of “students”. They learn from us, they learn from one another, and we also learn from them.

Our teaching is not limited to photography. We talk about copyright issues (I have long been a supporter of strengthening copyright laws and lectured widely to photographer, designer, and other groups on the importance of intellectual property laws), digital asset management, safeguarding images, backing them up. Once our participants leave us, we do not cast them to the four winds. If they have a question on equipment or need some input on one or two images, we are happy to oblige at no extra cost. They have become part of our BCPA family, and we continue to support them.

We also like to share their successes in our newsletters. Many of our alumni have gone on to win awards, get juried into group shows, or even have their own exhibits, both with work done in our workshops and with images done with the knowledge they have gained through our workshops. We are very proud of them.

Arnie and I come from different points of view, not only as husband/wife, but coming from different art backgrounds. We also have different teaching styles and different ways of wording things. Our message is always the same, but people learn in different ways, so if one of us doesn’t succeed in making a point, the other usually will. We also communicate with one another so that we are on the same page with this or that participant, sharing what he or she might need to take the next step, etc.

In addition, we share freely of our knowledge. We photograph very little during a workshop, and only if our participants are busy for the moment. This is their workshop, NOT ours, and we always put them first.

We have a high percentage of returning alumni. Dave Robertson is not the only one who has attended close to ten workshops with us. If you look at our client comments (check out George Dalsheimer’s, a former photography gallery owner who is extremely knowledgeable about photography and its history). If you go to the Client Comments at” target=”_blank, you will see all the thoughtful comments. We continue to be amazed and gratified at what people write.

JS: You mention that you and Arnie come from different art backgrounds. Could you elaborate on that, please? 

TBC: Check out the Instructor Bios at 

Also, we did bios for a good friend of ours, excerpted here:

Arnold “Arnie” Zann fell in love with photography when he got his first darkroom kit at age 11 and knew from that point that he wanted to be a photographer for LIFE. In 1968, Arnie was the first college-educated photographer to be hired by the Chicago-American, then one of the four major newspapers in the city. While at the paper, he continued his education taking graduate classes at the Bauhaus School, then called the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). Also while at the paper, he started freelancing for LIFE and Time as well as the prestigious Black Star photo agency from 1968-1995.

After two years, Arnie left the paper and went full-time with Black Star, shooting for LIFE, Time and almost every major magazine in the world.

His award-winning work is in many private and museum collections including the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. He has given numerous workshops and seminars throughout his long career traveling the world for editorial and Fortune 500 clients.

Arnie’s knowledge of the zone system and dramatic lighting brings strength to his photographs. He also has an uncanny eye for what will become striking and effective photographs.

Margo Taussig Pinkerton, aka The Barefoot Contessa, got her first camera at age eight and has been photographing and traveling with a passion ever since. In the early 80s, she started Barefoot Contessa Adventures – the precursor to Barefoot Contessa Photo Adventures – in which she led adventure trips, including canoe trips down National Wild and Scenic Rivers north of the Arctic Circle. Those trips always had an element of photography instruction, as her clients wanted to take home stunning memories of what was, for most, a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

After an eclectic career that ranged from research medicine to publishing, from sweat shop to fund-raising, she turned to photography full time in 1982 as a predominately stock photographer. As she quickly garnered calendar and magazine covers as well as spreads in the latter, her work was sought for outdoor and travel clients, both for corporate and advertising use.

Margo’s work has appeared in such international journals as National Geographic Traveler, the European GEO, Wooden Boat Magazine, and Vogue along with a plethora of other magazines, coffee-table books, and educational publications and has had her work appear in museums and galleries across the country. Her participation in solo and juried group shows numbers well over 50, and her work is in private collections around the world.

In addition to the above, Margo has given numerous photo, copyright, and business lectures over the decades of her working career. Growing up in an artistic family that exposed her to the great museums and painters of the world has given Margo a unique insight into composition and the quality of light. As she so often says, “I cannot not do photography!”

Another way of putting it is that Arnie lived, ate, and breathed photography from the time he got that first darkroom kit with his cousin. He studied it, and was mentored from some of the best in the industry.

Margo grew up in a multi-generational artistic family. Her mother was a very accomplished painter, a member of the prestigious Copley Society. Margo grew up exposed to art and museums, antique furniture, architecture, etc. She was lucky enough to have visited some of the great museums of the world. She was also mentored by Ernst Haas, often known as the father of color photography, and was fortunate to have spent an afternoon photographing with Henri Cartier-Bresson. She got to meet and have involved conversations with a number of well-known photographers along the way.

Arnie tends to bring his photographic knowledge to the workshops, while Margo invokes centuries-old principles of art. Both have the same philosophy, but they come at it from different points of view and experiences.

JS: You and Arnie will soon begin a series of workshops stretching from Maine to Yosemite, with eight in locations between the two. Canyon de Chelly seems to be often overlooked by landscape photographers in favor of locations in Utah. Can you describe its visual allure and what you hope your students will glean from the experience? 

TBC: You are right about Canyon de Chelly. Many years we are nearly sold out, but this year we had a couple of sign-ups that were willing to transfer to another workshop of their choice. That said, we never cancel if even only one person signs up. We contacted the people in question and let them know that to have our story-teller guide, the cost would be prohibitive with so few people. They agreed and chose to move. Those who have joined us are enthralled. It is, indeed, a very special place. That said, not many people really know about it.

Now, to your question, as it will be too late to sign up for Canyon de Chelly by the time this article comes out.

Canyon de Chelly is to us a very special place. Full of spirits of the Navajo and Ancient Ones, the translation for Anasazi, it is magnificent, second in size only to the Grand Canyon. We love being amongst the Navajo people with their beautiful art and history in this amazing series of canyons. I am not sure that people realize that, just as with the Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly is made up of a maze of smaller canyons, the largest ones being Canyon de Chelly, Canyon del Muerto, and Monument Canyon. Chelly, by the way, is pronounced “shay”, a Spanish bastardization of Tséyiʼ or Tsegi, a Navajo word meaning canyon, or more literally, “inside the rock.”

ONLY those Navajo who have a direct connection with the inner canyons may serve as guides. Our guide, for example, grew up with his grandparents in the canyon. His grandmother farmed and was a storyteller; his grandfather was a shaman and a storyteller. The family owns one of the iconic Anasazi ruins in the canyon, and other tours do not have inside access to it as we do.

“Canyon de Chelly is unique among National Park service units, as it is comprised entirely of Navajo Tribal Trust Land that remains home to the canyon community. NPS works in partnership with the Navajo Nation to manage park resources and sustain the living Navajo community.” I took this from Wikipedia, but it is the same information found in the park brochure. It is easier to cut and paste!

There is a wildness to this area. While one sees tourists, one is not overrun with them. One can find a rock outcropping all to oneself and sit and savor what the spirits and views offer. It might be a storm quickly rolling in; it may be dappled light chasing shadows along the canyon walls. It is ever changing and always compelling.

With sheer sandstone cliff walls towering as high as 1,000 feet, the scenery is stunning. Chinle Wash and other smaller streams have carved much of the canyon, and one sees it meandering in the canyon floor below. The magnificent and well-preserved Anasazi ruins, dating back to 350 AD. Archeological sites, numbering over 2,500, however, date back to 1,500 BC. It is considered to be one of the oldest, continuously-inhabited sites in North America. Full of petroglyphs and pictographs, there is ample history of both the Anasazi and Navajo.

From the Park Service:

“Canyon de Chelly National Monument (pronounced “canyon d’shay”), contains over 2500 archeological sites ranging from 1500 B.C. to 1350 A.D. and is considered one of the oldest continuously occupied sites in North America. Among these sites are several hundred Anasazi Indian villages built between 350 and 1300 A.D. After 1100 the Anasazi built dramatic masonry cliff dwellings in caves and recesses in the canyon walls. The Anasazi began to vacate the canyons about 1300 A.D. The area was sporadically occupied until the early 1700s when the Navajo Indians began settling in the canyons. Today, Canyon de Chelly sits in the middle of the Navajo Indian Reservation and is still home to many Navajo who live in and utilize the canyon’s resources. Notable sites are White House Ruin, one of the best known and most dramatic of the Anasazi cliff dwellings; Mummy Cave, a large cliff dwelling with a 3-story tower occupied from 300 to 1300 A.D.; and Antelope House, named for its many colorful paintings of antelope.”

We hope and have found it to always come to pass that our participants will appreciate the history and spirituality of this very special location. We hope they will interact with The People (as the Navajo call themselves) and learn something of their lives and culture. We hope they will appreciate the long and often troubled history in this Canyon, particularly with the Spaniards. And, we want them to come away with more than what we call “just another pretty postcard,” but something that shows how Canyon de Chelly speaks to them.

JS: What is the attraction of Cuba? 

TBC: Cuba is easy. Many of us were around in 1959 when Fidel Castro became dictator of Cuba. I had classmates who returned from vacation in Cuba where their families had plantations. They spoke Spanish like the natives and had grown up with Cuban playmates. They were devastated. There was the missile crisis that led to President John F. Kennedy announcing the blockade of Cuba in the fall of 1962. President Barack Obama has quietly been making travel easier to Cuba, and the Cuban government under Raul Castro has made it easier for those in Cuba to travel outside. Many of us say the time for the blockade is long gone. We are neighbors, and we have never been at war with Cuba.

Once Cuba opens up, however, there is fear that there will be a Starbucks on every corner, a Mickey-D in every neighborhood. There is a charm to Cuba, and many people want to learn more about this island nation. Whatever you read about Cuba is probably not entirely accurate. It is neither Utopia nor dark and scary.

Art is treasured in Cuba, and we have met and become friends with a number of amazing artists, including some Cuban photographers who are well known in their country.

Cuba is so much more than the 50s cars that so many people photograph without putting the cars in any context, without showing how much a part of the daily fabric of life these cars are, without showing how they have been maintained with few parts and kept running for some 55 years, being passed down from one generation to the next.

Cuba has quite a few UNESCO World Heritage Sites, four to five of which we visit. The topography of the country is stunning. The architecture is magnificent, even the faded buildings. There is much restoration going on.

The people in Cuba are so friendly and welcoming. While many do not have much, they are cheerful, hospitable, and eager to meet Americans and learn more about us, just as we are eager to learn more about them.

So, as noted above, many want to see Cuba before it changes too much. Now is the time to go.

JS: What things are on your photographic “bucket list?” 

TBC: Arnie and I don’t really have a bucket list. Whatever is in front of our camera is what is on our bucket list at the time. We go to places we love, from here in the Southeast where we run five or so workshops, to New England, the Southwest, West, Europe, and as mentioned above, the Caribbean, with Cuba being the current workshop there.

We love infecting our participants with our passion and enthusiasm for photography and all it has to say. We like to keep changing our offerings, as we have a very high percentage of returning alumni, over 57% last year!

As we say, “We cannot NOT do photography!”