News Column

Santa Fe Photographic Workshops marks 25 years of helping photographers sharpen skills

June 1, 2014

By Bruce Krasnow, The Santa Fe New Mexican

June 01--Kirit Kothari, a Pennsylvania anesthesiologist, recently sat in the dining room of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Retreat and Conference Center, where Santa Fe Photographic Workshops calls home.

Built in 1908 as a retreat hospital for tuberculosis patients, the center has crisp views of Sun Mountain and a John Gaw Meem house -- and all the visual elements that have pulled photographers to Santa Fe for a century. But Kothari was here for something more: the instruction and technical skill-building that comes with five days of focusing on photography, his main passion outside work.

At age 61, he is hoping to spend more and more time on hobbies he wants to do. The Basics of Digital Photography class was his sixth visit to the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops -- and the first with his daughter, a 21-year-old nursing student.

The two are among the 18,000 amateur photographers who have attended the workshops started 25 years ago by Reid Callanan, who modeled them on a similar program in Maine. Over the past quarter-century, students have come from all 50 states and 27 foreign countries, and the workshops now have a dozen full-time employees in Santa Fe and 40 other instructors on contract who come here to teach or are available at remote locations, including Myanmar, Mexico, Cuba and Iceland.

But no matter where the workshops are held, Callanan promises the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops brand, a very hands-on technical learning that teaches the craft but also gets students immersed in a culture and thinking creatively about what they see.

"The best way to do it is in a group setting," Callanan said. "We teach them how to use the gear, but also how to see more creatively. It's the creative part that's so energizing."

One result of the workshops has been the thousands of images of Northern New Mexico that percolate around the globe.

"People who come here want to experience Northern New Mexico, and it's our job to give them new experiences," Callanan said. The students often visit Ghost Ranch north of AbiquiÚ, ChimayÓ, Madrid, the Scottish Rite Center, downtown areas around the Plaza, shrines and cathedrals, the Eaves Movie Ranch, and Las Vegas, N.M.

Images are what drive information now, Callanan said, and there are "18,000 people coming here and disseminating those images out there and touting Northern New Mexico as a beautiful place."

Kothari's daughter -- one of three father-daughter pairs taking classes recently -- admits she takes too many pictures on her phone. She was eager to learn photography with a real camera. "Instagram, Facebook, I put them everywhere," said Ploja Kothari. "I have way too many photos on Facebook."

And last week, those photos were largely from Santa Fe.

The average five-day workshop in Santa Fe costs $1,500 plus transportation, meals, lodging and other spending, which can bring the weekly cost to some $3,000. Callanan sees his niche as serving those who grew up with a love for photography but have been too busy with a career and family. Now retired or nearing it, they want to chase their dreams and hobbies but find the new technology difficult to master.

"I meet many people who [include] taking a class at Santa Fe Workshops on their bucket list," said Carrie McCarthy, creative and marketing director.

Callanan and his staff are glad to oblige, not only with basic classes but with portrait or landscape classes, and sessions on lighting, toning, archiving, and keeping and sharing images. And that's what's different about photography today, he said.

When the workshops started in 1990, the program used overnight photo processing to run batches of negatives. From 1995 to 2,000, one workshop might have students with both film and digital cameras, and staff had to accommodate both. Today, everything is digital, which means laptops and software and digital projectors.

"That's one reason we survived the recession," Callanan said. "The photographer has become the processing lab. The learning curve is so steep, people have to have a place to come and learn."

With an operating budget of $3 million, Santa Fe Photographic Workshops now has a relationship with National Geographic to operate its photo trips and workshops. "National Geographic markets it to their audience. We produce them," Callanan said.

The bulletin board in the main office at the IMH Retreat Center resembles an outgoing train marquee at Grand Central Station, with all the upcoming classes and locations listed on folders and index cards: San Miguel de Allende in October. Other workshops coming in 2014 include the Oregon Coast, Vermont, Iceland, Snowmass, Colo., Morocco, Myanmar and Maine.

For Callanan, it's not about all the stuff, but the camera -- and tourists who can see a place visually have a fundamentally different experience. "The camera gives you a license to go to a place and explore a place," he said. "A camera is a passport to a cultural experience. You see a place differently with a camera."

He said students with a camera can go up to a vendor or a bus driver and ask to observe, but "without a camera, people will think you're a weirdo."

McCarthy is one to point out all the couples who met at the workshops and then got married (even Callanan married one of the students). Or the attendees who came to learn photography and then fell in love with Santa Fe, purchased a home and relocated here. There are the corporate executives and Hollywood stars who come privately -- and spend a week in jeans and a T-shirt taking in the images and blue sky of Santa Fe.

There is also Jennifer Spelman, a former crime-scene photographer in Jefferson County, Colo., who was sent to a workshop for job-related training in 2005 and is now a full-time Santa Fe resident and part-time instructor.

She graduated with a degree in criminal justice and thought she wanted to be an FBI agent. Spelman became an expert in crime-scene evidence, and her district attorney thought a workshop on lighting would lead to improved photos, better courtroom evidence.

A year after her class, she took a leave from the job and came to Santa Fe. "I took eight workshops in a row," she said.

Now she has a photography business here and teaches the Santa Fe workshops, including at remote sites in places such as Cuba. She especially enjoys taking students to Madrid, the one-of-a-kind mining town along N.M. 14, and the Eaves Movie Ranch, which replicates Wild West scenes for movie sets.

"You see people coming back here time after time. Some people take eight workshops. You think about nothing else for five days. It's amazing what you can accomplish," she said.

Lynne Myers, 66, of Sonoma, Calif., was one of the recent students. A retired school administrator, she wants to spend more time writing and documenting family events, weaving photos into memoir. She said she learned not just from the instructors, but from other students, some of whom also struggled with the software.

"I"m going to be stuck with myself for a long time," she said. "You have to take charge of your own life."

Likewise for George Isham, who was a physician in Minnesota, where he worked in a group practice with 1,700 doctors, serving 1.5 million patients, almost the entire population of New Mexico. Now retired in Santa Fe, he serves on the board of Presbyterian Healthcare Services and on an advisory panel for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He loves opera, but he loves photography more. "I've had a camera all my life, and I've always been interested in photography. In two days, I've learned more about this camera than I ever did" before, he said.

"I can use the manual control.I guess you're never too old to learn."

Contact Bruce Krasnow at


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Source: Santa Fe New Mexican, The (NM)

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