I recently finished another soul-filling jaunt to the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont for the spring photography workshop. If you’ve followed the blog for any length of time, you’re familiar with my love of this place. Now that I live in Nevada, the commute is a bit more cumbersome, making my time in the Smokies more limited and all the more precious.
I love my new home state out west but the Great Smoky Mountains, Tremont, and this workshop in particular hold a special place in my life. It’s a retreat and a reunion. The workshop schedule leaves us all exhausted yet fulfilled for the effort, the richness of the Smokies, and time with friends.
Those of us who return again and again call ourselves the “repeat offenders.” We keep coming back because we know this experience is about more than honing our photography skills. This is family.
One of the joys of greeting first-time participants is that they have no idea what awaits them. Over the course of the long weekend, we “old-timers” get to watch their understanding build. By the end of the weekend, most will tell you it has been a life-changing experience.
This time I had a short chat with John DiDiego, Tremont’s Education Director, who I know from my days earning my Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification. I was remarking on the fact that two-thirds of the participants are returnees and how the conversations always come back to connection and friendship. He gave me a knowing smile and said “It’s always about the people.” True enough.
Vetting workshops like this is tough. We all have limited time and money to invest in these things. It’s a leap to take it on if you don’t have some confidence that it will suit you.
Obviously I’m sold on the Tremont workshop experience but it’s nice to hear why others have been bitten by the Tremont bug. What seems to speak to participants most is the depth of collaboration. This workshop isn’t a unilateral instructor-to-student scenario. Information and inspiration flow in all directions among instructors and peers. Knowledge and excitement permeate every aspect of the weekend.
During this particular workshop, we also had the opportunity to photograph the birds of the Smoky Mountain Raptor Center. This was a unique chance to improve our wildlife photography skills as well as support the work the center is doing to rehabilitate injured raptors. We got images we’d never get otherwise and they use our photos to gain awareness for their program.
Without fail, by the end of the weekend we’re all waxing philosophical about our time at the workshop. One of my new-found Tremont family members commented on how approachable and humble the instructors are. To him, that was the key. In my mind, though, it takes a triad of humility, confidence, and knowledge to be an effective instructor. If any one of those is missing or off balance, it’s not going to be a great experience.
On a personal level
I mentioned earlier this year that I’ve been struggling with photography. I’ve made some strides in improving some equipment issues as well as my motivation. But it’s been a battle.
Artistically, I’ve been in the doldrums. Leave it to the people and environment of Tremont to help me reset. I needed this boost to reclaim my art, push my boundaries, and fall in love with photography again. It also forced me to learn some of the newer features and technologies of my new-ish Panasonic Lumix GX-85 camera. Immersing yourself in a workshop does that for you. It allows you to concentrate and grow, outside of life’s distractions.
Case in point?
A young first-time Tremonster who excels at portraiture asked me to be a model of sorts for a shot through a cabin window. While I was sitting on the floor, still and contemplative, I noticed the texture of the wood floor in a way I hadn’t before. Even though I’ve been to that spot dozens of times. I also noticed that the sunlight through the window would highlight some holes in the floor. If I was patient enough to wait for it. So I did. I worked that spot for quite some time and came away with one of the most dramatic images I’ve ever captured.
If not for the serendipity of a fellow Tremonster liking the contrast of my blonde hair and my black hat, I would have missed my opportunity to work this subject. I simply wouldn’t have spent the time there because I would have overlooked it. If nothing else comes from my time at this workshop, the reminder to put myself in an environment in which I can build off of others’ excitement and vision would be more than enough.
Why be a repeat offender?
All of these experiences are why we keep coming back. Beyond seeing my adopted Tremont family and the joy of being in the Smokies, returning to the same place allows me to explore it more deeply. I get second chances at shots I’ve missed. Each time, pieces of information and expertise sink in a bit further. I get to see how the instructors’ and other participants’ work has grown and it inspires me.
And if not for Steve Zigler’s presentation, I would not have given that window shot the high-key black and white treatment that I chose. I’ve always been tied to photorealism. By surrounding myself with excellent photographers I opened up a new world of possibilities.
If you’re in need of retreat and inspiration join me at Tremont for the fall workshop! You’ll come away with a new family.
Here’s a little gallery of some of my favorite shots from the workshop.