Greig Houghton Photography
Landscape, Street and Travel Photography


Irish Landscape and Travel Photography Blog

Back to School and Hitting the Streets - The Arcanum

“Always two there are, a master and an apprentice." Yoda

Or in the case of my cohort, twenty apprentices.  The brainchild of travel photographer Trey Ratcliff and his associates Peter Giordano and Curtis Simmons, the Arcanum seeks to regenerate an ancient teaching methodology using modern technology. A teaching methodology that seem to have been largely forgotten in this generation despite its proven success.  A process that generated some of the worlds greatest creatives and creative works from from Da Vinci, Michelangelo et al.  The method I am talking about is of course the apprentice and master.

Modern apprenticeships still exist, largely in the craft world of builders, painters, carpenters, stone masons and the like although are distinctly different from their origins from where the apprentices lived with the masters earning their keep while learning their trade.  Starting with menial tasks and errands, slowly building his skills by observing and imitating the work of the master. The craft is learned through repetition and practice with the master evaluating and correcting flaws in the techniques until the apprentice can demonstrate the required proficiency in the craft.  For the Renaissance era apprentices, demonstration of proficiency may enable the student to work collaboratively with other painters under the direction of the master, contributing to the master's works by paintings background and minor figures.  Ultimately the apprentice must leave the master to undergo the journeyman years, continuing to develop until they have created their masterpiece and gained entrance to the Guild as a master. Therein the circle is complete, as they in turn open their own studio and take on their own apprentice.

Learning is a fundamental skill not only to humans but to nearly all species on this earth. We start learning the moment we are born and we continue to a certain degree until we die. The level to which we continue to learn and how much we pass down that knowledge to others is down to the individual.  I strive to learn, not only to grow my skills and knowledge but also to grow as a person. I believe that there will always be a new skill to learn, a technique to pass on and an experience to share. To date I have largely been self taught at photography, learning through trial and error and through self study.  Nearly all of the current e-learning providers in the market are constructed around this passive self study learning style.

Their knowledge is disseminated to the participant through video, presentations or written articles with the participant expected to absorb this knowledge and apply it verbatim or adapt it and form it in their own style. The major disadvantage in this system is that there that is limited opportunity for feedback on the participant's understanding of the knowledge, their progress and improvement over time. As I grew as a photographer I began to reach out to other sources such as camera clubs and workshops which could fill this void.

The Arcanum is more active in the approach to learning. Leveraging the technology of Google+ and its video hang-out capability, the Arcanum allows the feedback loop to be closed in a process of continual development.  The Arcanum provides a framework around which the Master set tasks, monitor the progress of the apprentices against these tasks and their overall growth and then provide feedback to the Apprentices through coaching and mentoring in the form of a critiques of a portfolio of work. These critiques feed into the next levels of work as the Apprentice applies what has been learned  to their new work and thus the development loop continues.

The system is task-based requiring the apprentice to complete a set challenge or assignment before progressing onto the next.  The challenges varies but most come with the requirement of undertaking new work.  No mining back into the archives of photographic work to pass to the next level.  Herein lies the beauty of the Arcanum in comparison with its rivals.  It forces you to go out and take more photographs - it is an essential requirement of the course.  We can all become better technical photographers by watching videos and reading articles on technique, theory and composition, yet unless we apply and practice this in the field, we will never make the improvements we seek.

The master is at the centre of the process yet the cohort of apprentices is as vital to the success of the model. As such, the Arcanum is not for everyone.  You must be willing to put in the work in the field and on the computer to get the most of the experience in the Arcanum. The core of the Arcanum is the cohort, your group of peers who rely on your input in the preparation for your critique with your master.  It is quid pro co - you will only get back as much as you give.  If you are not prepared to provide meaningful feedback to their work, they are unlikely to give the same to you.   As in any peer group situation, relationships need be formed and grown and trust needs to built. This can take time especially as this will normally be built online, but again the hangout feature in Google+ can be used to overcome these barriers, as the cohort builds through encouragement and motivation towards common goals for both apprentices and masters.

Having been in the Arcanum system for a few months now I have seen this happen within our cohort.  I applied to the Arcanum as I felt it would provide a community to further my learning and for me to help further the learning of others.  I was delighted to receive than an email inviting me to join Valerie Jardin's street photography cohort.  As a This Week in Photo (TWIP) regular listener, I was very humbled to have the opportunity to learn from Valerie.  A former professional commercial and portrait photographer, Valerie transitioned to the education side of the industry and now hosts photographic workshops all over the world, working with her small groups of attendees to impart her knowledge, enthusiasm and passion for street photography.  In addition, Valerie is a published author, regularly contributing articles for Digital Photography School and other publications.  

Why street photography? My passion for photography generally falls into travel and landscape photography so where does street photography fall into the mix?  In the last few years I found I returned from my travels with some good photos, but when I collated them into books or as a posts for this blog, I found that they were missing something to tie the story together and to really tell my experience of the place.  I gradually worked out what was missing from my photos was people. I had photos of the landscapes, cityscapes, food and architecture but I felt I never captured the soul of the place until I started to also photo the people.   When I introduced this street photography aspect into my travel photography, I started to find that some of my favourite photos from the trip were not the great landscapes or buildings of the world, but were the ordinary people going about there everyday lives living in these remarkable places.  Since then, I have brought the streets home to Ireland with me and now shoot the streets of Dublin and the 32 counties of the island.  The Arcanum was my mechanism to grow my skills in this genre.

It is difficult to get bored with street photography.  Shooting the streets offers a wonderful variety of subjects to photo and as well as photographing people, I love to shoot architectural abstracts.  As a Engineer, I think geometry, forms, lines and shapes naturally appeal to my mathematical mind.  The streets are always changing and evolving,  people are rarely in the same place twice, days are very different to nights,  time erodes and humans exert our will to adapt the streets to our needs.  This is an advantage and disadvantage to the street photographer.  The challenge of capturing that split moment of time. Seldom second chances in street photography if you do not get it right the first time. The results can be rewarding as you create an image that is unique to you. An image that may inspire, be imitated or derived, but ultimately can rarely be reproduced in its entirety with the original cast of street characters.  

I was fortunate to get into the Arcanum at the ground floor during the beta phase.  What has struck me so far is the way the Arcanum is evolving as the whole, but also between each individual cohort.  The Arcanum has deliberately been set up this way and is something that I seen Trey and Peter encourage as the project continues.  The framework has been set, but each individual cohort can interpret and apply this framework as they wish resulting in the cohorts growing their own personalities and learning in their own way. Ideas spring up within groups and spread out to other cohorts who adopt or manipulate them to suit their group.  Trey and Peter have been active within the cohorts - you never know when one will suddenly jump into a hangout.  They welcome and encourage feedback and more importantly any ideas which can be implemented to make the Arcanum a better place for all.  Already we are seeing new features and updates get built into the system.

The cohort activities are hosted in private Google+ communities, but the heart of the Arcanum site is the Grand Library.  Continually growing, the library contains various training videos that can help the apprentice master their craft.  The videos have generally been created and uploaded by the Arcanum masters and range from a general introduction to that master, to on-location shooting with the master through to general presentations on  photographic storytelling, motivation, techniques and post processing. At a general length of 10-15 minutes long they are good way to fill any little pieces of spare time that you have.  The content in terms of quality of advice and the material being presented is good with some great nuggets of information, even though at 10-15 minutes in length the depth of the subject matter can be some what limited for some topics.  However, if you are in the Arcanum solely for the videos then you might feel slightly short changed. As I mentioned above, you need to be prepared to work  to get the most out of the Arcanum.  That being said, the main selling point of the Grand Library is the library of critiques.   Every critique held between a master and apprentice is recorded and immortalised forever in the Grand Library for any apprentice of any cohort to view.

Not only do I get the benefit of my own critique with Valerie, but I also get to watch all her critiques with all the other apprentices in our cohort.  For a one entire level of critiques that is 100 photos critically reviewed and dissected at over 10 hours of footage.  That is a lot of information available for you to absorb and that is just on your cohort.  For photographers like me who shoot multiple genres of photography, I can also watch pros like Varina Patel and Martin Bailey  critique landscape photos and much more.  The library is only going to continue to bigger and better, both in terms of instructional videos and also critiques.

Four months into the Arcanum and I can already see improvements in my work.  I am certainly more focused on street photography and putting in the hours of practice that is required.  The main difference is my approach to the streets and I'm finding myself more attracted to certain types of photographs and trying to implement this on my on work.  Contrast, light and shadow have been given a new sense of importance in my street work overtaking the hunt for interesting characters to fill the frame. Geometry, shape and form has remained, but the need to tell the story trumps all.  A technically perfect photo will always be secondary to technically flawed photo which conveys a better story. This has been drummed into us from Day 1 by Valerie.  Storytelling is king.  Our primary function as a photographer is to communicate our stories through the visual images that we capture with our cameras. We must leave clues and visual sign posts within the frame for interpretation by the viewer. If this story is muddled or hidden among a mass of visual noise, the viewer will become confused or not connect with the photo.  Our cohort are all striving to be better visual storytellers.

The Arcanum, the Magical Academy of Artistic Mastery. The Hogwarts of Photography. I'm back to school and I'm hitting the streets.