May 312011
 

The Photographer’s Secret

Henri Cartier-Bresson might be one

of the finest photographers in history.

Not because he shot the famous

wars or scandalous pictures, but

because his designs are so precise

they begin to approach the practice

of painting, where he learned his craft.

Carrying on the artistic tradition

is master Myron Barnstone.  Join

me as I visit his one man school,

where photographers, architects, and

artists come to learn the secrets of

image making.

Myron Barnstone at the drawing board.  © John Marelli.

Valencia.  © Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Bresson’s Schooling

Within the Leica community, Henri Cartier-Bresson  holds a special position.  He was a mentor to many of the Magnum photographers like Werner Bischof , Joseph Koudelka, and Steve McCurry.  During his lifetime he influenced at least three generations of photographers.  After his death, Bresson is still a favorite among street photographers, but why?  The first man I ever met who could give me an intelligent explanation to this question was Myron Barnstone.  While I was watching his DVD series, he answered a question I did not even ask him directly.  Why is Bresson so damn good?

Bresson's Valencia Analyzed.  © Henri Cartier-Bresson.

The answer…The design of Bresson’s images, their composition, figure to ground relationships, and timing is an example of pure design, the same type of design used by the Egyptians, Greeks, Renaissance artists, and every great artist up through World War II.  And he happened to have a fantastic sense of humor which becomes evident in the jokes he tells with his images. This is just the beginning…

Bresson's education came primarily from art, not photography. Here one of Myron's students measuring the figure.  © John Marelli.

To explain this mystery further Myron uncovers the training Bresson received as an artist.  Before his career as a famous photographer, Bresson studied under the artist, critic, and educator Andre Lhote.  The education was in classical painting, where he was taught composition.  Without a properly designed image, there is rarely a redeemable photograph.  It explains why Bresson was against cropping or post production because when it comes to composition, you either have a picture or there is nothing.  Bresson knew this and when he coined his phrase of the “Decisive Moment“  he was talking about a fraction of a second where the patterns of everyday activity gelled into a geometric composition that brought out the maximum strength of a scene.

Myron Barnstone reviewing my images at his studio.  © John Marelli.

How Myron Struck Me

We would all like to take great pictures, right?  I assume that we don’t spend thousands of dollars on equipment and airline tickets only to take mediocre pictures.  Like anything we do, we would like to understand what we are trying to do, understand the Masters who do it well, and develop our own voice that has power and energy.  Do these sound like lofty goal?  Maybe, but if you spend a little time with Myron you will see that everything Bresson put into his images was learned, not some God given talent for finding amazing images.

Plaster Casts used in the Antiquities Drawing Class at the Barnstone Studios.  © John Marelli.

Studio Visit

A few weeks ago, I left my home in NYC and took the train/drive out to Coplay Pennsylvania where Myron has his school.  The studios reminded me of the lofts in Soho, before they were converted to multi million dollar apartments.  Wide open floors with wood beam ceilings rest in the backdrop, as the artwork on display commands all the attention.  When I arrived, Myron took me through 4,000 square feet of studio space.  The walls are filled with drawings from his students who have gone on to become successful artists.  For all of the parents who are reading this article, it is possible to be a functioning, highly paid artist.  So if you have a daughter or son, who is inclined in the arts, have a chat with Myron.  Devoting ones life to being an artist is not a sentence of poverty.  Quite the contrary with proper training. They are a rare commodity.  And do we really need any more financial analysts?

Examples of prior students work at the Barnstone Studios.  © John Marelli.

The body of work on display is worth the trip alone.  Unlike the Open Studios I see at the prominent art schools here in New York, Myron’s students have a cohesive sensibility.  The images have an incredible range in subject matter and style, but their design is a clear indication of his working system of teaching art.

Myron Barnstone's giving me some reading suggestions in his Office.  © John Marelli.

Why Would A Photographer Study Art

We each have different aspirations for our images.  Some of us are working professionals while others enjoy the time they spend with a camera in the back yard.  But regardless of our aims, we would like to take good pictures.  So what’s a good picture?  Lets flip the question on its head, what’s a bad picture?  If someone described your pictures as “Flat, confusing, and one dimensional,” most of us would be upset.  (unless of course your are a contemporary conceptual artist who has completely different aims.  They represent a fractional minority of the people who carry cameras, so I will just skip them) Ideally we would like to understand how the medium of photography works and use its strengths to create powerful images.  The DVDs and courses are designed to teach you how to answer important questions like:

  • How can we create the greatest illusion of depth so our images read like a window into the world?
  • How do you determine the subject based on value?
  • Is it possible to “look for scenes” that will have greater carrying power?
  • Why did Bresson tell us to study contact sheets upside down?
  • Within the limited alphabet of the artist, how can we use lines to design photographs?
  • Why is the shape of our negative important?
  • What are the mistakes that can be avoided which violate all senses of good design?

Myron working with one of his students in the Antiquities Class.  © John Marelli.

Answering these questions and hundreds more, Myron teaches how to design work based on a tradition that started before the Egyptians. Photographers can benefit from studying with Myron because creating  three dimensional images on a flat surface is a 45,000 year old tradition.  Myron can apply his 40 years of teaching experience and save you a lifetime of research.  I own his DVD series and have watched it with a frequency that my girlfriend now asks me, “Do you see it?” when she makes breakfast for us.  (Once you see the DVDs you will understand the humor in the above quote)

Are There Books On Design?

There are bits and pieces of information on the internet and in bookshops, but unfortunately the lessons on design employed by Master artists hardly exist in books.  If you would like to test this theory out and happen to know any art historians, ask them about Edgar Degas’ use of the Overlapped Root 4 in his sketches and paintings?  If they stare back at you blankly and mumble something about Golden Ratio design and how they understand it, you will see how infrequently these lessons are taught today, even to professionals.  Before the 1940s, design and geometry were the basis of the master apprentice system that every famous artist endured.

Myron teaching his student how to see.  © John Marelli.

Of the limited books that exist on the subject, none of them have photographers in mind.  While Myron was in school at Oxford University, studying at the Ruskin, he was head of the Oxford Photographic society.  He is a photographer, which gives him a distinct teaching advantage because he has designed his program with photographers in mind.  In his analysis he discusses the artists like Delacroix, Canaletto, Vermeer, and just about all the Post Impressionists who used camera to create their images.  But they did not simply copy the photographic image.  We need to be taught how to see and translate scenes on to a two dimensional plane.

“Only through drawing do we learn to see.”

—Anonymous

The shutter on a camera is not to be mistaken for a lever on a slot machine.  Taking great pictures is not a gamble, it is a practice.  We can learn it and replicate successful results over a lifetime with proper training.  Without training the results for amateurs and professionals are hit and miss.

The World Press Winner of 2011 of Bibi Aisha.  © Jodi Bieber.

This image uses an old painter's trick for portraits. Simply place the dominant eye in the center of the picture, just above the mid point. It will create a portrait that looks like it is following you around the room.  © Jodi Bieber.

Moving Away From Content

Anyone who looked at the recent World Press Photo winners can see a trend in photography.  Take notice of how many images require you reading the caption before you can determine if it is a good picture or not.  This is not the case for all of the pictures, but there is a general trend where content is the dominant force in evaluating an image.  This has happened because the oral tradition of design passed down from master to apprentice has become lost.

Raphael showing us how to design a portrait with Baldassare Castiglione. Notice how the dominant eye is right in the middle, just above center.

When American art after World War II made a break from its European roots, it “Threw the baby out with the bathwater.”  If there is no discussion about the design of a photograph, then the only thing left to consider is the content.  Content and design should exist in equal partnership for a successful image.  Today this equal partnership does not exist.  So who wins when content is the dominant force? The winners are over educated art historians (who write those terrible card posted in museums) and smooth talking artists (who greatest skills are sweet talking the clothes off of adoring fans).

For the rest of us, the conversation is either filled with statements like “The putrefaction of the vital life force” (a quote I heard in an art discussion referring to the concept of rape) or academic blather that requires a dictionary to understand.  Honestly, the woman was talking about an artist who had arranged two barbie dolls to look like they were having sex.  In my mind, not a big deal.  But it is an example of what happens when there is an imbalance between design and content. Art is not rocket science. It has a simple language that anyone can learn and use successfully.

Art, in plain English

After studying with Myron remotely, I decided to enroll in his classes.  My daily practices are as a sculptor, photographer, and occasional architect.  Drawing is very important to me, but even more important is seeing.  We learn to see properly, it is not gifted to us.  The greatest service we can do to our eyes is educate them with simple tools, which remain at our fingertips for a lifetime.  My personal preference is to seek out people with experience.  Myron is nearly 80 years old, though he hardly looks older than 65.  His ability to look at a picture and tell you why it works or is a mess is fantastic.  His critiques are firm, but profoundly effective.  He has been tearing into my pictures for some time now, and I still have a ways to go.  But after each critique or viewing of the DVDs things become a little clearer.  I can see, understand, and design better solutions for my work based on his teachings.

Design can be used by sculptors, painters, and photographers because everyone is speaking the same visual language. Michelangelo's Pieta.

Born With Talent

The idea that people are born with artistic genius is nonsense.  At best someone might be born with artistic interest.  It explains why there are no artistic prodigies and why an artist in their 40′s can still be called “Emerging.”  Even young Michelangelo had over ten years of dedicated work under his belt before he started carving the Pietà in his twenties.  Artists used to start their training as children.  In a quote often cited by Myron, Michelangelo said:

“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain

my mastery, it wouldn’t seem wonderful at all”

-Michelangelo

If the artist who made the David, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica, and outwitted just about every artist and architect of his day, including Raphael and Bramante, says that his craft took work, I will believe him.  In most cases an embarrassing amount of work.

Life drawing class at the Barnstone Studios.  © John Marelli.

A Simple Step

For many readers of the site, a switch to a full time apprenticeship is not a realistic option.  But watching some DVDs on the weekends or after work is a simple step that will have profound effects on your images.  I promise you.  So far everyone who has bought the DVDs, raves, simply raves about the material.  And put into the context of the cost of Leica equipment, they DVDs are inexpensive.  Would you rather have one lens and create masterful images or three lenses and use them all moderately well?  Maybe I am a simple man, but between the two, I would rather use one thing very well than a few things poorly.

Life drawing class from a model, with Myron pictured on the right.  © John Marelli.

Towards the end of my studio visit, we watched the students draw from a live model.  The circle of drawing boards, focused on the geometry of the human form touched a primal nerve.  We are a curious species with an insatiable drive for understanding.  While many of nature’s mysteries remain outside the bounds of our perception, there are a few lessons we can learn.  Design is one of them.  Equipped with digital cameras and computers that Da Vinci would have loved to use, we have an opportunity to study Master works and analyze our own images without even leaving home.  The days of leaving for Italy on the “Grand Tour” and three years of dedicated study are no more.  With the aid of a few discs, a computer, and a camera we are free to explore design and its applications with an ease that is unprecedented in history.  Who would I recommended as a guide for this journey…? you got it, Mr. Myron Barnstone.

Myron Barnstone’s DVD Series, Click Below and Enjoy!



  28 Responses to “Myron Barnstone”

  1. It sounds very interesting, but that price is a bit steep. Any special discounts for the faithful readers of your blog? :-)

    • Hey Rob,

      You can buy the classes one at a time for $35 each on the banner on the side of the page. Its an alternative if you are not ready to make the full jump.

      And thank you for being a faithful reader of the site.

      Enjoy-Adam

  2. Fantastic series on composition and art and how it relates so intimately with photography!

  3. Hi Adam

    Okay – I can buy lessons individually – this is good. So, some questions…

    Presuming that they will be a download?
    Are they exactly the same as the DVD set?
    I’m not looking to learn how to draw – photography student – so am really looking to understand more about what I have learned on your site today going through the ‘great compositions’. Do i need all the lessons? Are there some that you would recommend more than others?

    Thanks so much – and please continue your composition series – I have learned so much today! Also is there not a chance that you and Myron could possibly do a video/series of videos analysing photos. There is a great video software called ishowu, costs about $30 – and it would be fab to watch/listen as you analyse images. I’d pay for those…!

    Regards
    Vicki

  4. Vicki,

    The downloads are identical to the DVD. I bought the DVD series, but I know the content is the same.

    If I had to recommend only a few, I would say watch 1, 7, and 10.

    Number 1 will give you a basis for Myron’s teachings. Without it, the series might be tough to follow. The class is very well structured, so each one builds on the language and lessons of the next.

    Number 7 introduces Dynamic Symmetry. There is a brief bit about Cartier-Bresson, but more importantly you will start to understand how to arrange forms in a rectangle using the diagonals.

    Number 10 gives a more in depth look at all of the rectangles and visual examples of how artists use them to create powerful compositions.

    Those would be the three I would watch, but the series works best as a whole. Its a bit like wanting to learn about shutter stop without understanding its relationship to aperture. The other videos, where the students are making drawings of bottles apply very directly to photography. Myron always gives an example that bottles are not much different than people. The are smaller at the top and bigger at the bottom. The need to relate to each other in space to create the illusion of depth. And we need to place them intelligently in the field for them to be effective.

    Given the effectiveness of the DVD’s I would easily have purchased his DVDs over my 15mm Voigtlander lens. They are about the same price, but I could live without the lens. The DVD’s has done wonders to my ability to see and make images.

    And if you have any questions feel free to ask.

    Best-Adam

    • Adam

      Love the comment about the similarity in shapes between people and bottles.
      Will purchase Video 1 this evening and have a look. The DVDs are not an option for me; I am in the UK and impatient!

      Thanks once again

      Regards
      Vicki

  5. Hey Vicki,

    I totally understand being impatient. Give lesson 1 a go, it will open the conversation a bit for you and we can take it from there.

    Myron actually studied in England at the Ruskin under Percy Horton, if you want to give that a look too.

    Enjoy!

  6. Hi Adam,

    I truly enjoyed reading your article. Thanks for opening a whole new world to me!
    I’m of to India in two weeks (with camera), I wish I had read your article earlier…

    Cheers,
    Klaas

    • Hi Klaas,

      Have a great trip in India. Where are you headed? And thanks for the kind words on the article. Happy to open the door for you.

      Best-Adam

  7. Adam, great article; I forwarded it along to my sister who is a budding photographer. I, too, own the DVD series, and I can’t recommend them highly enough. To those who balk at the price, consider how much much getting lessons from a local “guru” or art teacher would cost, and how unlikely they would be to touch on the design secrets of the great masters. These DVDs are a fabulous bargain when taken from that perspective.

    One question: can you give a list of books or other reference materials that Byron recommended to you? He mentions a few books and articles in his course that I’ve bookmarked, but am curious about whether there are some other treasures you’ve discovered in conversations with him. Any additional resources would be greatly appreciated!

    • Hey Brad,

      Happy to hear the DVDs are treating you well. They are a bargain for sure, especially when considering the alternatives in continuing education or workshops.

      Myron does have a library he has amassed over the years. There is usually a book for everything. Many of the books mention in the DVD’s like Harold Speeds’ “The Practice and Science of Drawing” are geared towards draftsman. In my opinion a crafty photographer could make good use of them, but they are in a “drawing language.”

      When I have specific questions based on theme or subject matter, Myron usually rings up a book that works. For example, as I am preparing for the trip to Tanna, we went through “The Family of Man” exhibition book by Steichen from the Museum of Modern Art. It was a perfect fit for the subject matter. Did you have something specific in mind?

      Best-Adam

      • Hi, Adam, thanks for replying. I was wondering if he had some general art/drawing books beyond his course he was recommending to you. Further reads on the drawing systems he gets into and works he truly endorses. He definitely mentions a few such as Harold Speeds; was just curious if he gave you a bunch more, regardless of subject specificity. :) I am mostly interested in how one might continue to “self-educate” beyond his course if one were to dive deeper into painting, figure drawing, etc. Photography would be cool, too, but mostly interested in ANY art books he happens to endorse. That may be too broad, but was curious. :)

  8. Hello Adam,

    This is a truly wonderful article on Myron and his studios. Having spent 2 years studying with him at the studios I can say I find the ability to ‘see’ he empowered me with through his teaching invaluable. It is the very stuff one is able to solidly build a life’s work on. Continued success to you as you travel your path.

    Many Blessings,
    gwendolyn

  9. Great article on Myron, I’m really looking forward to learning more about his teachings! I’m a photographer too, and I base most of my pictures on a concept of some sort. The designing aspect that Myron teaches has really opened my eyes, and given me a new direction that I’ve been looking for. I’m a huge fan of classic painters and artists, so I can’t wait to start implementing design into my work.

    I was chatting with Aladine Vargas on his Vimeo page about Myron, and he sent me a link to your site. I was pretty thrilled to see the work of a photographer who has trained with Myron. I would like to see more! Do you have a facebook, flickr, or anything?

    Thanks for sharing Adam!
    Tavis

  10. Is there a way to download the video instead of streaming it?

    Thanks in advance,

    Richard.

    • Hey Richard,

      I believe you can either stream or buy the DVD. I own the discs so not entirely sure how the single lessons work. but if you are continuing to have trouble email me and I can put you in touch with his tech guy.

      adam@adammarelliphoto.com

      Best-Adam

  11. I see that he also has a course on color control. Is that one useful for photographers? There don’t seem to be any sample videos of that one,

    Thanks -
    John

    • Hey John,

      The color course is absolutely fantastic. It demonstrates how little the entire world of photography understands color and how rich it is in artistic heritage. Painters REALLY understand color, photographers hardly have a clue. And this is only further compounded by the software and engineers (in photo) who are obsessed, I mean absolutely obsessed with color calibration, but they do not know the first thing about how color behaves.

      The Color DVDs will set you on the right path, though I warn you the material is quite dense. My feeling is that if you watch them without mixing color, you will gain quite a bit, but if you can mix a little paint, they will dramatically alter the way you see color.

      Without understanding the concepts that Myron lays out, any color picture is guess work at best.

      -Adam

  12. Hello Adam, how are you?

    I want to learn to draw and paint digitally. I’m very interested in Myron’s video series of drawing color and figure drawing. But i am not sure if it also helps to beginners? Do i need a prerequisite education on art or design or not? I could not find any information about the courses focus.

    Thanks in advance

    GB

  13. Hi GB,

    Yes Myron’s DVD’s will help you tremendously. There is no pre-requisite. He assumes that no one has learned the material the way he teaches it. So everyone starts at the beginning.

    I am yet to come across anyone who has watched the material and been disappointed.

    Best-Adam

  14. Hi Adam,
    I came across your work and blog through B&H videos. I must say I was flabbergasted by the videos and henceforth has been reading your blog. Thank you for introducing me to Myron. I have bought the DVD today and can’t wait to get started.
    I am currently in Toronto. In case you plan to conduct a workshop here kindly let me know.
    Regards,
    Hashin

    • Hi Hashin,

      Glad that you have discovered both my videos and Myron’s. You should do very well with Myrons discs. They are a treasure trove of information. My guess is you will watch them multiple times.

      Let us know how you progress.

      Best-Adam

  15. how can i still purchase the barnstone dvds?

    • Hi Lori,
      You can purchase them off of his website and he is going to be offering them on Udemy.com very soon too.
      Let me know if you have any trouble getting your hands on them.
      Best-Adam

  16. I just want any blog reader to know, I attended Myron ‘ s school for years. I was a child of 8 when I started his children’s classes on Saturday mornings. I eventually was a regular in the adult figure classes and oil painting as well by the age of 13. He is a wonderful instructor. And his teachings are invaluable, priceless. He is a dear friend of our family, and I am thankful to him for much knowledge. Learned more from him than college (art major). You won’t be disappointed in any if his lessons.

    • Hi Andrea,

      Nice to hear about your experience…i think that sums it up pretty well. Myron is a delight to have as a teacher and mentor. Hope that other people have a chance to experience what we got. : )

      Best-Adam

  17. Hi Adam, am I understand correctly, that you are selling the DVDs that was made by Myron? If so, I have couple questions.
    Do you ship them to Russia, Moscow? :) Can I buy the DVDs one-by-one?

    Many thanks in advance,
    Vlad

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