The Monday Night Group
(or, how to improve your photography in one hour a week)
I've always been impressed by the quantity of ads in various places for golf equipment. You see the ads everywhere - ads for various golf clubs, golf balls, shoes, jackets, gloves - all of which are guaranteed to improve your golf game. Ads for clubs boast brazenly about how this driver or a that ergonomic putter will shave countless strokes off your score. The problem, according to the golf players I know, is that it's a mistake to embark on the golf equivalent of the quest for the Holy Grail. No club, they say, can really improve your game.
In the photographic world, we're no less prone to chase after snake oil remedies. There's always a new lens, or a new camera (with even more pixels), or a new paper or inkset. And, in the end, we always come back to the same, disappointing conclusion - the photographs are not made by the lens, or the camera body, or the paper or ink. The photographs are made by the human standing behind the camera. This is both tremendously frustrating (in that there isn't a magic bullet, and there never will be) and tremendously rewarding (because to the extent our photographs are good, they are good because we made them so).
Suppose, however, there actually was something concrete that you could do which I could guarantee would improve your photography. Even as I write the words, I can hear the rustling sound of photographers sitting up in their chairs. Yes, folks, there is something. It's not easy, it takes time, and it can't be done alone. But, in the end, it works. I have had it work for me. I have watched it work for others. I think it will work for more people, too.
And, to borrow a line from the advertisers of exercise equipment, the amazing thing is that it will only take you about an hour a week.
Let me share with you the story.
Way back in 1996, I joined with a small group of photographers to form a little group (now a large group) called Group f/5.6. It wasn't (and isn't) a camera club. There's no discussion of gear at all. Instead, it's a place to meet once a month with other photographers, and talk about things like shows we'd seen, or shows we were preparing to hang, or venues to explore in hopes of getting work shown - and also to try to help one another produce more and better photographs. It was a regular practice for photographers to bring work to show (and get feedback on) at the monthly meetings.
Group f/5.6 grew rapidly, and by 1998, it was pretty hard to get any real feedback when you brought new work to the monthly meetings. In August 1998, after reading David Bayles and Ted Orland's excellent book Art & Fear, a bunch of Group f/5.6 members (and a few other folks) set up a new, smaller group to do nothing except meet and look at each other's new work. Because it meets on Monday night, this group came to be called the Monday Night Group, and when we hit a rough patch, and needed to codify what the group actually was, and what it was not, I wrote a little document titled The Monday Night Manifesto.
The group is also sometimes called the New Work Review Group, because that's all we do - we meet every other Monday evening, and we each strive to bring new work, and then we all sit down together, and we look at the work that we've produced over the preceding two weeks.
And, in the end, we've all improved our photography. Every single participant has improved. When we started, some of us were good photographers, and some of us were not as good. Amazingly, we discovered that the stronger photographers seem to learn just as much as the weaker photographers, and that the weaker photographers improved with breathtaking speed.
We could probably have a long discussion about exactly why this helps us improve our photography. We could say it was just a matter of making sure that you went out to make new photographs at least twice a month. We could say that looking at photographs helps improve your eye, or any of a number of perfectly sensible and defensible theories.
But it doesn't really matter. The fact is, it works. Yes, it takes time, and it takes commitment, and it takes work, and we're not entirely sure WHY it works. But it works, and that's enough.
All of this may sound like mumbo-jumbo, and it's not. To make it more clear, let me describe what, exactly, the Monday Night Group does, and what it does not do.
The current group consists of seven members. We meet every other week, on Monday night, at 7pm - as we've done every other week since August, 1998. Yes, really - we've been meeting, essentially the same group, for nearly 8 years now - roughly 200 meetings so far. We gather at one participant's home (meetings rotate through the member's homes - so each member hosts four evenings a year, more or less). Everyone is expected to attend as many meetings as they can manage. Occasionally we get meetings where only a few people can attend, but generally, people make it to almost all of the meetings.
Each time we meet, each of us strives to bring new work - work that they haven't shown before. Meetings generally start out with idle chitchat over some snacky food and something refreshing to drink, and then we get down to the serious (but fun) business of looking at the new work each of us has brought.
And when I say new work, I mean new work in the loosest sense. The work doesn't have to be mounted, matted prints, ready to frame - far from it. We've looked at just developed negatives, slides, contact sheets, digital images on laptop screens, and on at least one occasion, a participant has arrived with no prints but with a large plastic bag full of exposed, undeveloped film, which was held aloft proudly and greatly admired. We bring in prints we're proud of, yes, but we also bring in problems - prints that we can't get right, or that don't work for some reason. Often we bring in photographs that we don't much like, but which we think might lead somewhere interesting somewhere down the line.
When we look at this new work, we praise it, and criticize it, and talk about how it's going and where it's going, and why. We've watched many, many projects run their course from the first tentative "I'm not sure why this print seems so interesting to me" stage all the way through to a large stack of framed prints ready to head off to the gallery for a show. Some projects have gone nowhere and petered out; others have gone on to become traveling exhibits and books.
We've discussed printing techniques, both analog and digital. We've helped each other stay focused (if you'll excuse the pun). We've discussed alternate ways to crop, different ways to improve prints, the overall 'feel' of a print - the list is endless.
One thing we DON'T do is discuss cameras, or lenses, or other technical matters unless the discussion centers around some specific piece or body of work. That is, we sometimes discuss technical stuff in the context of "Well, I think I want to try something like this, but I can't figure out what lens I need", or "I just think these prints don't have enough highlight contrast. What paper should I try to get snappier highlights?" But we almost never have discussions that start with "So, did you see that Nikon have announced a new camera body?"
We also don't do formal, organized presentations of the new work. We just set it out there, on the top of the table around which we're gathered, and we roll up our sleeves and shuffle the prints around (or fight over who has the loupe and the good spot near the light box), and we start right in talking about it. There's no leader, there are no rules, and the discussions can get fairly raucous, especially when we don't all agree - and we rarely all agree on anything.
Meetings seem to run about two to two and a half hours, including the food/drink/schmoozing session at the beginning.
Over the course of those 200-odd meetings (and watching similar groups inspired by ours thrive or perish), we've learned a bit about what helps us move our photography forward, and what doesn't.
Our group started with twelve people invited to the first meeting. A bunch dropped out at the very beginning, and then the group slowly grew, until by late 2001 many meetings had as many as 12 attendees. Twelve is too large. Right now we have seven (the group is now closed to new members) and that seems just about right. Too small and you fail to achieve the critical mass needed to keep it all going; too large and there isn't enough time to review everyone's work in two hours or so.
Groups which DON'T have members make a firm commitment to show up as much as they possibly can, and to bring new work more often than not - those groups eventually wither up and die. ONLY the groups that have this firm commitment seem to thrive. I have theories about why this is, but the theories are secondary to this simple empirical observation.
If you show a photograph to a group of six photographers, you will more than likely get 9 different opinions. It might seem contrary to common sense, but this is not only true but a very good thing.
Trust is the important issue.
It isn't necessary that everyone who participates be at the same skill level. In fact, it seems to help if there are some relative beginners and some seasoned oldsters.
It isn't necessary that everyone who participates be at the same level in terms of art education. In fact, diversity seems to be a good thing.
It isn't necessary that everyone work in roughly the same genre, or the same visual style, and in fact, it seems to help if people are all over the map. The Monday Night Group has among its members some who work in color and some who work in B&W, some who shoot film and some who shoot digitally, small format, medium format, large format, pinhole - it's a pretty diverse group. We've got street photographers, and landscape photographers, and even an underwater photographer. You get a different kind of feedback from someone whose work doesn't even vaguely resemble yours, and that's a good thing.
Meeting once a month is not enough. Groups which meet only once a month eventually wither up and die. Meeting every week is too much. Somewhere in the middle is a range that works. We've found every other week just about right. Every other week seems like a lot, and it is a really big, significant time commitment. But it works.
While it's important to commit to bringing new work as often as possible, everyone hits dry spells. The big thing is to keep attending EVEN THOUGH you have no new work to show. Eventually, the group will drag you out of the dry spell, even though it may feel like that can't possibly happen. Every member of the Monday Night Group has hit dry spells, and every single dry spell has come to an end, in part due to the gentle, friendly ribbing you get when you show up empty-handed yet again. Strangely, when you do get jumpstarted, your work will be better that it was before. Again, I have theories, but the theories are secondary to the empirical observation that It Just Works.
The Monday Night Group meets in members homes - members host meetings in rotation. Seven members, with meetings every other week, means that each of us hosts every fourteen weeks, or a bit less than every three months. The other groups which have thrived also meet in member's homes.
Often, the fact that the meeting is TONIGHT means that you will spend much of today making the prints you will take to the meeting this evening. We've often reviewed work which was literally still damp. This should not cause embarrassment - it's part of the process. The fact that the impending meeting served as a goad to get you to pick up the camera, or go into the darkroom, or fire up the computer - that's a good, important part of the whole shebang. When that happens, be aware that everything is working according to plan.
Showing work that's in process - work that is unfinished, or exploratory, or you can't seem to get right - that feels very risky. Showing work that's polished and mounted and matted and ready to hang - that feels less risky. But it turns out that the big progress is made when you show the stuff that feels risky. An awful lot of the benefit seems to come not from viewing other photographer's polished final prints but from watching them struggle with issues of direction and process. It seems to be very important that people bring work in every stage for review - even work they think is lousy.
Especially for someone who hasn't had work reviewed before, showing work is an intimidating thing. By the time you've shown someone the last two weeks of your artistic output for the 25th time, it no longer feels intimidating at all. 25 times is less than a year. By the time you've shown someone your work for the 100th time, it not only isn't intimidating, it feels normal and natural. By the time you've done it 200 times, you'll probably find that you'd gnaw your arm off a the elbow before you'd stop.
A little food (snack food, or cookies, or muffins) and something to drink (tea, or soda pop) seems to make the start of the meeting a particular delight. As a pragmatic thing, it makes for a definitive end to the chitchat period, because when the cookies, or pigs in blankets, or whatever are all eaten up, the natural thing is to clear away the plates, wipe the table clean, and spread out the prints.
How to go about it
So what should you do if you decide that you want to participate in a group like the Monday Night Group? It turns out there's not a lot to it. The Monday Night Group is surprisingly free of any formal structure. There's no real leader, beyond the fact that it usually falls to me to draft up the schedule of where we'll meet, and when. All you need to do is gather together a group of photographers, get them to meet and bring new work to show and discuss, and you're off.
When I started the group I'm in, I had an advantage - the larger Group f/5.6 gave me a handy pool of potential participants. It might be that you have no such handy group. I suspect, though, that most areas that are reasonably well populated will have enough photographers who are interested to support forming such a group. The trick is to figure out how to connect with them.
Lots of ideas come to mind - ads in the local newspaper, notices on bulletin boards, notices in the windows of camera stores.
Getting the group really established will take a little work. Expect that some people will attend at first, and then discover that it's too much of a time commitment. It probably makes sense to start with group that's a little large (say, 9 or 10 people) and then let attrition whittle it down to size. If our experience is any guide, things will sort out pretty quickly into those people who are going to show up virtually every time, and those who are not. If you end up with somewhere between six and eight people who are core regular attenders, I suspect that's just about ideal.
The Big Conclusion
There's a big tendency to think that the way to improve our photography is going to be expensive, and complicated, and it's going to involve buying new equipment, or learning about new techniques.
My experience, though, is that the most powerful tool for improvement is to sit down, every other week, with photographers you've come to know well, and look at the new work you've all done in the preceding two weeks.
It might be that this works because it keeps the participants busy photographically, rather than sitting at home reading photography magazines or browsing the WWW. It might be that looking at other people's photographs helps tune up your vision. It might be that just sitting down every other week with nice folks, eating some cookies and some tea and schmoozing makes us more content, and folks who are more content are better photographers.
All that theory is interesting but perhaps beside the point, which is that it works. A two and a half hour meeting every other week boils down to 11 minutes a day.
Surely you're willing to invest 11 minutes a day to improve your photography. Heck, you probably just spent half that much time just reading this article.