Photographer and photo instructor Tyrone Turner has produced National Geographic magazine stories on the disappearing wetlands of Louisiana, increasing hurricane threats, the coasts of the United States, and the rebuilding of New Orleans, as well as a special issue on hurricane Katrina and a recent cover story on energy efficiency and conservation. He leads the Geographic’s weekend photography workshops in New Orleans, and an upcoming week-long photography workshop in Santa Fe. I spoke with Tyrone about Santa Fe, photography, and some of his favorite moments behind a camera.
What makes Santa Fe such an ideal location for photographers, and for you to teach about photography?
I love Santa Fe! It’s an exciting destination for photography for so many reasons.
This was the first place I saw mountains. When I was a kid, I went to a Christian Brothers school. They had a camp in Pecos, New Mexico just outside Santa Fe. I was ten years old growing up in New Orleans, and hadn’t seen anything larger than a levy. Here was beautiful light, beautiful terrain, a vista that’s still unbelievable to me.
I fell in love with the people, the architecture, everything you see. The light—it’s amazing. What you eat out there is amazing as well.
When the Geographic asked me if I would come teach this summer, I was so excited to do this. It fits into everything that turns me on in photography: The possibility of discovery, meeting people and shooting their pictures, finding great light, interesting architecture, interesting textures. I love transition times—early morning right before the sun comes up and seeing how things change as the sun hits, late afternoon. Seeing how it affects the mood and the feeling of pictures. I love that stuff, and it’s at its best in a western landscape.
It’s wonderful when you get to a place such as this that’s unique in terms of what it feels like, what it looks like. It offers tremendous opportunity to the photographer, whether you’re looking at the land and vegetation (or the lack of vegetation)—stark landscapes, scrub brush, sandstone bluffs. Or adobe, so warm with its deep Earth tones. It’s fun to take those types of pictures and explore.
Are there a few tips you could share with folks who’d like to take better photographs?
Sure! If you’re a student of photography, first, the best camera is the one you know how to work well. You can’t take a picture without knowing your camera. So getting to know your camera goes a long way. All the manufacturers are making great cameras and lenses these days. It’s the one you know well that will give you the opportunity to intuitively explore a scene and take advantage of it.
Also, become a student of light: Look at how it falls on people and bounces around on architecture. Find the light that makes excitement come alive in a photograph.
Become a student of people, learn how to approach them, be at ease with them. Become excited about taking pictures of them, excited about the adventure. And learn to anticipate what people are going to do in order to capture those special moments. Wait for the moment—have the patience to wait for those moments to happen.
Practice! People don’t get better by just doing this once in awhile. It’s like what they say about languages, you use it or lose it. I know how quickly Portuguese and Spanish slip away from me when I don’t use them. Photography is a language too. You have to use those muscles, keep on trying, keep practicing. It gives you that edge. When the perfect moment’s just 1/250th of a second long (and sometimes it is), you need all the edge you can get!
What are a few of your own favorite moments as a photographer?
I took a picture of a priest in a trance once. He’s in this red dress, smoking a cigarette and waiting for a client to arrive to have a consult. I knew I was with an interesting subject in an interesting situation. I knew something was there, and I hung around, hung around, hung around. And then, all of a sudden, he’s in this room, there are candles, there’s all this stuff around, and I said—that’s it! That’s the moment. I better get this in focus! You just look at the scene and you know this is a picture. That was one I’ll always remember.
And another working on the same story: I’d been trying to set up times when people were fishing by hand in rivers, catching catfish or whatever fish, using baskets and their hands to catch the fish. I waited for opportunities, shot lots of pictures, but I didn’t have one I really liked. Then one day I’m in a village, and two women walked by with fishing baskets. I said “Where are you going?” and they said “Going fishing.” ”Can I come?”, I asked. We walked up and down this river, and they fished, and it was simply magical. They were in the river up to their necks in water and fishing, just the two of them and a few kids. It’s moments like this when your hard work pays off in a big way.