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Positive Space

Telluride's Ah Haa School will kindle your inner artistic energy.

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The assignment my instructor gave me was daunting at first. And the guy peeling chiles wasn’t making things any easier for me. My mission: to shove a camera in the faces of total strangers—something my bashful nature wouldn’t typically let me do, except that I’d signed up for a “photographing people” workshop at Telluride’s Ah Haa School for the Arts. So here I was, prowling the farmers’ market for ripe photography subjects. My first victim was the pepper man.

But every time I raised my camera, his face shuttered. I tried all the distraction tips my instructor had suggested—I chatted with him, got him to tell me stories—both of which drew him out beautifully, until the moment I slid my eye behind the viewfinder.

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So I moved on to the flower stand, where a smiling man in a white cowboy hat spent time bundling sunflowers. The brilliant orange-yellow blooms contrasted marvelously with his blue denim shirt, so I asked to take his picture. “Sure,” he agreed shyly, which triggered an outburst of ribbing from his fellow salesmen. As my cowboy grinned, I kept the shutter button depressed—and, to my surprise, managed to capture shots that summed up the jovial florist perfectly.

My husband, Ben, and I had come to Telluride to enjoy an “Escape Artist” package offered by the Ah Haa School and the historic New Sheridan Hotel. The getaways vary and are scheduled year-round: Workshops last from two to five days, and topics go beyond photography to include pastels, painting, drawing, jewelry making, and even welding and ceramics. I chose “The Art of Photography: People,” a two-day course paired with a three-night stay at the New Sheridan. While Ben fished Telluride’s trout streams, I’d learn to channel my inner Henri Cartier-Bresson.

We arrived at the New Sheridan on Thursday evening, when the hotel and its restaurant were the hub of activity. Seated at sidewalk tables, sweater-clad diners savored the crisp summer night. Happily, however, none of the buzz infiltrated our room.

The handsome brick hotel, which was built in 1895, received a full face-lift in the summer of 2008 to install sound insulation and remove the historic creaks, squeaks, and drafts. The renovated rooms now feature plush carpet, Egyptian cotton sheets, and Victorian fixtures that look old but are in fact new. The result is an appealing blend of vintage and modern accents.

Before unpacking our bags, we pulled on the hotel’s plush bathrobes and padded up to the rooftop hot tub. Sounds of sidewalk revelers drifted to our lofty perch as we soaked in the water and gazed at the stars.

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The next morning, Ben headed for the river and I strolled to the Ah Haa School, just four blocks away. Housed in a restored train depot on the edge of the San Miguel River, the school was founded in 1991 by bookmaker Daniel Tucker. The organization boasts a national reputation and organizes workshops taught by an impressive lineup of local and visiting artists, such as watercolorist Susan Billings, who studied under Dale Chihuly, and pastel artist Bruce Gómez, who is well-known for his landscapes.

Stepping inside the depot, I browsed a sculpture installation by Telluride artist Julie McNair, then made my way to the classroom. A paint-splattered sink occupied one wall, and bright windows punctuated the others. Tables arranged in a square filled the middle of the room, where some of my fellow students had already assembled.

There were just four of us: Seated next to me was a retired fashionista who divided her time between Telluride and New York; one student was a teenager; another was a local mom. And then there was our curly-haired instructor, Colleen Duffley, a former high school basketball player and competitive cyclist who traded her sports for photography after watching a particularly brilliant autumnal sky—a sight no one else on her basketball team’s bus seemed to notice. Since that epiphany 25 years ago, she’s shot for Vogue and Coastal Living, and even had a photo session with the Clintons. As she told us about her experience, I began to worry about the vast gulf separating her savvy and our lack of know-how. I could barely capture my cat on film, and she had photographed the president.

I needn’t have worried. Without making us feel like schoolkids, Duffley started with basics like composition. Using images stored on her laptop, she demonstrated the power of getting close to your subject, and how eliminating distracting elements from the composition could dramatically improve photos. Because I was the only one with a digital SLR—everyone else brought point-and-shoot models—we skipped any discussion of camera settings and focused on how to see images before taking them.

To teach us about visualizing portraits, Duffley led us outside to where the depot’s patio meets the riverbank. “Look for shape,” she suggested, as we posed our classmates for maximum flattery. Because objects closest to the lens look larger, we had one broad-hipped gal lean over a decorative railing, so her pretty face took center stage and her backside receded into the distance. “Get creative with camera angles,” Duffley said, so we practiced shooting from ground level and from above our subjects, aiming our lenses down at their upturned faces.

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Then she pulled out her reflector—a three-by-four-foot metallic screen she uses to brighten people’s faces—and schooled us on light. We compared sans-reflector shots (where shadows carved up our subjects’ features) with photos that benefited from the screen’s subtly beautifying effects. “You look like a goddess!” I said as we photographed the fashionista, her skin glowing in the soft light.

Next, Duffley sent us on a field trip. Our assignment was to prowl Telluride to photograph someone who was unaware of our cameras, to shoot a willing subject, and to capture someone doing something silly. It was scary at first, but the tasks grew easier the more I persisted. Oblivious to my clicking shutter, kids tossed stones at ducks. Then the sunflower cowboy posed for me. And I even got a bald guy to comb his “hair,” which proved Duffley’s point: Subjects will do almost anything for you if you simply ask. After our photo quest, we converged back at the classroom to analyze our images on Duffley’s laptop. We laughed at our compositional blunders and celebrated the success of capturing a personality or finding ideal light.

The day flew by like art class always did when I was a kid. Back then, those creative sessions afforded an escape from the obligations of my grade-school life. I’d become so absorbed in coloring pages that I’d forget about everything else—a pleasure I apparently haven’t outgrown as adult. So I was startled when four o’clock rolled around, signaling the end of class and the start of my date with Ben at the New Sheridan’s old bar. “Sorry I’m running late,” he said when he finally arrived, adding, “I was fishing and lost track of time.” Smiling, I knew exactly what he meant.

Kelly Bastone is a contributing writer for 5280. E-mail her at [email protected].

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