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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.