13 Life Lessons I Learned at RMSP

Article and photos created and copyrighted by Forest Woodward.

When I was twelve years old, our family friends Neil and Jeanne Chaput de Saintonge (founders of RMSP) came for a visit to our home in Washington State. Recognizing our interest in photography, they invited my older sister Autumn and I to attend a basic black and white workshop at their school in Missoula. What followed was a lifelong love affair with Montana, photography, and the spirit of learning and exploration first fostered in the cozy confines of RMSP classrooms, and later developed on the high ridges and secret trails of Western Montana. In the 18 or so years that have passed since that fateful visit (I’m 30now), I’ve compiled a list of lessons from my time at RMSP and abroad, a few tips, tricks, and thoughts that have served me well in my career as a professional adventure photographer.

Lesson 1: This is a camera

This first lesson came during Tim Cooper’s basic black and white darkroom class. Sitting in a circle in the basement in Missoula on the corner of Higgins and Main, we introduced ourselves and I learned that the camera I was holding was called an SLR (a Canon AE-1P to be exact). It was heavy (and scary) compared to the point-and-shoot I was used to. This was the beginning. I learned this lesson in 1998, and since then, the face of photography has continued to change radically, and the line between what is a camera and what is not has become increasingly blurred. But regardless of whether your camera is also a phone, a large format 8×10 plate camera, or a sleek new DSLR, the lesson remains the same: Learn what your camera is, its limitations and its strengths, and continue to experiment with it and find the ways in which you jive together. Currently I am in the process of learning to use a new camera (the Sony A7RII) and primarily using it for the specific purpose of photographing and filming during the dusk and night hours. That said, I also just dusted off the old AE-1 and have been enjoying using that for travelsnap-shots. Knowing how to use your tools properly (that is your cameras and lenses)and the proper application of each can be as simple or complicated as you choose to make it, but I encourage you to spend time becoming friends with your equipment, however simple or complex it may be.

Lesson 2: Patience

When I was 16, I returned to RMSP for a “Shades of Silver: Intermediate black and white photography course”. We spent three days in Glacier National Park taking photographs, and three days in Missoula developing our film and making prints. Looking back this was a time of waiting. Waiting for the light to break over Hidden Pass, waiting for film to dry, waiting for an image to appear in the developer tray. Years later, long after I moved on from landscape photography and shooting on film, the importance of patience is still paramount in my work and life. I constantly strive to cultivate my ability to wait, to watch, and to allow scenes and situations to unfold without rushing past or through. Sometimes this even means setting aside the camera, to be fully present and have a conversation with my subject, or to just enjoy where I am at in the world at a particular moment, and not worry about whether or not I have captured it. Engaging in this process has no guaranteed outcome, but I take solace in the knowledge that the journey, if savored and appreciated, is reward enough on it’s own. Those are the lessons I learned in those early years watching the clouds drift over the wild peaks and hidden meadows of Western MT, and under the dim hum of the safe lights back in the dark room. Ina world where faster is better, and instant is best, these lessons have served as an anchor for me.

Lesson 3: Listen and learn

As a teenager I did my fair share of rebelling. But never when I was in RMSP classrooms. Given the opportunity to learn, to be a youngster amongst the disciples of Ansel, the silver (halide) sages, I found deep reward in listening, watching, learning from those older and more experienced than me. For me this was a time of precession, of careful development of images by hand, a time when I sought out guidance and was deeply rewarded by it. In the coming years I would often turn to those older than me to ask their advice- in life and photography.

Lesson 4 (age 18): If ordering a bagel from Butterfly Herbs before heading to class, make sure to allow at least 20 minutes for them to toast it.

Lesson 5 (age 19): Experiment/Don’t Pigeon-Hole Yourself

Often times we, as photographers, are encouraged to focus in on one subject – portraiture, landscapes, action – whatever it might be, and not to stray outside of that. I have found the opposite approach to be the most effective. Photograph and experiment with telling the stories of anything and everything that catches your eye and interest. Being able to handle the camera in a diversity of situations and environments will strengthen and broaden your skills in ways that will likely serve you well as you hone in on particular subjects of interest.

Lesson 6: The Kindness Lens

When Neil and Jeanne first invited me to attend RMSP, they let me stay at their house, cooked me meals, drove me where I needed to be (remember, I was 12), and showed me an unconditional kindness that affected me deeply. While this may not seem to relate much to photography, for me, their spirit of kindness and generosity was so closely tied to my experience of learning, that they have always been inseparable. It comes as no surprise to me that over the years, as I grew to know, and eventually become a part of the RMSP family, I often saw this underlying of ethos of kindness interwoven with the technical and aesthetic teachings of the school. Learning to see the world through that lens of kindness was one of the greatest additions to my camera bag in those early years.

Lesson 7: Learn the Fundamentals – Zone System

On my second visit to RMSP, at the age of 16, I began learning the zone system. This fundamental understanding of the latitude of light, what to capture and what to let go, has served as an essential base for the way that I approach photography. Call me old school, but I think every photographer owes it to themselves to spend a bit of time learning the fundamentals of the zone system and getting their hands (or tongs) wet in a darkroom. I sometimes find it daunting, the speed with which technology is advancing in the image making world, but reminding myself of the fundamentals and keeping that as a foundation helps to ground me whenever I spiral too far down the tech rabbit hole.

Lesson 8: Seek out Mentors

Finding a mentor is not something which you can force or rush, but I would always recommend, no matter your age, that you seek the wisdom/council/mentorship of those who you admire. I found a mentor and friend in the form of an editor and photographer, Andreas Gebhard. Over the year she has coached, critiqued, encouraged and pushed me to continue growing and evolving my work. I can’t stress how helpful this has been to me. Even when we don’t talk for months on end, having Andreas, someone who knows my work and who’s opinion I respect, has been instrumental in supporting me to continue seeking new ways to see as well as refining my vision.

Lesson 9: Build Community

Having the opportunity to seek out and work with other creatives – photographers, writers, illustrators – has been one of the great joys of this journey in the world of photography. It is also one of the keys to having a successful career in photography – or anything for that matter. Building a strong network of friends, collaborators, peers, and mentors who share, challenge or stimulate your creative ideals is essential to sustaining long term interest and engagement in your field of work. One of the definite jumping off points in my career came when I met a writer, Brendan Leonard, while climbing Mt Whitney in the Sierras of California. We both shared a passion for climbing, and together with his words and my photos, we were able to begin pitching articles about climbing to major publications. Over the course of a few years we traveled extensively together, and with his words supporting me, I found my images more frequently published, and opportunities for more work in the adventure/climbing realm increased in turn. There are far too many examples like this to list, where collaborating with another creative individual (and someone whose company I really enjoy!), lead to unexpected opportunity, growth and learning. The other plus side of building community is that you are building a safety net; these are the people that will help you when you sink into a creative funk, when you have questions about what to do next, or when you are just in need of a good dose of inspiration. Seek out the people who inspire you and don’t be afraid to cooperate and collaborate.

Lesson 10: Give

A conversation that frequently arose over the course of Summer Intensive was “what about giving your work away?”. There are typically two camps of thought on this, and you’ve likely heard them already. Early on I learned that what worked for me was giving – giving my time, giving my images, giving my support to others. I always have found the more I give the more I receive in return. You can read more about this here.

Lesson 11: Study Light

Make it a habit to study light. Follow it. Find it where it hides, face into it when it is brightest, coax it as it fades, learn the ins and outs of your relationship to light. Pay attention to shifts in mood and intensity – not just in the physical quality of the light, but in your reaction to it. Find a place you frequent (whether it’s your bedroom, a favorite trail you run, a particular spot on your walk to work) and photograph it every day for a month or every week for a year. Watch the different moods of the light, and the way your photographs are effected by it. The way soft light opens up details and subtleties you might otherwise miss, or how harsh light creates striking patterns and contrasts with which you can easily direct the viewers eye wherever you please. The nuances of light are endless and eternally shifting, the frustration in this study of light, is that it is never ending. The joy in this study of light is the same: that it is never ending.

Lesson 12: Practice

A lot of folks have the misconception that photography is some sort of black magic – you either have it or you don’t. While it’s certainly true that some folks have an innate eye – just like some folks have an ear for music – it’s equally true that you have to practice with your camera so that you can use it in the dark. Just like a guitarist gets rusty after a few weeks without picking up their instrument, the same thing happens with my camera. Somedays I shoot just to practice things like panning, or how to flare the lens just right. Like any craft, learning your tools, and practicing with them is really important- it’s not all black magic here.

Lesson 13: Write your own Songs

When I first started taking pictures I dreamed of being like Ansel Adams. I tried to learn to see and shoot like him, just like a young musician trying to learn to sing the covers of their favorite singer. Later I began to write lines to my own songs, to see my own way and tell my own story. Don’t be afraid to sing the covers, but I encourage you to write your own songs, tell your own story, and share your own unique vision as well.

Ultimately the things I learned at RMSP about life were as important as anything I learned about photography (and mind you, I learned a lot about photography).

About the author: Forest was the youngest student ever to attend RMSP, taking various workshops between the age of 12-18, returning for Summer Intensive as a college student, and assisting with the SI/AI programs for 6 summers. Forest’s pursuit of a career in photography eventually pulled him away on a creative journey that has spanned 6 continents and dozens of countries, shooting editorials for Outside, Climbing, Nat Geo Adventure, working commercially with some of the biggest names in the outdoor industry, and delving into filmmaking with documentary work rooted in social justice. You can see more of his work in the gallery below and on his website and instagram.