I sat down with Neil Chaput de Saintonge, the founder of Rocky Mountain School of Photography (and also my father-in-law), because this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of when he studied with (the one, the only) Ansel Adams in 1973, which I think is really dang cool!
Read all about Neil’s experience learning from the photo master as well as how his training with Ansel influenced the formation of our very own school.
Hey Neil! Tell us about yourself!
I’m Neil and I started Rocky Mountain School of Photography in 1989 after having a School in Atlanta, Georgia, which I started in 1979.
Can you talk about how you got into photography?
I got into photography because my dad did photography; he did stage photography for Syracuse University. And at 13 years old, I got my first little camera, and it was a good little camera, it was a 35mm Contax. I was mainly shooting B&W film. Our laundry room in Syracuse at nighttime sometimes became a darkroom. We had trays laid out with chemistry in them and I loved watching my father use the enlarger and then put the negative in and the piece of paper underneath and then watching that piece of paper when—all of the sudden—the image came out, and it was so cool and I just loved it. So I got into photography starting at 13 and all through high school I did a lot of photography.
When did you know you wanted to start teaching photography?
I wanted to start teaching photography because I (already) loved teaching. I was teaching in a little town in the Ozark mountains in Missouri, called Newburgh, and I was teaching junior high school and senior high school science, and I became the town’s wedding photographer because they had no photographer. I probably wasn’t that good but I was a lot better than nothing! So, I started doing photography, and I thought, “Wow, I love teaching so much, too, I would love to teach photography.” So I moved to Atlanta and I became a student at The Art Institute of Atlanta, but since I already had a degree in teaching, within nine months they hired me as a teacher and I started teaching at The Art Institute.
Who have been your greatest influences in photography?
Probably my two greatest influences in photography were… One was my dad, because he really, really did a lot of photography and I’d go with him sometimes when he was photographing and so forth. And then Ansel Adams changed the whole way I saw photography. I was never very technical—like I’d develop my film during a TV commercial or something like that!—then in 1973 when I studied with Ansel Adams, I completely changed how technical I became. I realized that all these little things that can make an image stronger, when you put them all together you start getting much, much more amazing images. I became very technical.
Tell us about learning from Ansel Adams!
Learning from Ansel was pretty amazing. He wasn’t nearly as famous then as he was a few years later! I read that he had a workshop in Yosemite National Park and I talked to the Art Institute and told them it would probably be worth me taking the workshop and they generously paid to help me go out there and take the class. There were 75 of us, but we were in five groups of 15, so really I was in a little group of 15 that we were with the whole time. And it was two weeks, two extremely busy weeks.
There were a lot of other instructors also, some of them were pretty well known, and they’d all come around and help us while we were shooting. And most people were shooting with medium format, which means a larger camera (than our standard digital cameras), and large format like 4x5s, and we were all out there shooting. The instructors would come up to the camera and ask why and what we were shooting and really challenge us a lot and what we were doing…
What was Ansel like as a teacher?
We were with him in the darkroom and that was amazing, because he’d take a student negative, just any student negative, and he’d make a print from it, and then he’d take the same negative, and he’d do all those things that he does to make an image really, really good [like dodging and burning and vignetting and contrast]. And the difference between just making a regular print and making a print that had all these little steps that he did was amazing. Just watching him in the darkroom was great, so that was part of it.
It was wonderful studying with Ansel, but there were some drawbacks also. He was such a personable person and he loved teaching and he loved watching people get excited for his teaching and so forth. One thing he didn’t do as much is, sometimes when he was teaching something very technical like Zone System, it’s almost like he figured we already knew it and he didn’t explain things quite as strongly. When he conveyed it to us, sometimes he went a little bit over our heads.
And a major part [of the workshop was] critiquing, and critiquing was really interesting because [Ansel] was a very hard critiquer. By the way, he also critiqued his own images and oh my gosh, he was hard on himself. And I remember so clearly, he said that in a good year, if he got five images that he loved, that he thought that was a great year of shooting.
And then in critiquing. I didn’t realize at that time that most [professional] images were mounted on white [mat boards]. Most of my images were mounted on gray, and he used me as an example in front of the whole group on why you don’t do this or this or this, and actually it was kind of fun, and it really helped me become a much stronger critiquer, too.
What were some of the specific technical things that Ansel taught that you remember?
Well, Ansel Adams, along with Fred Archer, invented what was called Zone System. and Zone System was when you’d expose for the shadows, and then you’d change the development time to make the highlights come out lighter or darker. This is in black-and-white photography. and he taught us lots of the Zone System stuff and gave us little sheets where we filled out and put down all of our exposures and stuff. And the difference [between] using Zone System in black and white and just shooting normal black and white without knowing what you’re doing is really wonderful, because your image looks so much different. It’s like working with a digital image today and moving the shadow sliders and the black and white sliders [in Lightroom] and so forth except this was in, you know, in shooting and in printing where you made all these changes.
Did Ansel have any specific advice he shared with photographers?
As far as brands of cameras, someone asked Ansel what the best brand of cameras was. He said it’s never the camera, it’s always the photographer. He said all the brands take great photographs and so forth.
What Ansel said made a good photographer was really having a passion for photography, what you really want to shoot, where sometimes you just can’t put your camera down because you’re so excited about everything that you see and you just want to be shooting all the time. And Ansel definitely said that excitement about what you want to shoot is what makes you good. Whether you’re better at composition, or whether you’re better at the technical information or both, being just so inspired is what makes a good photographer.
Do you still keep in touch with anyone else from that workshop?
We had our little group of 15 and I was 31 years old and actually there was a very famous woman photographer who at that time was 20. She wasn’t famous then; her name was Sally Mann, and she was in my little group of 15.
And we all talked about how as soon as we’d go home, how we’d all keep in touch with each other and so forth, and I never did. And of course, John Sexton is probably the best known black-and-white, large-format landscape photographer living today, and he was in a different group but the same workshop, and we’ve kept in touch.
How has your own photography evolved over time?
When I studied with Ansel, I really thought that I was a landscape photographer and that’s really what I wanted to do is landscape, landscape, landscape. That’s one reason studying with Ansel was so good. But over the years I’ve realized that landscape is probably not my strongest suit. I love documentary photography. I love people photography, and sometimes it’s like, ‘oh, I don’t want to do landscape all the time, I want to do people.’ Plus, I love wildlife and bird photography and I love stage and ballet photography. I’ve done that for years and years and years, so I kind of got into a smaller camera using 35 mm film and then the digital smaller cameras and don’t use the larger format cameras as much because I’m not into landscape as much as I thought I’d be.
Are there any film cameras you still keep around?
Camera wise, I still have my old Leicas. I was doing ballet photography for the Atlanta ballet, and the single-lens-reflex cameras were too noisy, so I bought a couple Leicas and I still own those Leicas because they’re much quieter. (Of course, now digital cameras are silent.) And I’ve still got my Leicas and I love them. They’re wonderful cameras. I don’t shoot them because I don’t shoot film anymore, and I keep thinking I might go back and shoot film and develop it, but I haven’t done it. So, I’ve still got my old leicas, but my other cameras, they’re gone.
[Fun fact: I (Sarah) somehow convinced Neil to sell me his Rolleiflex twin-lens-reflex camera in 2013, and it is an incredibly fun film camera.]
How many students do you think you’ve taught in photography?
I have probably, without exaggerating, taught over 20,000 students. One reason for this is there was a big chain of camera stores (which is no longer around) called Wolf Camera, which was headquartered in Atlanta, and every month I’d teach 400 students who had just bought cameras (because getting a free camera course was part of getting a camera there). So, 400 [students], and the next month 400 students and then 400 more students, plus I was teaching at the Art Institute, and then I started my own little school in Atlanta also, and of course all the students at Rocky Mountain School of Photography… so I’ve taught a lot of students.
How is RMSP’s approach to teaching photography unique?
Our approach to teaching is very different from most schools actually, and a lot of this is because I studied with Ansel Adams. He always talked about how the technical comes first and then you go on to the creative side more and then you kind of combine the two together as you go deeper and deeper into [photography]. So, in our programs at Rocky Mountain School of Photography, we start out with the technical, and then we move into the creative and also business courses, and it is amazing to me how many students have come here that have studied someplace else and they’ll say, “In the first two weeks of your program I learned more technical [photo skills] than I learned in my whole college career in photography.”
What’s the story of RMSP?
I was teaching at The Art Institute, and I loved the teaching and I kind of always wanted to be a person who does my own thing, so I started my own little adult education program in Atlanta through one of the counties. We met at the old Coca-Cola mansion and I was actually teaching four nights a week: two classes each night from 6pm to 8pm and 8 pm to 10pm, plus teaching at The Art Institute. And as I taught more and more, so many of my students said, “Why don’t you have your own school?” And so I decided to start my own school in 1979 and it was called The Southeastern Center for the Arts. Then we got accredited and we taught a two-year professional program and it was so much fun and I loved it.
But growing up on the East Coast and in Syracuse, I’d always wanted to live either in Alaska or Montana. As a little kid I always dreamed of those two states, and so forth, and with Alaska seeming further away, my wife and I took a little trip in 1988 to Montana, and our travel agent said that Missoula was a wonderful city, so we came here and we looked around and interviewed some people that could maybe help us find a place to have a school. So in 1989, we had our first Summer Intensive here, which was an 11-week program to teach people to become professional photographers to some degree anyway (even though we had no business education at the time). And ever since then we’ve stayed here. We love it! And that’s how RMSP got started.
How has RMSP evolved over time?
It was interesting running a school when digital first came out because I remember people would say, “Well, five or 10 years from now, half the people will be shooting film and the other half would be shooting digital.” It was like, oh my gosh, that sounds a little bit scary [to us]. And the 5-10 year thing was way off. One digital started, [the change] went quick. All of the sudden we became really completely digital. And it was a fascinating, fast, scary process. And we closed our darkroom. We had a beautiful dark room with 26 of the best professional enlargers. I came to love [digital] also, and I like the darkroom but I also like Lightroom a lot! Hah!
Jeanne and I had been running the school for a long time, but things [in the industry] changed a lot and Jeanne and I didn’t understand that as much. [In 2016], we gave the school over to my son Forest, who taught his first class at 13 years old (and the students couldn’t believe how good he was, it was wonderful), and my daughter-in-law, Sarah, who actually came to the school in 2011 as a student. If we hadn’t done that, I would not be sitting here talking right now, because Jeanne and I would not have known how to do all the work that they did, and how things have changed so much.
Then Jeanne and I stepped back and I still taught quite a bit and Jeanne did lots of the business work, but we loved handing the school over to them, and they’ve made the school what it is today. I don’t think there’s any other school in the country or in the world like our school; I mean we really do things very, because of [Forest and Sarah], very, very well. And then a few years ago we got a new location, and our new location is beautiful. We’ve got so much studio space and classrooms and everything is, i don’t know, it’s just wonderful.
And we’re very different from most schools because we give so many hours of education and so many different instructors. We fly them from all over the country to teach here.
What advice do you have for beginning photographers?
Advice for beginning photographers would be, well first of all, don’t buy a lot of stuff first. Because you might change the type of photography you like, you might not have heard of mirrorless cameras, but you might buy a single-lens reflex instead of a mirrorless camera, and they’re much easier to use and so forth. I think knowing what type of photography you like is so important. And I think taking some courses or classes where you kind of figure out the kind of photography that you think you’ll like doing is so important. Just buying equipment is not the way to go. Buy minimal equipment, start doing some photography, see what direction it leads you in, and then decide what lenses you want and things like that.
Thanks for reading! See some of Neil’s photography work below!
To learn more about Rocky Mountain School of Photography’s unique educational programs, click here.