From the turnout at Vino at the Landing in Renton on opening day, you’d think that Annie Leibovitz was exhibiting her latest work. The cozy wine bar was packed to capacity, mostly with people who’d been in the neighborhood and wandered in to see what was making Vino bustle. They were greeted by the work of students in the Shoot to Show course at Bellevue College Continuing Education. The event, which was the capstone of the quarter-long course and the “show” of Shoot to Show, was organized by Continuing Education and other members of the Bellevue College community and directed by prolific teacher and photographer Ray Pfortner.
A renowned photographer in his own right, Pfortner has worked for some of the best. After switching from a career in government and environmental protection in New York City, Ray moved to the Pacific Northwest to work for nature and wildlife photographer Art Wolfe. “He’s sort of a native son of Seattle and quite well known,” Ray explained. “He’s one of the top 20 nature photographers in the world.”
In addition to working for Wolfe, Pfortner has been a partner at a stock photo agency, is represented by Getty, and has sold his photos to National Geographic, Shooters, and other publications of note. That experience has given him an intimate understanding of how to photograph a variety of subjects in a wide range of environments, and he’s built on that understanding to teach photography all over King County for almost a dozen years. As a result, Pfortner has attracted quite a following, including a student who’s taken at least 10 classes from him. And after seeing his students’ work at Vino, many show attendees planned to take classes from him as well.
Although covering the breadth of classes he’s taught would require a few paragraphs, the technical, emotional, and commercial aspects of photography are key elements of his instruction. “People become their own worst critic,” Pfortner noted. ”They start to wonder ‘Well, I’m doing all this art, I’m spending money and spending time. And what’s it coming to?’” Through his classes, Pfortner hopes to provide not only the technique but also the business savvy to help his students answer that question.
Ray’s approach to photography is applicable to cameras both simple and complex, and his teaching style makes his lessons accessible to both seasoned photographers and newcomers to the art. “He’s in the moment with everything that goes on and makes everything very simple” explained Julie Griffin, art program coordinator for Continuing Education. “It doesn’t have to be complex. He gives everybody a basic understanding of composition. You can come in with no art background whatsoever. He simplifies everything so that you understand what you’re doing.”
The relationship Ray has with his students is one of the main reasons he teaches. Some of his best moments are “getting emails from students, sometimes a week later, sometimes five years later, saying ‘I just had a show.’ I say ‘Let me know your successes, your problems. If you have any questions, I’m happy to help.’ I just don’t like the feeling that class has to end. I have a real interest in seeing people do more with their art.”
“Photography is such a democratic art form,” Pfortner continued. ”Everyone’s shooting with some kind of camera, and everybody can use more training. Whereas some people will never paint with oil, watercolor, or acrylic, we’re all photographers.”