Thursday, January 3, 2008

why stop with recipes?

Seeing as how I'm deep in the midst of gathering materials and prepping for classes I'll begin teaching next week, I'm once again confronted with the major obstacles I face with each new group of students: talking about pictures & making sense of art.

Anne Geddes, Armen in Lotus Flower

Each time I start a new class, I hand out a questionnaire on the first day that includes the question "Are there any photographers whose work you particularly enjoy?" My unofficial tally leads to 10% noting Ansel Adams, 25% Anne Geddes, 63% remain blank, and 2% enjoy Cindy Sherman, Joel Peter-Witkin, and Steve McCurry.

The difficulty of teaching isn't in getting students to learn how their cameras work, but in being clear enough, accessible enough, and thorough enough that we can bridge the gap between beauty and bullshit. That is, the beauty that they recognize and aspire to find in icons such as flowers, barns, bumblebees, etc. and the bullshit they call when they hear of someone like Richard Prince selling someone else's great cowboy picture for millions. There's no quick fix to the problem either. The Anne Geddes fans aren't necessarily quick to convert to Sally Mann. And just because of the black & white and shallow depth of field, she's a lot easier for them than Loretta Lux. Still though, kids are a great place to start.

One way that I deal with both the question of technical decision-making and this problem of art is "naked pictures of kids day" (though really, only about 1/3 of the kids we look at are naked). We start with family snapshots & studio portraits and the idealization of kids/family that we're all familiar with. Anyhow, from there we move into Tamara Lischka, Sally Mann, Todd Deutsch, Helen Levitt, Tierney Gearon, Simen Johan, Loretta Lux, and whatever else we find time for. This particular day has turned out to be academic comfort food for me, working pretty well in filling a day, giving them a good chance to discover, and chime in about approaches they hadn’t given much thought to before, but with a subject they're all familiar with.
Todd Deutsch, from the series "Family Days"

As I gear up for the next go-round, I'm interested in shaking things up and maybe trying some new stuff out. Therefore, I'm calling on you to please chime in with any assignments you may have given, or received, that you found particularly insightful or inspiring. What made it all click in your mind? Keep in mind, I'm teaching photography at the intro level in suburban community colleges. You can go ahead and hold onto Sherrie Levine and your Zone system handouts. For now anyway.

9 comments:

Liz said...

I had to laugh at your "naked pictures of kids day." I took an intro photo class at a community college, and we were told on the first day of class that if we turned in any photos of naked children, we would automatically fail the class and the teacher would turn our names in to the authorities. I could feel Sally Mann shuddering.

shawn said...

hi liz,

that's hilarious. i find that sally mann's great for getting a conversation started. there's usually at least one student who's boisterous (or perhaps offended) enough to call her a pervert right up front. that puts half the class on the defensive immediately and then you can get 'em talking.

gemstate said...

i feel your pain buddy. i've been working on that photo II syllabus for the past couple of hours. how far do i push those "i want to be a professional photographer" students? i've decided to tweek my trusty photo hunt assignment and make them imitate about ten different photographers-which hopefully about half of them will actually look at work and think about it. right now i'm just stuck on which ten to use. but, i have some hope as i think about what to say/show...knowing i have a few of your former students.

your cubby at school has about thirty photos books stacked inside-my cubby is not so inspirational-a bag of five year old pretzels and expired color photo paper. there is something to be said for your freshness.

f:lux said...

Hello. None of my students know who Anne Geddes is (I'm not about to tell them), and as far as they're concerned Richard Prince is an American dude who photographs cars (www.rprincephoto.com). I'm so looking forward to getting back next week and trying to combat the photoshop epidemic, of the 'everything in monochrome apart from the mushroom in the middle of the picture which is suddenly purple' variety, that inexplicably broke out just before Xmas...

One of the most useful, eye opening things I was given to do as a student involved scotching the standard lens on my camera to the shortest focal length and then shooting at least one roll of film that way - focussing becomes very physical exercise, and you have to get up close to whatever you want to photograph. This was in the days before the kind of autofocus digital kit most of my students use became so accessible though, and I'm not sure how to work them round that one either.

I'd love to talk to them about art but I can't even pursuade them to RTFM. Am I a bad teacher?

shawn said...

hi f:lux,
thanks for the idea & input. i have to admit, i had to look up RTFM, but no, that problem is not yours alone. in fact, another confession is that when i bought my digital camera a couple years ago, the first new camera i've ever owned, i quickly scanned the manual, started shooting, and just kept going. it took me a full two months before i re-read the manual in detail and figured out why a 1/4 of my exposures were two stops out of whack.

f:lux said...

Well, if you're going to go into confessional mode... I hate reading manuals on my own account (which is another reason why I'm not keen to wade through my student's for them) and when I bought my first digi camera a few years ago I did the exact same thing as you. That's how I came across "RTFM" in fact.

I might try out your suggestion here for using a photographer like Sally Mann as a conversation opener, see what happens?

Cheers!

Blake Andrews said...

I've only taken one photo class in my life but one assignment from that class has always remained in the back of my head: Take a bad photograph on purpose. Some of the best shots in the class came from that assignment.

Bobby Abrahamson gives an interesting assignment which is to take a photo every x minutes throughout the week. Every hour or half hour or whatever just take a photo of something wherever you are. Artificial constraint but I think it would produce good results, and also get students in the habit of always keeping camera close.

I've assigned myself a variant on that, which is to take photos with the the timer always on, so the exposure happens 10 seconds after the shutter is pressed. Interesting results in dynamic environments.

How about, photograph a Marlboro ad in a way that is actually interesting?

I think kid photos might not hit as deeply with students since presumably most of them don't have kids yet. I never cared or thought much about kids or kid photos until having my own children, after which my whole perspective was shaken like a cheap etch-a-sketch.

Will Green said...

I'm a first year photo student and so far this year I've had a few helpful projects such as having to go and photograph a stranger in their environment, a point of view project, and currently I have to photograph my hometown through the eyes of some kind of foreigner. My class didn't do anything like imitating a photographer, but a few of my friends did and they found it very beneficial. And good slide shows and examples really help generate ideas and inspiration

shawn said...

just watch the great ideas pour in. thanks all. keep 'em coming.

re. blake's bad photograph: i once had an instructor who gave us an assignment to shoot without looking through the viewfinder. not only did it force us to focus with the distance & DOF scale, but it broke up the snapshot centered default.

re. will's assignments: i'm a little scared of strangers myself so i don't think i could ask that of my students, but i like the hometown idea and have a couple assignments that are similar, one involves giving each of the student's the same map and saying that they must shoot within the parameters of the map, the other, take the phrase from the new york times magazine's page (& college photo contest) "the way we live now" and make a series that defines some aspect of here & now. i like how loose it is, but how it forces them to think larger. jessica dimmock's work, which i keep seeing all over nowadays, was a winner the last time they had that contest.

again, thanks much and keep 'em coming.