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.
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.
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.