Monday, February 11, 2008

on graduate school

All images, Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalents, 1925-27

The recent conversation on "mentors" over at Ground Glass has had me thinking about that complex relationship of studying under and learning from someone, yet striving to stand alone and claim one's independence. Perhaps nowhere in one's adult life is this rehashing of the parent-child relationship more painfully obvious, yet in so many ways, necessary. To this day, I've got a few photo professors whose voices echo doubt & encouragement in my head daily, like Yoda (not this one), Qui-Gon, or Obi Wan.

Every now and then, the pros and cons of grad school come up in conversation and it seems that this mentorship aspect is among the best reasons to go. School's not the only way to achieve this relationship (assisting might be better in some cases), and lord knows it's not the cheapest, but for some, it's a good way that your financiers will understand and support. But that's not to say that everyone should go to grad school.

My own decision was an especially big one, primarily because it wasn't just me. At the time, I had a wife, dog, child, and home. My wife had a job she was good at and liked. We owned a great house with a spare bedroom and a color darkroom in the basement. I owned a bright yellow pickup truck with a backseat for kids and dogs. On top of that, we had family and lots of friends nearby. But, even with all that, we made the decision that the possible gain was worth the risk. Pardon the cliché, but I see no way around it; photography was something that I was really passionate about. At the time, it seemed like grad school was the only choice.

Having made my decision to go, I narrowed down my choice of schools to apply to by researching the photographers I really liked. Long story short, midway through my first semester in Syracuse in the Fall of 2000, having sold our home, and moved the family across the country, I had to face the facts that grad school wasn't exactly the serious dialogue and community I'd been expecting. That night in our grad critique class we looked at, and spent a good two hours discussing two projects classmates had obviously been thrown together at the last minute. My apologies if I'm confusing any of the specifics, but I swear they still seem pretty clear in my head...

In one, the photographer had fashioned shiny golden halos out of pipe cleaners and wedged them into cucumbers, carrots, and tomatoes that she would then hang from fishing line attached to a stick. Though she hadn't done so yet, her concept involved taking these "Guardian Vegetables" out into the world with an accomplice, and photographing them while they hung behind the backs and over the shoulders of unsuspecting victims. Though my memories of our discussion are a little hazy, I do remember being surprised that at no point was it mentioned that the student had obviously put this idea together in half an hour to fill the time or that it was flat out fucking stupid. In fact, this "conceptual" work led us into a long and thorough conversation about the history of photography and the paranormal and the obvious performance aspects of dangling a cucumber from a fishing pole in a Walmart parking lot. Perhaps this was a piece that would be better served through video than photography?

The other project that night was also food-based. For this project, the photographer had created a series of photographs of pumpkins, sometimes singular, sometimes in pairs or groups, all with studio-ish black backgrounds, all shot completely out of focus so the "punkins" were reduced to these blurry orange orbs in the center of the frame. These strategies were meant to strip the pumpkin of its inherent object-ness and lead the viewer towards a "meditative state" similar to the one the photographer had experienced while photographing the "punkins" and listening to Radiohead. In this case, our conversation turned to Stieglitz's "equivalents," Rothko's color-field paintings, and the Italian cab driver in Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth who confessed to having sex with pumpkins.

For me, the profound insight of that night was that I'd made a huge mistake, at a great cost. I'd been suspicious of Art previously, but this seemed to confirm my suspicions that Art was an excuse utilized by slackers who were trying to avoid jobs. I had imagined grad school as an intense time of making work and hanging out in bars and classrooms with people who would argue about The Americans vs. American Prospects. Instead, the debate was zucchini vs. punkins. During the long walk home that night, I decided that I should cut my losses and drop out the next day.

But while I slept that night my brain had a chance to sort it all out without my biases getting in the way. I realized that while it wasn't exactly what I had in mind, grad school offered a pretty unique opportunity: I was in a place where the meditation and decoration of vegetables was considered a worthwhile pursuit. That being the case, more than anything else, what grad school offers is an officially sanctioned opportunity to work. If you choose your school well, you can not only build up that mentor relationship that Cara describes, but you can also get yourself three years with time, a little money, and a darkroom key in your pocket. And while the direction of my classmate's work had initially disappointed me, I learned to loosen up and let Art be fun and silly sometimes too. I guess I learned to be less of a dick. I'll be damned, I learned something in grad school. It's weird, but I guess I kind of feel like someone, or perhaps something, was watching out for me that night. You know, like an Angel or a Cucumber or something.

1 comment:

LKB said...

Great post Shawn! Loved it. Hope you are well, Leslie