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Thread: photo assignments

  1. #1

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    photo assignments

    I've taught photography at the university undergraduate level for many years. Throughout this time my teaching style has varied a bit but I remain adament that students must learn by doing. Listening to me accomplishes very little but doing something with me or by yourself places the whole process in an intuitive mode. Making art is not an intellectual pursuit. It is a pursuit of the heart. Working in the darkroom today I began ruminating about my ideas and what the rest of the world thinks. What do you think undergrad photo students should be doing? If you were formally trained what were your best assignments? When were you the most challenged? If you have learned from experience what do you think university photo students need to know and to do? I begin every semester by saying,"No one ever learned how to hit a baseball out of the park by reading a book of theory on batting. They learned how to hit the ball out of the park by spending countless hours in a batting cage." I'm not anti-intellectual, I just feel that by studying something from an academic point of view provides knowledge about that thing. The ability to do that thing is comletely experiential. I would appreciate your ideas.

  2. #2

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    I appreciate your direction, Jack. Our U has three photography oriented courses.

    In "Appreciation of Photography" they get to see photography from what I call the 30-thousand foot historical overview with specific insight into Why The Pictures Look Like That, photographers objectives, social influences, and stories about the photographers' lifes.

    Photo 101 is the practice of making pictures In The Camera on an assignment basis. It is very important in this digital era for students to know how to make the picture In Camera. (Until our senior instructor retired, they also learned how to use the view camera.)

    The third course is Criticizing Photography and a prerequsite is a passing gradein Critical Thinking. Criticizing Photography has the highest drop-out rate because the students learn that their personal impressionistic opinions are not important; the task is to understand what they learned in Critical Thinking, Appreciation and Photo 101 to find how picture(s) fit into a certain domain (or don't). The dropouts are shocked they cannot just bullshit their way through. (It no longer amazes me that our students were patronized, made to "feel good" about their opinions throughout K12 and that instructors did not suggest that feeling good is not the same as pursuing scholarship at the college level.

    May I ask where you teach, Jack?

  3. #3
    Abuser of God's Sunlight
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    photo assignments

    this isn't a complete answer to your question by any means, but it's a point made by Julia Camerron in The Artist's Way, and it also echoes my personal experience.

    A creative writing professor once did an experiment. He split the class right down the middle, and told the students on the left that they would be graded on the quality of their one best story. All they were ultimately responsible for was turning in a single, excellent, well polished piece. He told the students on the right that they would be graded on nothing but volume. The higher the number of stories turned in, regardless of quality, would earn the highest grade.

    The result was that with hardly any exceptions, the best stories came from the students on the high-volume side of the class. The work from the students on the perfectionist side tended to be stiff, forced, formulaic, overworked, and dead.

    In retrospect, I realize now that my best teachers of creative things had discovered this on their own. The one college fiction writing professor I had and the one photography professor I had both insisted on us producing an amount of work that seemed brutal and unrealistic at the time. I remember protesting that there would be no way to produce that volume of polished work in the time available, and I remember neither professor caring. In both cases, the volume of work, and the resulting pressure to just keep creating, led to many surprises and discoveries that I'm thankful for to this day.

    So yeah, get them to learn not just by doing, but by doing a lot. And sure, lecture them too, and create a structure for excellent critiques, but know that none of those ideas will really sink in until they're deeply immersed in the doing.

  4. #4

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    photo assignments

    As a photojournalist student that just finished two years of photog classes, yes, there is a certain element of truth in "learn-by-doing". However, I had been shooting medium and large format for a few years prior to taking these courses, and I found that I still had a "LOT" to learn in the lecture series. It was in the lecture series that I found out why my pics were "fuzzy". It was not by doing the same stupid thing time after time. I did have one instructor that thought time spent shooting and developing was the best teacher. Turns out he was incorrect. Only thing learned was that he was too damn lazy to teach. At the end of the semester, my final pics were no better than the first. True, you can never hit a home run by reading theories, but if you don't know which end of the bat to use, you can stand in the box forever and never get on first base. Five minutes of lecture can save several hours of wasted time in the darkroom. My theory has always been that "anybody" can do "anything" IF, someone is willing to take the time and effort to first learn how that person learns, and then take the time to teach them. If indeed you have a passion for the subject you are teaching, then share that enthusiam and love of the subject with the student. Lead, don't push. Who knows. The next student you "lead" into a love of photography may well be the next A.A.

  5. #5
    Mark Sawyer's Avatar
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    "Making art is not an intellectual pursuit. It is a pursuit of the heart."

    There you've already invalidated much of art. There can be art for the thinking person as much as for the feeling person, and much of "artistic" photography involves intelligent perception.

    My assignments (admittedly, I only teach high school and community college) are usually technical assignments, but loose enough that students can do whatever nature of photography they wish. We also look at the work of other photographers and artists, and have in-class critiques. All have mixed results, as everything in art does...
    "I love my Verito lens, but I always have to sharpen everything in Photoshop..."

  6. #6
    Abuser of God's Sunlight
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    I don't think critical thinking should be dismissed or de-emphasized when teaching art. Even the most emotional, intuitive artist at some point needs to evaluate what was done, to edit and sequence and structure, and to learn from it all.

    I think critical thinking is probably the second most important tool any artist can have. The most important is being able to stop doing it.

    A tallent I see universally among great artists is being able to turn the critical brain on and off. It's got to be off for the creative process ... at least for much of it. Nothing can disrupt a creative flow state, or a free, playful session of experimenting faster than the nagging, educated voice of your critical mind. Those who can't turn it off tend to be doomed to only make what they already know--which tends to be very similar to what they've already seen.

    Those who can't turn it on often make wonderful, innovative things ... along with a lot of unformed, abortive attempts. And they frequently don't know the difference, nor do they know how to edit, sequence, and structure a project to emphasize a vision and communicate it to others. They also tend to have a hard time learning from their own creations, and moving forward from them.

    Teaching students to have excellent critical skills is important. Teaching them to have a foolproof off-switch for those skills is at least as important .. and unfortunately, a lot harder to do.

  7. #7

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    photo assignments

    You are correct that photography cannot be completely learned from a book, alone.

    My experience has been that classroom lectures are not much better.

    Being turned loose with an assignment to fend for oneself with only sketchy knowledge produces equally poor results.

    In fact, all of the above sounds like a description of my days in art school. A lecturer would talk about making executive portraits for four hours in class.

    We were then sent out alone to make our very first attempted Karsh-like image for class discussion the following week. Most were disasters.

    I believe the single greatest educational tragedy of the 20th Century is the demise and total collapse of the apprentice system.

    I learned infinitely more as an assistant to the photographer Sid Avery in Hollywood in six months than I learned at Art Center in three years.

    Not sure how to work that phenomenon into a school curriculum. Perhaps more field trips?

  8. #8

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    John is right.

    I learned how strange things can go if somebody only has very much theory but almost non practical expirience. I have known a lightmaster which had the highest degree in stage lighting wich was at the time possible in germany but the first time he had to do in practical it was a total mess!
    So some practical parts have to be in a balance to the theory or the people just get confused. And in me opinion the practical part is like the food for it. Just do it is not always easy but if you have a mentor then its starts to work very good.
    So Photogs have to play assi and then they get it really!

  9. #9
    Daniel Geiger
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    photo assignments

    I firmly believe that everyone needs to understand the physics and chemistry of the craft first, before you can go on and apply it and modify it according to what you intend to acheive. Starting out with looking at art is for art history folks, i.e., those who don't actually do it, just pretend to have a learned opinion about it. It's like in painting: first you do a naturalistic rendition of a still life, before you abstract it. First the craft, then the art.

    I took photography in the physical chemistry department. We looked a chemical reaction formulas, absorbtion/transmission spectra, etc. Then applied that in highly controlled lab conditions. The intended audience were science students who wanted to get publication-quality images for their research papers. In that it succeeded beautifully. Lecture titles were: Reproduction photography and slide production (that was before powerpoint in the early 90's), B&W processing, Color Processing, Optics, Digital image manipulation (prototype photoshoping back then). Thanks to Dr. Gschwind and Dr. Heilbronner.

    The most challenging part is to get reproducible results. That shows that you know how to achieve consistent outcomes and that the technique is mastered, particularly when you have to hand-calculate a few parameters.

    John Cook's comments about the lack of an apprentice system in the US (I think it still is going in Europe) is well on the mark. I also concur that you learn most by doing it. Shoot more frames/sheets/files. However, just shooting mindlessly, shooting bulk, will only produce happy accidents. IMHO, that should not be the goal. One should know how certain subtle changes can affect the final product, and you may experiment with these fine adjustments. HOWEVER, just shooting blindly and hope for that happy accident should not be encouraged.

    Last but not least, some design "rules" (rules of thirds, red advances-blue recedes, middle bisects) etc. can be introduced, but only after the technical craft has been reasonably understood. Critical thinking is fine, but also realize that not all images appeal to all in the same way. I just do some stock, and some images that my wife pushed me to submit (which I think are kind of boring) have sold, and some which she thinks are bland but I like also sold. That is not to say that I support pomo-type arguments that "everybody's right". But one shoe does not fit all.

    When I get the chromes back from the lab, I am looking forward to some good images. But after I determined which are usable (i.e., can be submitted to the agency), then the task starts where I ask myself, what could have been improved. There may be 1 in 1000 that I don't think I could improve, all the others have some flaw. I have tried the route through some local photo-clubs with judged critique sessions, but found them rather unhelpful. So I wonder whether a class-room critique session will actually help. It may shape students into a particular mold, but what about finding one's own direction? I am not sure how that could be instilled in a class-room setting. There I think, some people just have it, some don't. One needs to recognize that there are different types of people who work differently. For instance, when I was in grad-school, some friends had weekly lab-meetings [= critique sessions]. Would have driven my nuts. I locked myself into a room, and once in a while a manuscript appeared on my advisor's desk. But don't ask me what I have done today.

    Possibly, that is one of my main critique points of the US-anglosachsen university teaching approach: it is too structured. Two midterms, one final, 10 quizzes, 3 essays, 16 deadlines for one class in one semester. Times four classes = 64 deadlines. When do you have time to think it all over? Students learn what they have to learn to pass the test and then forget it right away again. We had exams that covered maybe 20-30 units taken over 2 years even on what would correspond to undergraduate level in the US. Now you have time to mull it all over, to make connections. I am always surprised to see US upper division students who do not retain elementary knowledge from the lower division classes. But the overplanned curriculum is certainly to blame for it.

    enough rambling already. Hope there is a nugget or two in there anyway

  10. #10
    Mark Sawyer's Avatar
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    Something I'm probably more aware of in my high school classes is that some degree of interest (if not actual commitment) is necessary to producing more than a snapshot. I'd hope that at a university level this would be more common.

    That said, what any "successful" (insert your own criteria) photographer or artist needs is a *methodology* of working. With a consistency in one's way of working, one can develop a consistency of vision. The methodology will evolve to suit the vision and intent, but without it, one can only hope for isolated "happy accidents." Developing this methodology requires commitment of time, resources, and critical thinking.

    As large format photographers, we are more aware of our methodologies than most, (look at all the threads by people trying to find the "right" process and materials for shooting/developing/presenting/etc.) If you consider the work of any "master" (or even competant) photographer, you will find each has developed his own consistent way of working that suits his style and vision.

    At the beginning photography level, the students are just being exposed to the materials, tools, and processes. If they are interested in going somewhere with it, they need to work with a few different formats and look at (perhaps try) many different styles of creating images. I would expect a lot of jumping around at this stage. The next level up is selecting and perfecting how they will work.

    I would discuss this early on with your students. They should be aware of why they are looking at and sampling different techniques and styles. It will also give them more consciously-informed insights into how other photographers work.
    "I love my Verito lens, but I always have to sharpen everything in Photoshop..."

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