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This article was originally published in the February 1976 issue of EXPOSUREthe Journal of the Society for Photographic Education. It was written as a result of my travels in 1975 throughout the United States meeting with many Photography teachers and their students.
Michael A. Smith
I find that there are two
distinct approaches to the teaching of Photography as a Fine Art today.
One approach is the traditionalist approach; the masters are revered,
even placed on pedestals, and the students are all too often encouraged
to emulate their style. Judging by their work, students taught by this
approach seem to be led down a path preordained in scope. The other
approach is the non-traditionalist approach; the masters are either
not respected, or they are respected only in a far off distant sort
of way, and students are led to an opposite direction. There is an,
"If it has been done before, I dont want to see it,"
kind of attitude. The students are asked, commanded even, to "do
their own thing."
This division into traditionalist
and non-traditionalist approaches is intended only to indicate predominating
attitudes. Most teachers, of course, combine elements of both approaches
in their teaching, and I do not mean to imply that teachers can be classified
as belonging purely to either category. But while these approaches can
primarily be seen as expressions of attitudes in the Photography teachers,
for the students these approaches serve as a foundation for their work
and photographic explorations, and frequently even determine the limits
for their work. Curiously, I have found that it is usually the attitude
of the first teacher that is the decisive influence. Those students
whose first teacher has a strong non-traditionalist approach rarely
develop interest in straight photography. Conversely, those students
whose first teacher has a strong traditionalist approach rarely experiment
with or do any manipulative or conceptual work.
Neither of these approaches
is adequate because neither truly encourages nor enables the students
to have a full range of experience. Both approaches tend to choose paths
for the students rather than allow them the freedom to make their own
choices. Because I believe that this freedom is of crucial importance
for a students growth, I would like to present a few of my ideas
about a direction for Photographic Education that would encourage this
freedom of choice.
Before I can do this however,
it is necessary to first ask, and the answer, two not unimportant and
basic questions"What can one teach in an Art class?"
and, "What is Art all about anyway?" I shall answer the second
question with the simple, but not undisputed, I am sure, answer, that
Art is about Life, and the producing, doing, or act of Art is a deep
expression of an individuals response to Life, contained within
a form of some sort. There are, of course, many other answers to the
question of what Art is, but I dont want to get bogged down with
that business here.
Now for the question"What
can one teach in an Art class?". Surely, one doesnt teach
"Life," for Life is something that one learns about through
living. One doesnt have to try to learn about life, just by living
one is constantly learning. And one cannot teach others how to respond
in a deep way to the world. I believe it is this that is meant when
it is said that "Art cannot be taught." But what one can do
by teaching is to help elicit the expression of an already existing
deep response, and one can certainly teach about the form within which
the expression is contained.
Helping bring forth expression
of students deep responses is one of the most important functions
of a teacher. This requires a deep sensitivity to ones students
as well as a thorough knowledge of oneself. This aspect of teaching
I shall not deal with in this article.
The "form within which
expression is contained," as I said, can be taught. This "form,"
though not part of the force behind expression, is part of expression.
It consists of combinations of materials and processes that are used
in a manner dictated by aesthetic judgments. When we teach about the
form within which expression is contained, then, we teach about materials
and processes and about attitudes governing their use.
Teaching about materials
and processes primarily involves teaching about technical matters. All
too often technical matters are taught as if they are totally separate
from expression and involve only the mechanical manipulation of materials.
Technique, however, is much more than that. For not only does it give
form to expression, it also helps to shape and modify that expression.
I believe that students
should have a knowledge not only of the technical material directly
related to their own work of the moment, but they should also have a
knowledge of the technical material based on other concerns than their
own. Further, they should have a knowledge of techniques used in previous
years by other workers. In this way, by the time students have graduated,
they would have the broadest possible base from which to continue their
own explorations. I find that many students are familiar only with that
technical material they need for their own work of the moment. This
lack of knowledge and awareness of the technical side of the medium
is appalling, especially when encountered in graduate students, who,
one would think, would know more.
Students should also have
a thorough knowledge of the history of photography, for this knowledge
provides for a richer experience in the use of materials and in the
making of aesthetic judgments. By understanding the past, we can more
fully explore in the present. I have found that many advanced and graduate
students have a wholly inadequate knowledge of the mediums history.
They have certainly heard the names of most of the photographers, but
for the most part, lack any in-depth feeling for and real knowledge
of their work. With many students it is almost impossible to carry on
a conversation about photography in which one refers to examples of
past work. Their knowledge is limited to the few examples of work shown
in their history of photography survey courses. Expecting students to
have a greater familiarity with historical work is looked on as strange.
Now, let us consider that
aesthetic judgments are formed by four componentspersonal, historical,
technical, and cultural. As I have suggested, the personal component
essentially cannot be taught. It can only be elicited. In contrast,
the historical and technical components can be taught. In fact, they
must be consciously learned, because they do not come from daily living.
The cultural component, on the other hand, does not have to be learned,
because it develops naturally as a function of ones daily life
and social interaction.
As I viewed student work
with these considerations in mind, I realized that much of the work
lacked technical and historical inputsprecisely those inputs that
can best be learned in school. Consequently, such work, though often
clever, was rarely very deep or moving. This work, composed primarily
of personal and cultural components, was rationalized by the students
with the attitude that they were "doing their own thing."
This attitude was frequently encouraged by the teachers, especially
by those who had a non-traditionalist approach. Id like to add
here, so as not to appear unduly biased, that I find much of the student
work which is dull and uninteresting comes from a strictly traditionalist
approach, and contains only technical and historical inputs. But because
the non-traditionalist approach, which is partly based on "doing
your own thing", has an unusually strong influence today, I shall
give it some further comment.
Now I certainly have no
objection to anyone and everyone doing their own thing. But where does
ones own thing come from? It comes from living ones own
life. The more we live, the more we understand, even if that understanding
sometimes consists in knowing how very little we really know. And of
course, the more we understand, the more we can put into our own work
our own photographs. The point is that we shouldnt have to try
to do our own thing, we should be able to do it naturally, as a function
of living. Making ones own statement as an artist is not a goal
to strive toward, but is something that overtakes one in the course
of living and working fully.
Along these lines, let us
consider the idea of a period of early or imitative work versus the
idea of "doing your own thing." In the history of the visual
arts there have not been many young masters, as there have been in other
fields such as literature and music. Historically, a majority of visual
artists produced their lasting work after they had been working for
many years. The first ten years of so of production is frequently looked
on as immature "early work." We photography teachers tend
to forget this. With the exception of beginning photography courses,
we do not allow our students their period of early work, nor do we allow
a period of imitative work.
"How can we deal with
this photograph after Harry Callahan?", one photography teacher
recently said while looking at a student photograph of high contrast
weeds in snow. The implication of this comment was clearly that this
was a type of photograph that had been done before and which shouldnt
be attempted now, and that making photographs like this was a type of
experience that was no longer valid. How unlike the attitude found in
many painting classes, where students are encouraged to go to museums
to copy the work of the masters. In these painting classes, the emphasis
is obviously on learning the craft of art, rather than on "doing
your own thing." It is interesting to note that this attitude on
the part of photography teachers and students toward historical work
and "doing ones own thing" seems to apply only when
students work in a manner similar to that of the classical masters,
such as Callahan, Siskind, Weston, etc. Work done in the manner of more
recent masters, whether traditionalist or non-traditionalist, such as
Arbus, Friedlander, Uelsmann, etc., is not considered to be an imitation
of anything, but is considered to be "ones own thing."
This alone indicates that
"doing your own thing" does not always mean what it says.
I believe it is often just an excuse for not learning the technical
and historical components of making aesthetic judgments. I also believe
it is rationalization for an approach to Photography that is, to a great
extent, based upon a reaction against classical values and traditions.
Because it lacks a solid foundation and is largely based on a "reaction
against" rather than on an "expression for", all too
often this student work "burns out."
While I was sitting in a
photography department office at one of the major universities writing
the first draft of this paper, a student approached me with some basic
questions about the use of his camera. He had just enrolled in beginning
photography and had not even exposed one roll of film yet. As he was
leaving, I said, "Hope you get some good ones." He answered,
"Oh, my pictures will probably look like ones made fifty
years ago, but Ill get through that quick enough I hope."
At more advanced student levels this superficial feeling for individuality
is even more prevalent. What is the hurry? Everyone is unique. With
a broad foundation in the medium and with continued work over a period
of time, ones uniqueness will emerge. Of course, there will always
be those whose uniqueness will emerge whether they have a broad foundation
in the medium or not, but they are the exceptions.
Though I have stressed the
teaching of the "form within which expression is contained"
and the technical and historical components of making aesthetic judgments,
I realize that the making of any fine photograph involves much more
than this. But we do a disservice if we only encourage our students
to "do their own thing." We should instead, provide them with
the broadest possible foundation for their work. This would help give
them the freedom to make their own statements as artists.
© Michael A. Smith