Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Eggleston Riot, or Notes on Teaching

A little something left on the lectern...

Over the 7 or so years during which I have been working with college students, my teaching approach has continuously changed as I rework my materials and thoughts surrounding teaching. When I first started learning photography myself in the late 90’s, I was taught in a traditional, craft-based vein. My teachers rarely talked about meaning or context for the work. I carried that craft-centric model forward when I first began teaching my own classes.

While I still believe that solid skills with the medium are important, I understand better now the importance of exposing my students to a variety of work and ideas surrounding the practice of making right from the start. I’m finding that it’s about striking a balance in these time-constrained foundation courses of both teaching the skills and teaching students how to begin to engage in the context of contemporary art. You need both.

My first day of teaching for the Spring semester was today, a section of Photo 1. This class is centered on the black and white darkroom process. The class runs weekly for 3 hours, which when you consider the learning curve involved with getting a handle on using a manual camera and understanding the process, isn’t much time. However, this semester, I am committed to incorporating more discussion surrounding meaning and context into the class as well as to exposing students to more artists. If that cuts into the hands-on time, we’ll work around it.

There is always a level of apprehension that comes with the first day. I can generally intuit how the semester is going to go and how the dynamics of the group may be after observing my class during that first meeting. I also know that my own mental state can reflected back to me when I am teaching – it’s like a mirror in some regards.

My class today had 12 students, with majors ranging from Graphic Design to Criminal Justice to Computer Networking to Elementary Education; no art majors. Most students had experience with a digital SLR and most had never worked with film. Reasons for taking the course were varied, with some students stating that they were interested in the “roots” of the process, or that they were simply just curious about film. Personally, I still find the whole silver-based process to be pretty amazing – there really is nothing like watching a print appear in the quiet orange light of the darkroom – and so I really do enjoy sharing this excitement with my students.

I brought a selection of work to show my class today. We started with some photographers we all know, Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Minor White, Edward Weston… I brought up images and just asked the class to share what they thought and we talked about the basics of approach – the fully controlled landscape image, the decisive moment, abstraction, ect, as well as basic elements of composition. One young woman commented the sensuous nature of Weston’s iconic pepper and we then compared that image to one of his nudes. Seeing their sometimes-unadulterated excitement for the images was great, this class had thoughtful comments and opinions. Everyone who teaches will understand how nice it is when this happens; there is nothing as depressing as those silent, blank stares. We looked next at Julia Margaret Cameron, Sally Mann, Diane Arbus and Man Ray. The dream-like Romantic imagery of Cameron incited more varied opinions, some students seeming to completely fall in love and others feeling put off by the technical differences from the more traditional work we viewed first. Man Ray incited a flurry of desire to solarize. Arbus amused some and freaked out others.

We took a break and I showed them William Eggleston and Moyra Davey, two artists I am interested in at the moment. The first image we looked at led us straight into a conversation I hadn’t planned – I love it when things manifest in the classroom in interesting and unexpected ways. This image was Eggleston’s photograph of a light bulb on a red ceiling.  There was some serious and heated questioning of the validity of the work. One student finally said, exasperated, “Can you just shoot anything and call it art?” Which led to an interesting dialogue on context and intent bringing us to look at some non-photographic conceptual work. We moved to Davey’s piece, The Coffee Shop/The Library.  They struggled with some of the less aesthetic images but the interactive nature of this project sparked interest, which led to the next question from another student – “Why call it photography?” Yes, why indeed? It's good to question our preconceived notions of what photography is.

I’m excited to see where the conversation leads with this group and to see what manifests in my other sections next week. Today was a simple and welcome reminder of why I so enjoy teaching - and that it's really to my and my students' benefit to continually change and evolve my teaching practices. 

1 comment:

  1. I love that eggleston photo. Cool geometry and lines of white wires leading to bulb. It's not just any old lightbulb on a ceiling. This is such a great blog to read Mary.