My approach to teaching photography acknowledges that a solid grounding in photographic technique is the bedrock of any photography program while simultaneously addressing the digital environment in which photography now exists. This strategy calls for an expanded vision of how we understand, practice, teach, and learn photography. In addition to covering the standard technical aspects of photography there are four areas that I address within my curriculum: critical thinking, understanding photography as code based object, collaboration, and the value of experimentation.
One of the most important elements of my curriculum is to encourage the development of critical thinking as it relates to an art making practice. As a starting point I encourage all of my students to ask three questions as they begin a project or critique another student’s work: What is the intent of this work? Who am I trying to reach with this work? And what methods might be best employed to convey the intended message to the intended audience? In my Referential Image class, a non-shooting course, I have introduced weekly readings and discussions on semiotics as a means of introducing students to the underlying concept of signs. In this class students develop a series of briefs and treatments defining potential projects. With an eye to our readings we assess the projects in light of the intended audiences. As the emphasis is placed on process rather than production students begin to slow down and take the time to asses how the elements and form of a project impact its reading. Over the course of the semester the work evolves in its sophistication and the inclination to consider print as the only format gives way to consideration of responsive billboards, games, augmented reality and motion pieces. Students have noted that the images they are creating for other classes are much stronger as a result of the work done in this class. Another way in which I introduce critical thinking into the classroom is by discussing how our work as artists is both impacted by, and can have an impact on, events outside of our immediate experience. One way that I do this is to begin classes with a few minutes of informal discussion of current events and issues, a recent movie, or a book that I notice a student carrying. I ask the students for their thoughts on the subject as well as how we might consider addressing these issues as artists. Using examples of work that has both intentionally and unintentionally referenced events, previous images, works of literature, etc. we discuss how information is shaped and shared.
One area that has had a vast impact in the arts but does not yet play a significant role in photography programs is an acknowledgement of photographs as code based objects. Understanding the immense opportunities for innovative work made possible through the exploitation of digital photographs as data, along with the ability to read and write in at least one basic code language will hopefully become a fundamental component in contemporary photographic education. A majority of my students, while in an age group that grew up with interfaces, are not versed in code and don’t yet consider the implications of the shift from analog images to those that are networked and code based. I’ve begun introducing students to this concept by pairing the hexadecimal and photographic versions of the same image together on screen when showing work and including works by artists and photographers exploring this aspect of photography into lectures. One example of a successful presentation is a lecture on alternative documentaries that I gave to the five sections of a first year cohort. The projects shown ranged from database work to an interactive installation tracing the life of a grizzly bear. Students and faculty were excited about the work shown. Based on a successful project proposed and executed by a student this past semester I am building a simple processing language component into one of my first year class assignments.
As photographers now operate in a highly networked digital environment more collaboration is both necessary and possible. Whether working with a team to produce a photo shoot, or other artists to create large-scale multi-platform work, photography is a collaborative art form. I address this concept in a number of ways. In a first year lab class I’ve replaced the standard practice of putting two students in a single studio with a model placing four students in a double studio. This has resulted in students brainstorming and troubleshooting in groups. A number of these students have been invited to assist seniors on their projects based on their ability to work in collaborative environments. In a food photography class I’ve introduced an exercise in which the class is divided into teams and assigned roles matching those found on a professional shoot. Each team has a week to prepare and competes to create the most successful image and deliver it on time. The students have fun doing this and develop an understanding of how each member of a team is vital to the success of a project. More difficult but of enormous relevance is the issue of collaboration between media forms and disciplines. Even within programs that are not able to formally support multi-media work there are ways to expose students to these forms of collaboration. Some methods I have employed include showing and discussing examples of media collaborations, supporting and adjusting assignments for students proposing collaborations and offering extra credit for students who attend exhibits or events from poetry slams to multi-media installations and write a brief essay on the event and how it impacted their thoughts on their own practice and potential future projects.
Each of the noted areas: critical thinking, understanding photography as code based object and collaboration are linked by a common thread which is experimentation. By building an emphasis on experimentation into my curriculum students are supported in learning to problem solve through investigating multiple approaches to an assignment. Working in an environment that fosters experimentation prepares students to compete in a rapidly evolving media landscape. One way that I’ve encouraged experimentation in my first year students has been to reframe a required end of semester assignment. Formerly named “The Final Project/Personal Project” I renamed it “The Personal Exploration” and exchanged the concept of a final project for that of an opportunity to explore photography in a new way. There has been a shift from stress to excitement as students approach this assignment through projects ranging from installations to processing language-based work. Another successful method has been to encourage students, when appropriate, to propose alternate assignments addressing the goals of the assignment in a way other than originally stated. A number of engaging and successful proposals have been made and executed in these situations.
My curriculum balances the development of necessary technical skill sets with a focus on developing each student’s aesthetic and approach to work. By encouraging critical thinking, collaboration and experimentation I work to develop students whose understanding of photography involves a global perspective and an ability to push their use of the medium as far as possible in relation to new technologies and potential collaborations.