Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Text and Context

If you teach, you’ve probably found yourself in this situation at one time or another: many of your students are taking your course because it is required, not because they have a burning interest in the subject matter or, for that matter, the instructor.

Here at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications, one of the courses I teach is “Introduction to Visual Communications,” a course we require all journalism students to take. This is a survey course, with units on theory, history, design principles, typography, color, photography, publication design, advertising design, and Web design. In addition to participating in class discussions, the students are required to complete five InDesign assignments and work in a small group to complete a two-minute video highlighting one of the course topics.

Motivating the Disinterested Student

My students are drawn from across our four sequences: Advertising, Journalism, Public Relations, and Visual Communications. As a demonstration at the start of the semester on how to use a video camera, I had each of my students film one of their classmates answering this question: “Why are you taking this course?” Although a few said they wanted to learn about visual communications, most answered “Because it’s required.” Hmmm.

So here we are, nearing the end of the semester, discussing photography, my favorite topic. But how to get the students motivated? After all, they take photography for granted—pictures are easily made with a cell phone and can be placed within seconds on anyone’s Facebook page. My students, who are probably in their late teens and early 20s, can’t conceive of a time when making pictures was a difficult, skillful, and sometimes dangerous enterprise, let alone a time before photography even existed at all.

So how to convey the magic of what I consider to be the most magical of all the visual arts? Why should my students, who daily swim in a sea of visual images, have the slightest interest in learning about photographs made 10, 20, or 100 years before they were born? Or, to put the question differently, what value is there in teaching the history of photography—or any history, for that matter—to a generation that has been told since birth that it is the future that matters, that The Millennium Is the Message?

A Dose of History

I begin at the beginning, with the grainy, indistinct image on a metal plate that Nicephore Niépce captured in 1827 solely by the light of the sun acting on photosensitive chemicals. But this hardly looks like a real photograph—you might believe me if I told you it was an etching or a drawing.

Not so with the images created by Niépce’s partner, Louis Daguerre a decade or so later; these are the real thing, lifelike images of people made by light bouncing around inside a machine, with no human hand wielding a brush or stick of charcoal. Daguerreotypes prove to be an evolutionary dead-end—unique and fragile, still magic of course, but unable to be reproduced, hardly the precursor of the Kodak moment.

And then comes the Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot—inventor, observer of the heavens, mathematician, and decoder of ancient cuneiform writing from the Near East. It is Fox Talbot who creates modern photography with two brilliant breakthroughs: shortening the prohibitively long exposure times required by previous processes by means of developing the latent image; and creating the negative–positive process, whereby multiple prints could be made from a single paper original.

Photography and Travel

These are just names and processes, however. What gets me excited, and what I try to convey to my students, is this remarkable occurrence: within a few decades after the invention of photography, photographers were lugging their heavy cameras, fragile plates, and poisonous chemicals all around the world to make pictures. The churches of Rome, the pyramids of Egypt, the Taj Mahal, the Valley of the Yosemite! What on earth for? Because they were there.

It was the Age of Empire, and more often than not it was citizens of the imperial powers—usually British or French—doing the photographing. Until modern times, most people were poor, tied to the land, and didn’t stray too far from home. Travel was something for the well educated and the well-off. So although you may have read about the world beyond your town or village—perhaps you saw a painting or drawing—seeing far-off places for yourself was an elusive dream. Until photography.

Unlike other arts, the realism of photographs seemed indisputable, not prone to exaggeration, romanticism, or poetic license. So photography at its birth was intimately connected with travel, with the urge to visit far-off places and bring back visual evidence of their existence. This intimate connection between photography and travel has prevailed to this day—my students acknowledge this, and it helps provide a context for viewing travel images, both historic and modern.

Photography and War

Perhaps if photography and the wholesale slaughter we associate with modern warfare had not been born in the same century, their association would not have developed into the strong tie that binds them today.

The Crimean War, a murky mid-19th-century conflict in a remote area near the Black Sea, is perhaps best known as the setting of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Charge of the Light Brigade”: “Half a league half a league, Half a league onward, in All in the valley of Death Rode the six hundred….” But Roger Fenton’s 360 photographs of the soldiers who fought and the landscape where they died are considered the first war photographs.

They were soon overshadowed, in both quantity and horror, by the thousands of Civil War images produced by Mathew B. Brady or those he supervised, including the great Timothy O’Sullivan, whose “A Harvest of Death” has become an iconic war image.

A few years ago I heard Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust speak about the effect of the Civil War, which killed some 620,000 soldiers, on the American psyche. Her book This Republic of Suffering points out that, in terms of today’s population, the number of dead would be six million.

Photography created a visual record of this intense national trauma, and it continued to affect our collective consciousness as Americans began dying overseas in subsequent wars. The photographs and video footage of battles in Afghanistan my students see today trace their ancestry to what must seem to them like ancient imagery.

Photography and Social Injustice

There is debate about whether photographs of suffering spur us to action or desensitize us, but the linkage between photography and documenting social injustice is strong.

Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange, and others showed us homegrown hardship in urban tenements and migrant labor camps. Photojournalists such as Margaret Bourke White and W. Eugene Smith spoke truth to power in far-flung corners of the globe.

The Belgian Congo provided the setting for Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novel, Heart of Darkness, which describes the horrors committed by colonialists seeking ivory and power in Africa. But Conrad’s work of fiction, based on his trip to the Congo, is eerily echoed in photographs from the same years of the very real atrocities perpetrated against the Congolese people.

We can trace a lineage from these photographs through the Great Depression, the Nazi death camps, the anticolonial struggles following World War II, the American Civil Rights movement, the environmental movement, famine and genocide in Africa, right up to today’s pictures that call our attention to hunger, illness, poverty, government ineptitude (or worse), and human misery.

There are many more links in this chain of text and context, which I will explore in a later column. Certainly photography and celebrity is one; perhaps you have others to suggest. In any event, by providing a robust contextual thread for the images I show in class, I hope my students will see these visual visitors from the past as something more than just boring old pictures.

One Response to “Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Text and Context”

  1. To me, one of the most powerful things about historical photography is its ability to show us the world as it used to exist. I've always loved Edward S. Curtis' photographs of the old west and portraits of Native Americans. Some of them are so clear and focused that I feel like I'm looking through a window in time, and I might be able to start a conversation with the person in the photo and ask him or her what life was like back then.

    This thought also plays out into the future... what are we photographing today that won't be there in the years to come? What are we telling and showing to future generations with the images we take today?

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