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Photography Students Are Being Taught — But What Are They Really Learning Today?
Posted By Mike Sheil On December 13, 2007 @ 6:25 am In Teaching Photography and Design | 48 Comments
I recently was asked to teach a module at a well-known college here in the UK which hands out degrees in photography.
I say “well-known” as its students seem to get a large number of prizes for shots of discontented-looking people draped in studiously languid poses in scruffy locations ranging from hair salons to bedrooms to public toilets.
Me, I thought heroin chic was passe, but clearly the “soul searching and honestly raw approach to the problems confronting the modern generation” (to quote one assessment of a shot of a girl shot sitting on a bed with a Che Guevara poster on the wall) shows that the wheel of fashion ever revolves and the 1960s are back with us.
I am only too sad to reflect that now I am indeed in my sixties, and that I remember the real ’60s and taking pictures just like that. Trouble is, I was just having fun taking pictures of pretty girls — and possibly just having fun with pretty girls! — when really I should have been writing a 10,000 word thesis explaining why my picture of a girl sitting on a bed with a Che Guevara poster was, well … ART.
Desperate Desire to Be Different
So there am I looking at work which looked very similar to what I was doing 40 years ago and being told that this is now the real cutting edge of creative photography. It certainly had that rather off-centered, badly composed and poorly lit look that my work had 40 years ago — wide-angle shots of people’s heads, girls with sullen/bored expressions, oddly focused shots and peculiar distressed colours.
In all truth, I think my work owed its peculiarities to the fact I did not know what I was doing and anyhow had just started smoking pot, whereas the modern idiom seems to owe an awful lot to a desperate desire to be different — and hence ending up turning out the same mediocre rubbish as everyone else who is also trying to be different.
People seem to spend hours stroking around the sliders in Photoshop to seemingly achieve the same effect I got by by using cheap out-of-date film and going off drinking with friends forgetting that I had left film in the developer. Same stuff, same Che Guevara poster — but certainly not ART!
The big difference is that young photographers these days are taught their “art” by politically correct teachers and lecturers who “guide and nurture” them, whereas 40 years ago a “teacher” was either a brand of whiskey or one of a bunch of hard-nosed picture editors who tended to get somewhat out of focus after lunch.
Being Taught Vs. Learning
Please note my deliberate usage of “taught” versus “learned” regarding university study; being taught does not mean you learn. I learned from those picture editors. Tough and abrasive as they may have been, they all knew the business they were in and had generally practised their craft at the sharp end.
Looking back at the careers and work of photographers whose lenses I was not fit to polish, I am amazed at how much time they spent giving green and naive rookies like myself a helping hand and good practical advice.
Here in the UK we have an extraordinary situation: we seemingly have more students at university studying photography at degree level than we have actual working photographers. And at a time when commercial photography is drying up, we have created a conveyor belt system for churning out a stream of supposed “graduates” who have not been exposed to any of the realities of the commercial world and whose work has never been exposed to any really rigorous criticism.
And the reason for those 10,000 word theses now becomes glaringly obvious: it is so they can write increasingly verbose justifications for their personal work.
At which point I’ll take my own advice: stop pontificating and go and walk the talk!
[tags]photography instruction, photography degrees[/tags]
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