Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Remember When Photography Was Something Brand New?

When I asked my beginning photography students at the University of South Carolina to write a brief statement to go along with their self-portraits, I never imagined they would tap into many of the same currents that have been rippling through the photographic universe since the time of Daguerre and Fox Talbot. I was so excited to read their responses that I asked them for permission to reprint some quotations in this posting. Here, then, are some of the things my students in J337, Photovisual Communications, have to say about the joys and uses of photography.

“I have a true passion for seeing scenes through a camera lens,” wrote one student, perhaps unknowingly echoing the statement of photographer Garry Winogrand, who said he photographed to see what things look like when they are photographed. We have had several recent class discussions about how remarkable photography is, because it causes you to look at and think about things in the everyday world you would probably pass by without a second glance or thought. In other words, as Winogrand also said, it’s not the thing itself but the photograph of it that captures our interest.

Here’s another variation on the theme of seeing the extraordinary within the ordinary: “I find myself thinking, That would be an amazing picture! And normally it’s just the ordinary things, but I just see them in a different way.” I remember going to a photography seminar and listening to a photo editor explain what she wanted from her photographers — to show her either something completely different, or something ordinary shot in a completely different way. This student is evidently on the right track. Photographing the ordinary in extraordinary ways means you need to (apologies to Apple) “see different.”

Another student drew a distinction between making an average picture and making one in which “emotion and energy flow into your image … I want energy, movement, and excitement to convey whichever emotion I want.” What a wonderful sentiment! It made me think again about the power of photography — not only to record, inform, and persuade, but also to express emotions. Many of us view photography as a profession or a craft, but it is also a powerful art form. This linkage of photography and fine art was reinforced recently when I visited the Columbia Museum of Art to see “Seeing Ourselves: Masterpieces of American Photography from the George Eastman House.” (I’ve asked my students to explore this magnificent exhibition of 155 images, and I look forward to hearing and reading what they have to say about it.)

One of the American masters represented in the exhibition is Ansel Adams. Isn’t it amazing when a photographer continues to speak meaningfully to generation after generation? The photographic wizard of the Sierra Nevada still has something to say to students on the other side of the continent, more than 100 years after his birth: “When I was about 13 years old I discovered Ansel Adams. Seeing his breathtaking images of nature … I was just blown away.” And it wasn’t just the technical excellence of Adams’s glowing, revelatory prints. This student found in Adams’s images a level of emotional expression “unrivaled by any other art form.”

Remember when photography was something brand new? Something you did for fun, whether or not you were getting paid? How to rekindle that sense of wonder and adventure among jaded professional photographers is the subject of many high-priced creative seminars. Maybe we should get students to teach us! “There is no right or wrong way to imagine something,” one student wrote. “I have a dire thirst for learning new ways to express myself.” Another student linked photography with a favorite activity, something that I am sure is common among many photographers: “I love hiking and going on backpacking trips, and taking pictures is a huge part of that experience for me.”

A few students explored the association between photography, time, and memory, which has been a perennial theme in essays about photography, including the classic “Camera Lucida” by Roland Barthes. I’ll say this: I have an easier time decoding my students than decoding Barthes! Here’s someone who gets right to the point, delving into the tricky concept of photographic meaning: “I enjoy photographs, but more, I am intrigued by what photographs mean. A pretty picture is one thing — a picture that carries meaning is quite another.”

Here’s a student musing on the momentary nature of photographic images, the changing world, and the persistent tugs of memory: “I have always been fascinated with photography. I really enjoy going back through all of my old photographs and thinking about how much time has passed since then and how some things have changed.” And finally, what better way to sum up the meaning of photography: “A moment and a memory … Photographs are treasures.”

I hope you have enjoyed this visit with my VisCom students.

[tags]photography instruction, photography tips[/tags]

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