Liberal Education

Liberal Education and Photography

Anderson was of the primary instructors at the Clarence H. White School of photography (whose alumni include Paul Outerbridge, Laura Gilpin, Doris Ulmann, etc.). The pedagogical methods of this school were at the cutting edge of the early twentieth century. It’s amazing to me how close the clues I’ve found towards the attitudes of this school (heavily influenced by John Dewey) match the current attitudes towards instructional practice. Anderson’s technical lectures were published in 1917, and hidden in this book is an agenda towards learning that seems, well, new and refreshing.

From the forward to Pictorial Photography: Its Principles and Practice:

In preparing the discussion of the technique of pictorial photography which is given in the following pages the author’s purpose has been to produce a book adapted to the needs of those workers, who, without wishing to undertake a study of the abstruse scientific phases of the art, nevertheless have passed beyond the elementary stages and feel a desire for pictorial expression. Every effort has been made to adapt the book to the needs of such photographers, and for that reason the author has endeavored to make clear, not only the actual technical methods, but also the fundamental principles underlying those methods, since a thorough grasp of the principles is of importance in enabling the worker to locate and correct his mistakes and also to study and to grow in power of expression, which is almost impossible when his knowledge is simply a matter of remembering certain arbitrary facts.

The book was one of a series of “practical books,” but Anderson’s foreword makes it clear that he is not talking about strictly theory, but what is labeled in modern educational circles (at least in rhetoric) as praxis—theoretically informed practice. Other books in the series (which I have not examined) include The Practical Book of Early American Arts and Crafts, The Practical Book of Architecture, The Practical Book of Interior Decoration, The Practical Book of Period Furniture— the picture should be fairly clear. Even historical topics are taken as matters of practical importance.

There is much to be said about the contents of the book, but for the time being I have posted a gallery of the “practical” examples contained in the book by leading pictorialist photographers. The conclusion of the book reflects deeply on the state of education and the arts, and provides what seems to me to be fairly sensible advice. Here, Anderson lays the ground work for his 1919 book The Fine Art of Photography, which deals with composition. I will discuss that one at greater length sometime soon, but it may take a few days to process the wonderful nuggets contained in Pictorial Photography. Anderson’s conclusion not only addresses the importance of “design” and the utility of studying reproductions, but also contemplates the nature of “genius” and its relation to the arts:

The finished picture may be likened to the human being, who requires for perfect balance the three qualities of body, mind and spirit, being incomplete unless all three of these characteristics exist in due and suitable proportions. In pictorial art technique, which is purely objective, may be likened to the body; composition of line and value being more subjective, may fitly be compared to the mind; and the spirit of the human being finds its counterpart in the expressive impulse underlying the choice of subject and the manner of its treatment. Many workers of the present day, both painters and photographers, are content to produce a pleasing arrangement and perfect technique, feeling that a well-expressed esthetic design is all that is necessary for the production of a finished work of art. Referring to our analogy, however, it will be seen that such a picture may fitly be compared to the hedonist, who, however perfect physically and intellectually, can never leave a lasting impression on his time for a lack of high spiritual motive, and pictures of this nature can only have an ephemeral value, however pleasing they are esthetically.

The study of composition is beyond the scope of the present book, but many works on the subject exist and there is every facility offered to the student for acquiring skill in this necessary element of art. It may be said that in general more can be learned from a careful study of black-and-white reproductions from the works of great artists than from the study of any book, since the principles of composition are merely verbal enunciations of certain arrangements which past experience has found pleasing, and a sense of composition must be so thoroughly ingrained in the worker that its expression will result without conscious effort.

The third quality, that of spirit, cannot be taught, but must result from an inherent desire to do work of an ennobling character. Even this quality, however, may be developed or may be suppressed, and the development or suppression of a lofty desire is to a great extent dependent on surrounding circumstances. It is well known that a high order of mediocrity, in many cases but slightly separated from actual genius, may result from careful and persistent study and effort, but it is not so well known that true genius may be suppressed. There is in the mind of many persons a belief that genius will always show itself, but this is far from being the case, since great genius may be prevented from finding its proper expression through the necessity of producing a relatively low order of work to supply a commercial demand and may also in many instances be vitiated by unfavorable personal surroundings; but it must not be supposed from this that the writer has any sympathy whatever with the so-called artistic temperament, which he believes to be merely an excuse for the artist to employ mannerisms or self-indulgences which would not be tolerated in the average individual. It will in general be found that artists of the first rank do not possess the “artistic temperament,” but in the affairs of daily life conduct themselves quite as well as those individuals whose work is not of an artistic nature. On the other hand, suitable encouragement favors the development of genius, and where any spark of this exists it may be fostered by the proper educational means. Unfortunately, the standard education of this country at the present time is designed to reduce all individuals to a common level, and it is to be hoped that the next few years will see a decided improvement in this respect, signs of such a change not being wanting at present.

Anderson’s picture of the “change” brewing in education is based on having a front-row seat to the new educational philosophies of Dewey being put into practice at Columbia. His tone is harsh, regarding the aesthetic pomposity of Steiglitz’s crowd at 291. White and many of the early pictorialists had split from him around this time, in favor of a more practical approach to education. What I wasn’t really expecting to find here was the early adoption of artistic practice as a means of promoting social good. The importance of having an audience for one’s work is stressed in the paragraph that follows:

The highest development of genius in any branch of human activity can result only from the combination of a peculiar mentality with long and arduous study and effort, but it is by no means impossible for workers who lack the inherent gift of genius to produce artistic results of a pleasing nature and of a very high level, works which will be helpful to many persons to whom the highest productions would be of no value whatever. A certain degree of development is necessary to permit one to appreciate and benefit by any given work, and consequently the finest works of art can appeal only to those who are prepared to understand them, this class of course increasing as the development of the race progresses. Therefore no worker who finds himself lacking in great genius should despair of serving his fellow men, since he will always find an audience and this audience will always be helped spiritually if the artists original purpose was a noble one. Everyone who feels any artistic impulse whatever should follow the direction in which it leads and may be sure that if he does so he is aiding the progress of the race.

The positivist, progressive tone is typical of the era; however, the concept that everyone can find an audience, and indeed, should find an audience for their creations runs completely against the nineteenth century strictures regarding studying only the “best and brightest.” The “Great Men” school of pedagogical practice was not the only product of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—there was also a profound emphasis on praxis and socially engaged learning.

Part of what was going on at the time was a trend towards “vocational” education—a sort of rote learning of usable commercial skills. Concepts of “common standards” (much like Bush’s educational approach these days) were on the rise—and those with socially-engaged consciences were resisting this with all their might. It’s amazing how little, in many ways, we have learned since then.