Photography Class

I feel quite lucky to have the opportunity to teach a photography class this summer. It’s a weird feeling, because it was really the first subject I ever taught and I’ve spent at least thirty years being intensely involved with it. I put it down around five years ago as a practitioner but not as a theorist. There is a downside—six class meetings of four hours each. Though God may have created the universe in that span, communicating something about photography with such constraints is daunting. I don’t feel god-like at all.

It was billed as an introductory class in making digital pictures, so I cannot simply do a survey of the history of photography—though I can’t resist bringing that to bear. There are a broad range of students in the class from advanced to just starting out, and I’m trying to resist the urge to teach to the upper third. But the theory behind image-making activities, if better understood, can help accelerate development far better than maintaining a strictly technical focus. You only learn and remember technique when you figure out something that you want to do.

The arc of the class, as I have conceived it, is simply this: technology, space, time, light, sequence and captioning, and then final presentations of each student’s photographic project. This week, we discussed technology and space.

Photography, as I see it, is a group of interrelated technologies. Photography and computer technologies were conceived at roughly the same time in the early 19th century. Photography was instantaneously adopted for a wide variety of uses, while computer technologies were not. In the 1970s, with the advancement of computer technologies made possible through photographic technology, computers finally went mainstream. Computers, in turn, changed the dynamics of photographic technology. However, it is a mistake to see either as a natural extension of each other. At the core, there is the humanistic desire to make images.

The camera is not an eye. Eyes work differently, and understanding the difference between what we see and how we see it vs. what the camera records is essential. I think most textbooks push the comparison way too far. While I didn’t take the time to go into Peter Henry Emerson’s theories of photography and vision, I hope I can return to that next week—but I doubt it. Six days is short. I concentrated instead on the fact that camera eyes provide a surplus of detail. This detail, if not managed correctly, leads to really crappy images. Cameras do not register lines or edges the way that the eye does, and consequently the delineation of space in photographs can be problematic.

Using Lady Elisabeth Eastlake’s critique of photography in 1857, I highlighted the way that things haven’t really changed much. The more we perfect photographic technologies, the more difficult it becomes to correctly render human experience. How we read and use pictures is largely a matter of convention, not rules. Cameras and lenses are rule driven; making sense from pictures is not. It’s a social thing.

The second class was focused on creating a sense of space through the conventions of perspective. But before I got into that, I had to drag Roland Barthes into class. Rather than using his later writings on photography, I used Writing Degree Zero to emphasize the connections between literature and art. Photography is assumed to some to be a zero degree technology that merely indicates the object in front of the camera. I wanted to dispel that, and suggest instead that our point of view is generated through both personality and convention.

I think Barthes view in Writing Degree Zero is instructive on several levels. First, as it was in part a rebuttal of Sartre’s What is Literature?, it attacks the notion that all writing must be in service of anything. A photographer no more takes up the torch of artistic freedom than a typical writer does. Writing is a social activity put to many purposes; so is photography. To internalize that photography’s goal is to produce art is to automatically classify all the products of photography as either failed or successful art. I think that hurts people, the same way that beginning writers can feel intimidated by thinking that they should somehow be producing literature.

Second, Barthes’ formulation of the limits of writing is easily twisted to match the limits of photography. Language, for Barthes, sets a horizontal horizon for writing. The spread of written or spoken texts is limited by their social understanding, their reception among people who can understand the conventions of language. The conventions of photography are space, time and light. Perspective systems differ across cultures, as do the conventions of space and time. However, the most severe limits placed on photography are based on the technological limits in conveying these elements.

However, the most productive discussion in Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero is his treatment of style. Style, in Barthes’ view is not something added which is external to the text. It is the product of being a human being located in a certain space and time. Style is partly convention—the product of what a person has seen and internalized within themselves based on social activities and exposures. But it is also a part of our carnal nature. It is the expression of how our unique body positions itself within the social realm. Everyone already has style; it isn’t something that one must add to pictures. However, it is something that we must heed and notice as a part of a vertical limit of our efforts to express ourselves. The more you pay attention to what you like or dislike, and the more you try to broaden your experience of visual culture, the broader your own personal style can become. I dragged in Susan Sontag’s discussions of style and also her characterization of photographs as maxims or proverbs.

I have settled into a reasonably comfortable pattern of deep philosophical reflection at the onset of class—while people are still awake—and boring technical crap later. I displayed a series of illustrations of conventional perspective tropes, and we discussed each of the students “favorite photographs.” I was able to keep the dry presentation on perspective short, and sort of trusted that the student’s favorites would give a lot of material to discuss conventional compositional things like “the rule of thirds.” This worked out well. Each of their favorites demonstrated the basic “rules,” or, as I would rather characterize them, conventions of composition.

Happily, too, the student’s choices lead to an easy discussion of Barthes’ later classification of the studium and punctum of particular photographs. Learning how to sort out the difference between the external context of a photography and it’s internal logos is a big part of taking photography seriously. The problem with the intense schedule is that students do not get much time to make photographs themselves. I’ve got high hopes that next week will be better because we can talk about their pictures instead of other people’s.

This is the first chance I’ve had to write about much of anything because I have been so busy putting the class together. What do I chose to write about? The class. It seems really sad to me that this is the first and last opportunity that I have to teach this class here. Oh well. Maybe sometime in the future, in another place and time. For now, I’m going to enjoy these three weeks.

1 thought on “Photography Class”

  1. This is fascinating. Thank you so much for writing about it. Studium and punctum, eh. Bloody hell, I’ve got a lot to learn.

Comments are closed.