The Perfect Photography Course

Here’s my curriculum for the perfect course in photography:

  1. To provide technical craftsmanship which will allow the student to enter most of the professional fields of photography.
  2. To develop in the student a craftsmanship of feeling which can be turned to the services of a client at will or used for their own creative purposes.
  3. To develop a craftsmanship of communication that can be used at will for either their own purposes or the needs of a client.
  4. To present the scope of photography to the student’s view, both currently and historically. (From this knowledge and the experience with technique they can specialise according to their needs.)
  5. To expose the student to the theory behind the scientific aspect of the medium.
  6. To expose the student to aesthetic theory in general and to help them develop an aesthetic of camera.
  7. To develop in the student a love of the medium through mastery of it, and a sense of responsibility for their own pictures. (This last point is in direct conflict with the experience of photographers working with editors and art directors.)
  8. To develop an attitude of “professionalism” which is distinguished from a “creative” one (amateurism at the highest sense) only by bringing to a client’s problems all the craftsmanship, knowledge, experience, sympathy and imagination that they’ve used for their own independent production.
  9. To help and/or encourage students to make art of and/or in spite of their psychological conflicts.

OK, confession time, this isn’t my curriculum, although if I were ever in charge of the photographic department at a college, I’d come up with something pretty close to this. It is in fact nearly 70 years old, and was written by Minor White in 1950 for the founding of the Photographic course at the California School of Fine Arts. A few years ago I found a copy of “The Moment of Seeing” at a discount bookshop, and snapped it right up. Besides some wonderful imagery, the essays are a great treatise on how to teach photography.

I’ve studied photography at GCSE, A-Level, and then at degree level, before starting out as an assistant, and then finally I stopped being a “student” when I set out on my own in 2001. Of course, I didn’t stop learning at this point, but I was supposedly no longer on the receiving end of tuition. Since then I’ve done quite a bit of teaching myself, and have experienced courses from NVQ to degree level from one end of the country to the other. All of this is simply justification for my imminent opinions about education. Strap in.

Teaching at Newcastle College Photography Course 2012
Teaching at Newcastle College – 2012

For me, the perfect course in photography really would be very close to what Minor described above, although I might not use quite such academic language, and I think a lot of what he says can be compressed into fewer points. I should explain that I’m talking about a course that is aiming to prepare the student for a career of some sort in photography, rather than a short course on a niche or specific technique.

Professional photographic education should be concerned with the 3 C’s. Craft, Creativity, and Communication.

Craft

This is my fancy word for technical skill. Whilst I decry those who get hung up on equipment or specific techniques, there is no hiding from the fact that photography requires technical ability. The best idea in the world will be wasted if it’s badly executed, and learning craft shouldn’t turn you into a cold, sterile technician, but should open out your options and horizons, allowing you to create any pictures you desire.

Teaching craft skills can sometimes be done in quite formal, step-by-step lessons, but I personally think that once you’re past a very basic level, it’s best dealt with on a case-by-case basis. One of the advantages of my degree course in Blackpool (which I didn’t really appreciate at the time) was that once we’d had a few technical lectures in the first year, we were on our own. From then on, rather than sit in a classroom, and follow diagrams on the board, we would take each problem to our lecturers as it came up, and recruit their help in solving it. This meant that at any one time different students could be working on studio lighting, large format camera movements, darkroom processes, or anything that was allowing them to shoot imagery the way they wanted.

I prefer this to a more linear curriculum, as whilst I firmly believe there are some basics that every photographer should know, and some situations they should all be able to handle, the specific craft requirements will be unique to each and every photographer.

Creativity

I’ve banged on about this rather a lot on this blog, and for good reason, as I think it’s still overlooked. In the main, what’s overlooked is the notion that it can be taught, encouraged, and a culture and environment created where it flourishes and thrives. There are many ways this culture can be encouraged, from group and individual critiques, through to the use of logbooks, and exercises such as blackboxing, “No Excuses” and others.

Success in the field of professional photography relies on many things, but amongst them is the development and projection of your own vision and the way you see the world. The market doesn’t really need another pale, carbon copy of everything that’s already out there, and it’s only by working on and developing your creativity that you’ll be able to stand out.

Within this heading of creativity I’d also include any and all study into the context of photography – whether it be historical or contemporary. Your work will not exist in a vacuum, and what other people have created and are creating will inform and influence you. Choosing, filtering and working with those influences should be something a decent course teaches you.

Logbook
A logbook from 1998

Communication

Here’s where the rubber meets the road. Far too many courses I’ve visited and lectured on pay almost no attention to this part, and I think it’s one of the main reasons for the incredibly high drop out rate of photographers once they leave college. There has to be a significant amount of effort devoted to relating your work and vision to the outside world, more specifically the notion of bending your creativity to a client’s brief.

Developing your own vision and being true to it is extremely important, and I’d argue that your time at college is one of the few times you can afford to be really self-indulgent in this respect. Saying this, if you desire any degree of commercial success you need to learn how to execute a client’s brief and interpret their often vague language. Simply throwing your toys out of the pram in an artistic huff doesn’t generally create repeat business. You’ll also need to practice delivering final work to a high standard, and within specific time frames.

It’s at this stage that I’d also bring in basic business studies.  Any good course should ensure that these areas are well covered.  Students who leave a course without the first clue about invoices, tax, pricing and the rest are pretty much doomed.

There. I’ve sorted photographic education. I think I’ll go and have a cup of tea. And perhaps a biscuit, I think I’ve earned it.

2 Comments
    • Photosmudger

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