Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Photography Classroom

By Amanda Quintenz-Fiedler Published in The Business of Photography
There’s no denying that the digital era has been a boon in the field of photography. There have been more advancements over the last decade than in the entire history of the medium, leading to more possibilities for exciting and dynamic imagery than ever before. For young photographers, the relentless pace of technology has also led to a learning environment where schools and colleges are struggling to keep up with rapidly evolving technologies. Ironically, as media and even the definition of photography change, the path to the future may be based on the traditional teaching methods of the past.
There’s no denying that the digital era has been a boon in the field of photography. There have been more advancements over the last decade than in the entire history of the medium, leading to more possibilities for exciting and dynamic imagery than ever before. For young photographers, the relentless pace of technology has also led to a learning environment where schools and colleges are struggling to keep up with rapidly evolving technologies. Ironically, as media and even the definition of photography change, the path to the future may be based on the traditional teaching methods of the past.
Photographers have seen an enormous shift over the past two decades in the way they approach their business. The arsenal of a Hasselblad, a quiver with a range of lenses, a Polaroid back and several film backs that would last for years has become a rarity rather than the norm. Now, a professional must have loyalty to a brand of DSLR camera body and associated lenses, where the body, software packages and media must be constantly updated, sometimes as often as every 18 months. To continue existing in the fast-paced world of digital photography, the professional photographer's workflow had to change, the expense structure had to include equipment upgrades instead of film stock, and a wide array of new technologies had to be learned, absorbed and maintained. But each photographer found his or her pace, picked a brand and learned the tools that they needed to continue to compete.

The photographic educator, on the other hand, never had the luxury of choosing a single path in the midst of this transition because the educator can't know what road the students—the future photographers of the world—will take. Beyond the fact that each student has the ability to choose a different path from another student, many of these paths will be obsolete within years, and many others will emerge; the potential knowledge base necessary for the vast array of photographic careers is infinite.

It's an educational problem that may be unique across all disciplines and one that every institution with a photography program must face. Photographic programs need to fully understand the ever-evolving industry and technologies because they're simultaneously looking forward, looking back and staying grounded—the students depend on it.

Speaking with several of the leaders in photographic education, there's a strong sense that the future of film, digital and mixed-media education is adaptive. No two programs are run the same anymore—whereas, in the past, the basic tenets of photographic education hadn't changed significantly for nearly 100 years. Things are changing quickly now, and it's becoming increasingly more difficult for educators to shape programs that fit the growing demands of students while simultaneously pragmatically preparing them for the jobs that will be available as the industry also shifts.

The first challenge for modern photographic educators is looking forward. Before the onset of digital photography, programs were reviewed, renewed and revised perhaps once every five years. The programs didn't need to be altered very often because the baseline technologies had evolved at a snail's pace for a century. Granted, new papers, films and processes came along, but for the most part, everything "new" was perfecting an element of what was already established. Faster films were created. Smaller grain was developed. Richer papers were introduced. Every evolution took time to discover, create and develop, and once introduced, could easily be tested and evaluated by photographers to see if the "latest and greatest" tools were beneficial and desirable. In this day and age, there's no telling what new tools and advances might be introduced in the next iteration of Photoshop, not to mention no way to truly understand, master and implement every tool that was released in the last version.

Bill Gratton, the MAC Group National Manager of Educational Markets, has been around the country and has seen hundreds of iterations of photography programs at the college level. During his career, he has been able to work with all sorts of educators and programs, and has seen the advantages and pitfalls of moving into a digital photographic education.

"A lot of the educators right now are just trying to teach what they know, which unfortunately, with the changes in technology having been so fast, is essentially old technology," Gratton explains. "But at the same time, you're trying to teach them, the students, what's going to happen in the future; and again, this stuff is changing so quickly, that it's really hard to do."

In some cases, students are aware of new software, new applications, new tools or new books before the teachers are, simply because they have more time to search the Internet. Staying ahead of those revelations, for an educator, is becoming more and more challenging as, traditionally, it was the educator who should be bringing this information to the forefront. As such, the challenge for the modern instructor extends beyond knowing and mastering the current technology to being able to anticipate the next step and factor it in to the curriculum.

Tim Bradley, a teacher and photographer with more than 30 years of experience in the classroom, was the chair of photography at Art Center College of Design in the 1990s and was involved in the early transition from analog to digital learning environments. He's currently teaching in the new MFA program at Brooks Institute, and continues to advocate for both worlds. From Bradley's perspective, looking to the future, if only seen as digital, can limit the expression of the student.

"One could argue that the DSLR and Photoshop have been a mixed blessing for photo students," says Bradley. "Although the digital process seems to offer a vast creative frontier, a lot of different ideas get funneled through the same tools and software. Ironically, this can lead to more similar results than one would have seen in a predigital classroom."

But the digital process also is the standard for commercial photographers, so the educator must strike a balance between engaging the creativity of students and ensuring a practical and forward-looking knowledge base. Without both, the student is left without the requisite tools to succeed. Depending on the nature of the educational program, the emphasis of the education may dictate the teaching environment.

For programs geared more heavily toward placing their graduates in commercial-level photographic careers, rather than exploring personal artistic styles and creating fine artists, the digital classroom is a foregone conclusion. Yet these programs still struggle to anchor themselves in the current industry. David Litschel, the Vice President of Academic Affairs for Brooks Institute, embraces the future of commercial photography for both the school and its students. "Employment opportunities are more and more available in the freelance area," he explains. "With the introduction of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s and its maturation over the past years, as well as today's opportunities in mobile devices and social networking, there's more demand for visual imagery than ever before. Students need to know how to successfully access the opportunities that are out there in this changing landscape of visual images." To this end, Brooks Institute has embraced an almost wholly digital curriculum.

While some schools and educators embrace the new trends, others recognize the benefits of tradition. Indeed, the second challenge for modern photographic educators is looking backward.

"While commercial photographic education has wholeheartedly moved into digital, fine-art programs often remain firmly in film-based teaching," explains Dr. Glenn Rand, author of Teaching Photography: Tools for the Imaging Educator. "There are several institutions that teach black-and-white digital to maintain a historical pedagogy, feeling that that is the way you 'teach' photography."

Indeed, according to a survey conducted by the MAC Group and coordinated by Gratton, 80% of colleges that offer a photographic program still provide at least one darkroom. There's a prevalent feeling among educators that certain techniques and concepts are more easily taught, and comprehension verified, through the use of film. This goes beyond ensuring that the student understands exposure—by giving them one sheet of 4×5 film to get the perfect shot—and extends to how students choose what to shoot when they have limited supplies. The introduction of constraints, either financially or technologically, can force students to dig deeper into what drives them to be photographers and help them learn precision, craftsmanship and ownership of the final image. With digital photography, some of those concepts might not sink in.

"Every time we look through a DSLR, it whispers to us, 'You can delete this or fix it later,' " explains Bradley. "This isn't a good message for someone learning the medium because it can divert attention from previsualization to postproduction."

There are fewer variables in film than in digital. If technical mastery is first achieved through the use of film, there are more limited mistakes that the student can make, allowing the instructor to more easily identify where the student might be going wrong. Even though some students will choose to remain with film for as long as possible, most institutions that offer film and digital programs use the traditional processes as a stepping-stone to digital technologies. Considering the genesis of modern software, a knowledge base that starts with film will help photographers ground their understanding of digital tools.

Says Gratton, "Speaking from the perspective of teaching digitally, you have a much better appreciation for what you can do with programs like Lightroom or Photoshop when you understand what you can do in a darkroom."

When students understand the whole process of analog photography and start to previsualize and appropriately create an image on film, the transition to digital photography builds on a foundation of solid photographic theory. The student then can use digital tools to make already good work great.

Yet continuing to educate students with film presents its own challenges. Analog materials are getting increasingly harder to find, from spare parts for enlargers to varied films, papers and chemistry. Students in some states might have to send transparency film across the country to get it developed, where even two or three years ago most cities still had photo labs that could handle the processing. It's also unrealistic for a photo program to expect a student to invest in all the necessary film equipment, only to turn around in a few semesters and replace it all with digital gear. To find that balance, a program director must take into consideration not only the educational needs of students, but pragmatic and financial ones, as well.

As if these conflicting interests weren't difficult enough, the third challenge for modern photographic educators is presenting students with the best introduction to the immediate, modern workforce. Although this concept walks hand in hand with looking forward, there's a more pressing need to do the best by students in the here and now. The industry continues to change very quickly, and educators can look forward to what the trends seem to be and where things seem to be going, but they have a responsibility to offer students the best possible education in the moment. The problem is, at this point in time, the purpose and expectations of established photographers are shifting, as well.

As Gratton travels around the country and meets with educators, he also works with industry professionals, giving him a front-row seat to the changing demands on the photographer. "It used to be really clear what was expected of us and what we were producing as final products," he explains, "and now there's so many different possibilities with what we can do with it and so many different places where our images can end up."

With the introduction of video capabilities into DSLRs, photographers are no longer expected to just create still images. Admits Gratton, "Figuring out what the role of the photographer is, and what the final product is that they are expected to produce, is a challenge in today's world."

Yet educators are up to the challenge, expanding programs, changing curriculum and trying to answer these elusive questions for themselves as well as for the students.

In the case of Brooks Institute, Litschel explains, "Today, not only is digital still capture and video capture the heart of the curriculum, but the expansion of knowledge to include digital workflow, asset management, audio, required websites, the knowledge of all aspects of multimedia and a high level of business savvy is expected of graduates."

Each of these programs continues to evolve because each one earnestly wants to provide the best education for tomorrow's photographers. At all levels of education—universities, community colleges, trade schools and art schools—the game is changing more rapidly and with greater impact than merely the shift from film to digital. Sometimes the change is best expressed as an inclusion of more techniques, approaches and knowledge.

"As little as a year or two ago, a lot of these schools still thought that they had to do either film or digital," Gratton acknowledges. "They have finally come to the realization that you can still do both."

And perhaps they all should. Modern photographic educators have to understand not only the needs of the photo industry, but also the needs of the photo student—and how to make him or her a photo professional. The two are intertwined, yet also separate, and it's the job of the photo educator to see where we're going, remember where we've been, understand where we are and communicate that knowledge in today's classrooms.

Amanda Quintenz-Fiedler is a writer, photographer and educator living in Southern California. See her photography at
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