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Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Photography Classroom

Amid changing technology and an increasingly difficult business environment, schools and teachers who are training tomorrow’s pros have their work cut out for them as they struggle to push forward while creating a foundation built upon the past

This Article Features Photo Zoom

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.


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