Monday, December 13, 2010

Thoughts on “Altering Perspectives” The Society for Photographic Education Southwest Regional Conference

This is a new blog, and my first one on blogspot, I’m interested to read any comments anyone may have. 

This was originally written to be a magazine article.  I’d submitted it to LensWork Magazine (a publication I’d written for in the past) but it was ignored by the editor who never got back to me about its publication.  When you make a submission of any kind, and don’t hear back from the person you submitted your writing, artwork, etc. to, that’s what I call rejection by blow-off.  It’s an all too common practice that I find unprofessional, but hey, that’s life these days so get used to it.  I’ll write more about rejection by blow-off at a later time. 

The following deals with education, art, elitism and a bit of the paranormal.

Thoughts on “Altering Perspectives”
The Society for Photographic Education Southwest Regional Conference
At Prescott College
October 22-24, 2010

The Chasm Remains

It seemed like a good idea when I registered for the SPE regional conference.  Although I’m not currently teaching photography, I have in the past, would like to again, and I give private photography lessons, so I hoped to learn about the current state of photographic education at the conference.  Also, since I live in a small town, it seemed like a good opportunity for some photographic intellectual stimulation.  Being with other like-minded photographers might be a good opportunity to learn, meet some new people and do a little networking.  Or so I thought.

In the interest of Full Disclosure I must say that I’ve taught at Prescott College, the host of this SPE conference, in the past as an adjunct and have applied for full-time positions in their photography department which I was not hired for.  I have seven years teaching experience at the University and Community College level and I have a degree in photography and thirty-years experience as a freelance photographer (both commercially and fine-art).  Since I’m a working photographer I couldn’t attend every presentation and panel discussion but I did attend enough to get a good feel for the conference and I even sat in one photography class led by one of the SPE presenters. 

From a technological standpoint the digital revolution of photography is understood and accepted, although I did detect some uncertainty and fear of change.  Some of the presenters seemed resentful that they “had to learn each version of Adobe Photoshop” instead of re-teaching unchanged darkroom practices.  From the artistic standpoint I didn’t detect much of an alteration of perspectives at all.  One disturbingly unchanged aspect I noticed is the insular nature of the educator-photographers.  They seem to be members of a closed society and either unwilling or unable to acknowledge any aspect of photography outside their familiar comfort zone.  As Bill Jay wrote in his book Occam ’s razor (Nazraeli Press, 1992), the “Chasm between Artist and Commercial Photographer is Wholly Destructive;” sadly, that chasm remains as wide as ever.

I had hoped these educators would address some of the pressing issues in the photographic industry today; things like pay-to-play schemes, predatory business practices of some who buy and publish photography, the 30-year stagnation of the editorial day rate, the cheapening of photography as a result of royalty-free and microstock distribution of imagery, etc.  These are but a few of the things that the next generation of photographers must deal with.  They must be informed of these things and devise strategies to cope in an increasingly changed world of both the fine- and commercial- arts.  And frankly, the current generation hasn’t done such a banging job.  But none of these issues was addressed.  In fact, with the exception of one brief mention of “licensing of images” none of the business aspects of photography was addressed at all.  To quote Bill Jay again, the educators at the SPE conference seemed more interested in “training assistant professors” than training photographers.  Since the emphasis of this conference was the fine-art side only, I can only speculate that these photography teachers cannot teach what they do not know.

Granted, Prescott College is a Liberal Arts school and does not teach “practical photography.”  Conversely, institutions like Brooks Institute emphasize “commercial” photography over “art.”  Students do choose colleges they attend based on their perceived future needs and wants, but unless the student is exposed to all aspects of photography, they’re only receiving half an education.  Since SPE is a national organization of photographic educators it seems to me that it is a disservice to photography students to emphasize only fine art photography and exclude other aspects of photography.  How about some balance?  Perhaps, unknown to me, there are SPE conferences that do emphasize practical photography?  However, since the theme of this conference was “Altering Perspectives,” I had an expectation of “perspectives,” as plural, and not such a narrow, singular viewpoint.  Except for the gallerists, all of the presenters at the conference presented themselves as “artists who teach.”  I find that to be a backwards statement.  In my view they are “teachers who make art.”  I think that’s a very important distinction as “artists who teach” leads the student to believe their instructor is some Great Artist, financially successful from the sales of their art, who’s sharing their insights with up-and-coming photographers when, in fact, their instructors rely upon teaching and not their art to pay their bills.  I personally know a number of photographic educators who have never made a photograph for money.  They’ve never done an editorial or advertising assignment, licensed a stock picture or even shot a simple portrait.  Yet their students believe they’re “learning real-world skills” despite the fact that their instructor has no experience whatsoever in the “real world.”  I’m sure I’ve stepped on some Big Egos with the previous statements so let me justify that statement with the definition of “professional” from the American Heritage Dictionary; a “professional” is, “Engaged in a specific activity as a source of livelihood.”

This lack of “commercial” or “practical” knowledge was underscored when I asked the SPE presenter who led the class I sat in if he’d ever done magazine assignments to support his art (his work easily fit the “editorial” category).  He answered, “No, no magazine would allow him to shoot the way he does.”  My experience tells me his answer was but mere assumption.  Since magazine photography is predominately low-budget, photographers are allowed and encouraged to be creative.  I certainly was when I was shooting editorially.  Clearly his experience is in grant application and not bidding on assignments. 

And speaking of Grants, the primary funding for most art photographers (aside from university paychecks), it occurs to me that it’s a heck of a lot easier competing with dozens of photographers for an editorial commission than it is to compete with thousands of photographers for limited grant money.  Unfortunately, if your teacher can only tell you about grant funding and not how to work to fund your art through the practical application of photographic knowledge, then you’re a victim of your teacher’s limited knowledge or bias.  I find it more palatable to work to fund my personal art than to beg for money, but maybe that’s me, or perhaps I learned something that’s no longer taught? 

“Meaning” was a hot topic.  One presenter lamented that some of his students knew more about Adobe Photoshop than he did, but that was okay, he could teach “meaning.”  Really?  Do photos have intrinsic meaning or do we apply meaning?  Does it matter?  Is “meaning” even teachable?  How does this teaching of “meaning” help students repay their college loans?  If our photographs are supposed to have “meaning” doesn’t that disallow the viewer’s own interpretation of the art?  Advertising imagery is “art” that every viewer is supposed to “get” the same “meaning” from, but isn’t fine art a little more open to interpretation?  And all this “meaningful” imagery is just so serious.  I saw very serious pictures, shot by a serious photographer, of Mexican immigrants crossing the southern U.S. border that were presented in a book and gallery exhibitions.  I don’t go to galleries to be educated about things like border issues that, in my view, is editorial photography best presented in print magazines and on the web and not in an art gallery.  To me (and I’m not alone with this view) when I look at “art” I’m viewing the subject through someone else’s eyes; I’m seeing something different, an interpretation of a subject that I cannot stand before and see with my own eyes.  It’s the subject and the artist’s interpretation or presentation of that subject that makes the art interesting to me.  All of the exhibitions held concurrent with the SPE conference were of very serious art and none of them really showed me subjects photographed in any way that was new to me.  I couldn’t identify much of the art exhibited as someone’s.  I was unable to view the work and say, “that’s so-and-sos” picture, stylistically most of the imagery was not distinctive of its creator; all that mattered was subject and artist-statement.  This was true of five of the six exhibitions held during the conference, there was one exhibition that was different, but no one saw it.  I’ll get to that later.

I came away from the conference ambivalent.  While I’m glad that all the massive changes in photographic production is being recognized and addressed, I saw very little “Altering of Perspectives.”  A fine-art-only photographic education still strikes me as insular and elitist; a realm of their own making.  Again, they don’t seem to be educating photographers at all, but rather, assistant professors.  It seems to me their students are limited in their expression because if they get outside the “box of preconceived expectations” they will not be rewarded.  Too many educators’ points of view are narrow and become the student’s point of view because they’re not exposed to anything outside the instructor’s comfort-zone.  That’s the way it seems to me and my perception is a result of studying photography at the university level, obtaining a degree, and then working for thirty years as an actual photographer.  No doubt my perspective would be different if I was an “educator-photographer” but I’m not a member of that club.  All of photography is my “comfort zone” and I don’t make preconceived mental categories for this or that sort of photography, I want to see it all, and not be biased by labels.  I want to be challenged and get outside my comfort-zone.  I believe that photographic education should include all aspects of photography without bias.  Certainly this kind of serious, “meaningful,” art photography is needed, useful and welcome.  It adds to the depth and diversity of the art form known as photography, but can’t we be less narrow and embrace all aspects of photography.  It’s not all about gallery shows and “meaning.”

All in all, I’m still glad I attended the conference.  I didn’t learn what I’d hoped to because the conference was too narrowly focused.  I did learn that I’ll never be welcome in this particular “club” of “fine-art photographers,” they’re too exclusionary for me.

I will conclude by getting back to the exhibitions held concurrent with the SPE conference.  There were six exhibitions held during the conference.  Three were at Prescott College, one was at the local community college, one was at a local bar/restaurant frequented by Prescott College students and one was held at a downtown gallery.  None of the art photographers and educators (that I’m aware of) attended the exhibition at the downtown gallery.  Why?  I can guess that they were busy at the conference, and I could also guess they weren’t interested in that particular exhibition because the artist was not one of them.  I don’t know.  I do know that exhibition was very heavily promoted, it was listed in the participants’ information packet, posters were displayed at the conference and invitations were on the table at the conference center with all the other exhibitions.  The downtown gallery is open until 9pm, seven days a week and a mere half mile from Prescott College, it’s closer than the Bar/Restaurant exhibition and the community college exhibition.  They knew about it, and could have gotten there easily.  Yet none of the SPE attendees saw fit to have a look, I suspect the imagery (if it was considered at all) may have been way too outside their comfort zone.  They just weren’t the least bit interested in anything that was different from their own.  I was at that exhibition and I ran into a Prescott College student I’d seen earlier in the day at the SPE conference.  She too noticed that none of the SPE participants were present.  I asked her what she thought of their absence.  She replied, “Oh they’d declare this artwork ‘commercial.’”  “What products could you sell with these images?” I asked her.  She came back with, “None.  It’s not commercial at all; it’s just not their kind of art.”  Interesting insight from an art student.

The exhibition ignored by the SPE conference-goers was mine and we specifically timed the opening reception to happen when the SPE people were in town.  We assumed photographers would be interested in all kinds of photography, but we were wrong.

This isn’t sour grapes.  Teachers and students don’t buy art and my interest is in selling art to collectors, but I’d be dishonest to say I wasn’t hurt just a little.  I mean I’m open-minded enough to attend their conference and visit the galleries where their work is shown; one would think they’d be interested in all aspects of photographic art –but apparently they’re not.  Are they elitists, uninterested in things they don’t readily relate to?  Possibly, but I do know they didn’t avail themselves to readily available art and, as photographic-art educators, that’s self-limiting.  I was heartened that one photographic educator (who didn’t attend the SPE conference) did attend my show, I’ll end with that story, which took a “meaningful” turn.  The next paragraph is not fiction.

Towards the end of the reception for my exhibition an old friend came in, perused the artworks, and joined a conversation with me, my wife and another photographer.  Since our friend is a Psychic I told her, “I need to come see you for a reading, I’d like to learn about a friend of mine who passed away a few months ago.”  (My recently deceased friend was a Professor of Photography, and one of my old classmates.  In college we got along well, but as I’m now a “professional” and he was a “professor” that inevitable chasm had developed between us in the context of “art.”)  The Psychic immediately, with no hesitation whatsoever, said, “You mean Michael?”  My wife glanced at me with a look that said, uh oh, here goes the Psychic naming names until she gets a hit.  But I replied, “Yeah, that’s him.  My wife asked, “Who the heck is Michael?”  I explained that, although he went by his middle name, and that’s the name we knew him by, his given name was in fact, Michael.”  (There was no way the Psychic could have had this information in advance.)  My wife got goose bumps.  The other photographer’s eyes got as big as saucers.  Eerily, the Psychic had nailed it!  She went on to say, “He’s with you now.”  Okay, admittedly this is out-there stuff, but it’s not that out-there to me, so I said, “I hope he likes my pictures.”  “Oh he does,” she went on, “He says you’ve ‘perfected perfection.’”  (Just the sort of phraseology the guy did use.)  Wow, I thought, the nicest compliment of the evening, and from a photography professor at that!

Isn’t it ironic that none of the photographic educators attended my exhibition except the dead one?  It’s too bad he had to move “to the other side” before he could accept photography outside his narrow sphere.  How long will it take the rest of the educators?

Dale O’Dell
October 25, 2010