« Print Critique | Main | Keep It Accessible! »

Tuesday, 05 May 2020


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

And if I remember, didn't this anecdote include the detail that you got the most amazing work from the students who didn't need a detailed assignment?

I’ve been pondering similar bits in relationship to why photography has been so important to me over the years. When I got to Germany as a young private fresh from basic training, the first thing I bought was a Canon AE-1 Program with a 50/1.8 lens. Took a lot of cliché's over the next few years. Since then I’ve become a reasonably skilled, possibly “good” photographer, especially of landscapes. Now, no one is going to go through my images when I’m gone and think “Hah, I’ve found the new Vivian Meyer!” but OTOH, they may well like more than a couple of them.

With regards to your class, I’d have been like the first gal - “hella yeah, let me out of here before he changes his mind” and I’d be off to visit my favorite places yet again, to see what they show me today, in this light that of Now that is never the same as yesterday’s was or tomorrow’s will be. I have in my minds eye a collage of four seasonal images of one place; I have one of those four successfully shot. Now to get the other three seasons...

Many species have been observed making/using tools. It would appear, however, that only genus Homo makes things pretty. In 2014, a shell engraved by Homo erectus was determined to be between 430,000 and 540,000 years old.

Photography isn’t quite 200 years old yet. Still, it is what we make of it. When a friend was bemoaning that film was dying and would be gone in a couple of years, I held up a tube of titanium white oil paint and said "I doubt it."

I take it these were millennial students? Over parented? Over 34+ years of teaching photography, I found that students increasingly wanted structure; the more open-ended the assignment the more difficult they found it. I don't recall it being like this when I was starting out, in the early 1980s, but by 2010, I had to define everything. It was as if no one knew how to think anymore.

Creative and technical considerations are not the same thing, as you know. To quote "someone": The world does not need more technically perfect boring photos".
At the same time - claiming it is "creative" or "art" to excuse a lack of ability to produce technically excellent images is a cop out.
Dedaces ago I bought a few Ansel Adams 'initial' prints when in Yosemite Valley. Used them as a guide for what good print quality was. Not black to white in all of them. Just for the quality I was striving for in my own work. They did help - along with reading and guidance/help from many who were willing to give it and were excellent photographers and printers themselves. Not "6 month experts" on Youtube.

Color or Monochrome, alt process or straight and traditional - art is its own world and is not a formula - something many never seem to realize.

It’s more obvious in some fields than others that there are right answers and wrong answers. However, I would respectfully disagree with your claim that studio art is different, that “nobody else can define the terms of success for you but you”, and that “there are no exogenous or external assurances of success in creative, expressive art”.

Once you’re established and “successful”, you can make your own rules. But until that time, “success” is externally defined by teachers (who decide whether or not you pass courses and get degrees), gallerists (who control access to prime spaces where buyers and others can see your work), art critics (who come down from the hills after the battle to shoot the survivors), established artists (who can now define success in their terms), and even your own peers. Directly and indirectly, they’re all socializing the aspiring artist in how to be “successful” (in other words, to make the “right” art). That’s just how we roll as humans. It’s the rare person who can achieve “success” in the face of strong opposition from those who have the power to decide what success is.

Of course, “success” in art, as defined externally by those who hold the power to define career success, is often very different from “success” in the way you may have meant it (art that is powerful, emotive, enduring, transformative…). (I think exploring that question would make for an interesting post.)

Long story short, I think your stubborn student realized that she was in a relationship of power with you. She understood that you had power over her because you were going to grade her, and Yale wasn’t going to accept her unless she got A+. I get the sense you didn’t enjoy wielding your power, and I bet that as a teacher you hated having to give grades. Nonetheless, you had power over her future and she knew it. The girl who waltzed out of the room quickly either didn’t understand this, or – remarkably for her age – knew but didn’t care.

I'm very amused at the argument with the last student—especially that she instantly recognized the "foot" requirement as absurd and was willing to say so.

You would have been kind of stuck if she'd turned in 24 boring very similar pictures each with a foot in them, though! It's interesting that she took on the assignment seriously enough (eventually) to manage at least one good picture in it.

I've never tried teaching art. I don't think I have the background to manage anything like judging artistic merit (I can have at least somewhat useful opinions about technical problems in photography). And of course "artistic merit" is somewhere between nonsense and a matter of opinion anyway—and yet some artists consistently produce much better work than others.

Two quick bits on the topic of straight A students from my teaching career (as a chemistry professor)...

My first semester (some 30+ years ago) as a young assistant professor teaching biochemistry (to mostly seniors), I encountered one of the type of students you mention. About midway through the semester I returned the first exam to the class. Shortly there after, a young lady appears in my office and burst into tears. I was a bit taken aback as she had earned an A- on the exam. Eventually, it came out that she had never received a grade lower than an A before. I learned a lot from that incident, most importantly to keep a box of tissues in my office to hand to sobbing young lasses!!!

When I served on our graduate admissions committee, I always said I rather take a good solid B+ student rather than a straight A student. As you say, I found that straight A students were great at jumping through hoops. However, they were not particular good at working through tough spots in the research lab. The B+ student who worked for those grades was usually much more successful in the lab.

P.S. I am sending you a print... just need to decide which one!

A slightly contrary perspective. I came to the view some year ago that a major driver of creativity lies in overcoming obstacles, or perhaps fighting against constraints. I spent a number of years shooting live jazz gigs in a small, local venue. Finding the right angles without annoying paying patrons was usually a challenge. Some nights the small stage was so crowded with a forest of music stands (isn't jazz supposed to be an improvised music form?), and the microphone stands of the local community radio station who were recording the gig, that I couldn't see any way to get decent shots. So I sat in my corner at the front and sulked. For the first few numbers.

But then as I looked and thought, I gradually saw an angle here and another one there, and started to shoot. On other nights the stage was totally clear. Guess which gigs resulted in the best images? Took me a while to realise this. In a similar vein, the local photo co-op used specify a theme for its members' exhibitions, but more recently switched to unthemed. The challenge of working against a constraint, while sometimes frustrating, often resulted in more successful entries.

While I admire the creativity of people who do quality work without constraints, I've learned not to dismiss them as a source of creativity. "Jumping through anybody else's hoops" may not be exactly the same, but it's related. As your recalcitrant student demonstrated.

I admit that after reading your post about this I spent quite a while wondering what you would actually look for.

I know what I look for when evaluating a print but basically everything I look for is a technical property of file preparation or a property of the printing process itself, whether wanted or unwanted.

The rest is common user errors; wrong or no color space, wrong or no icc profile, effects of poorly controlled color space conversions, effects of small bit depth files that have been pushed out of gamut like posterization, banding, etc.

If I had access to the printers I work with, I'd send in some prints. Since I don't, I'm considering sending you a costco print :-)

I guess the answer is that a good print is one that expresses what you're trying to say.

Like all forms of expression, it's a way of making yourself known and of "being seen". It works if it makes the viewer feel something.

What the "something" is, is up to the author of the work. The work itself may even be a question, in which case the author is interested in the viewer's unique response.

Either way, I think this is art's main difference to other subjects: in most subjects the teacher asks for a response from the student, and measures the response for fidelity against a known truth or yardstick. Art requires students produce a response in the teacher.

The teacher's job is to help the student develop the means of expression and an awareness of themselves, the world and how those who went before them fared.

Maybe art's most circular joy is when your attempt to express something of yourself evokes something in yourself that you didn't see before. Then it's a way of teaching yourself about yourself — how you feel, how you see, what you share (or don't) and why.

"Moral of the story: studio art isn't like other subjects. If you want to be a good student, don't jump through anybody else's hoops unless you want to. In the end (or the "final analysis," as the phrase goes), nobody else can define the terms of success for you but you. That's because there are no exogenous or external assurances of success in creative, expressive art."

Correct me if I'm wrong but it seems like you have set the terms for your own redundancy Mike, i.e.why should anyone pay any heed to your or anyone's critique or opinions on their art/efforts at printing based on the opening paragraph?

[Because you can learn something from it. We all have to grow. --Mike]

Mike, In your last paragraph you say we all have to begin with imitation which I agree with. At some point, however, we need to think about moving beyond imitation in some form. I am reminded of something the poet Ezra Pound said to T.S Eliot when he was editing the younger Eliot's draft of 'The Wasteland'. He said something along the lines of "the only excuse for pastiche Tom is if it's better than the original, and yours is!" The pastiches Eliot used in suctions of the long poem were of Shakespeare, Spenser and Marlowe if my memory serves me well. I often think of that when making a new print.

Colin Dixon

It seems to me that there are two kinds of critique in photography, or perhaps two kinds of critique one might solicit.

In the first case, I'm having trouble realizing my vision. Maybe it's technical, and I need help with the focusing modes. Maybe it's artistic and I can't figure out how to place form in the frame to accomplish what I can almost see in my head.

In the second case, I've made what I wanted to make, and I want to see how it grabs the viewer.

For me, personally, either because of my limited vision, or my awesome skills, I can pretty much always make the picture I wanted to make, so I never really want #1. This is a big part of why I never seek out critique, because what most people offer is #1 whether you want it or not.

At this point in my life, I *also* never ask for #2 because, at the end of the day, I have already accomplished my goal. It works for me, it's what I wanted to make, and I don't really care much what anyone else thinks. I mean, adulation and praise is nice and I ain't gonna turn it down, but if you don't get it, well, shrug. I'm not trying to sell it to you anyways.

So, Mike, I won't be sending you any prints ;) No offense meant, though! This is just me, being me, and ought not to apply to anyone else.

It strikes me that the value of teaching art to students who will never become artists is that it teaches them to explore with a minimum of boundaries. That's pretty scary to people who are programmed to accomplish a given task, and totally opposite to the way the rest of the educational system is set up.

For those students who don't do well in the STEM-oriented, teach-the-test world of modern education, art offers a chance for success. Kudos to you for showing your pupils another way to be students.

There is hope!! I'm living it. I too put prints in boxes my whole life with the expectation that I would like to have them in the future. That future is now. My retirement has coincided with the pandemic. After "staying safe at home" for the month of March, I brought six large boxes, containing many more smaller boxes, out of storage, and for the second month of staying safe at home, I have been re-viewing and scanning. April has been a good month!

Fortunately the boxes generally group the photos by year, or at least by decade. As of the end of April, I have scanned my pre-1990 photos. (My transition to digital occurred in 2003 - so post-2003 photos are already digital. I've got 13 more years of paper prints to scan - and I'll make it if the lockdown continues through the summer). I have enjoyed seeing the old photos. Once scanned, many have gone into the trash - the scan will suffice. A few are being reboxed to be put back in storage. But I also can view them in thumbnail and pop them to full screen anytime I want!

I'm not looking forward to your retirement Mike. You bring photo joy to me with every post. But there is hope saving all those photos will have been the right thing to do.

Ok. You nailed it this time.

Last night the search term "'wings of desire' full movie" popped into my head. I first saw this shortly after it was released. It is still a beacon for me.

The search was successful. I found it, on YouTube, and I downloaded it, damn the copyright issues.

And then, in the sidebar, a recommended video: Wim Wenders: Advice to the Young: "Do what nobody else can do except for you." That cannot ever be wrong. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gpCcdYkvBLY)

P.S.: For anyone who has not seen "Wings Of Desire", watch it. (2:07:44) Then watch it again.


Repeat at intervals until you die.

What did the student who rushed out first deliver as images?

[I don't recall actually! Good question. --Mike]

Although your post is now down the queue, and there won't be a comments section, I'm making my comment as a shout-out just to you. The post resonated with me as a former college professor of both studio and non-studio art, and it was for sure my favorite job of all.

So, first, I used to tell my students, on the first day of class---so there could be no misunderstandings later---what my grading regimen was (this was mostly attuned to beginning and intermediate level classes). I told them that "C" meant satisfactory work---everything was done just as it should be. "D" meant that something significant was wrong, and "F" of course was what it stood for, failure.

"B" meant that they had done a genuinely good job---exceeded all expectations that "C" encompassed. "C" was thus not bad in this scheme---it was everything by the numbers.

But "A"...."A" meant that the work inspired in me dark thoughts of envy: "Dammit, I wish I'd done/thought of that! Arrrgh". Thus they understood right from jump that "A" was a high bar. Lots of "grade seekers" dropped out in the first week during the drop-add period (and after they found out that an art class did not equal a relaxation period....

For my upper level students, when they complained I was riding them too hard, I would say that if I thought they weren't up for it and/or stupid of course I would not ride them so hard---that would be cruel. It was because they were good that I drove them so...

And btw, used to listen to HFS all the time, and heard your friend's show. Now it's college radio stations that perform this function---I especially like the low power ones whose signal you bumble into on night drives as you pass through town....

I love stories like this. Although it's a "true" story, I tend to read it like it was fiction, and I look at the characters in terms of their motivations and perspectives. I do lay psychological profiles on them.

In this case we have three batches. The first batch is composed of the students who accepted the assignment without question. Those people are psychologically pretty normal, and thus a bit boring from a "character study" point of view.

The second batch is composed of the students who questioned you and only left after they realized they weren't getting getting any more from you. These are the smart ones; the ones with eyes wide open, seeing all the possibilities, even those in the shadows. These are the kids who are wise enough to question authority but know to back away when it's not getting them anywhere. These are the kids I'd want to be friends with if I were their age.

The third batch isn't a batch, it's that one obstinate character who just wouldn't let go. This isn't a continuum of wisdom; I think this character is the least "wise" of the whole group because she's so blinded by her preconceptions and assumptions that she cannot see clearly at all; eyes fully shut. But this character makes for the best story, at least from a strictly entertainment perspective. But that story only comes out when she's got someone to butt heads with (in this case, you).

So yeah, there's something in there about studio art or whatever, but today it's the psychology that grabbed my attention. :-)

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007