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Tuesday, 20 June 2023


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It seems like the ones who are most prolific post a lot of photos that are quite marginal, and others get inspired and say oh I can do that and then they make similarly poor photos. For me, it’s not enough to have people in focus and standing around or walking around doing nothing special or remarkable. I can see that out the window.

I went out for an hour on Sunday and made some photos and did a post about how to edit tightly and why it’s so important. I included some possible street photos and several outs to show what doesn’t make the cut. https://6x6portraits.wordpress.com/2023/06/19/street-photography-a-documentary-exploration-of-human-behavior/

The constant need to post work and show something when the work isn’t worthy of being shown, that’s what fills many Instagram accounts, and bombards us with mediocrity.

Another take on TC's observation: "The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias whereby people with low ability, expertise, or experience regarding a type of task or area of knowledge tend to overestimate their ability or knowledge."

Many people who don't know what they don't know are often overconfident to the point that they feel free to advise others, based on their self-evaluated mastery of the skill.

When she was 11 or 12, my daughter took guitar lessons from a guy, I'll call "Guy."* Guy was a good guitar player. I mean he could do anything he wanted to with a guitar, play in several different styles, change keys for a song seemingly without effort and so on.

My daughter was a beginner, picking out the melodies to songs she liked. Every once in a while, Guy would say, ". . .or you could go like this" and proceed to shred a tune in a manner that was way out of my daughter's league. I always kind of resented that -- not because Guy wasn't a good guitarist, but because he seemed incapable of either "meeting my daughter where she was" or resisting the urge to perform/show off.

My daughter's experience made me think that the worst thing you can do as a teacher is waste your pupil's time. Time is, after all, a resource you can't get more of once it is gone.

Seen from Guy's perspective, I am sure that he was using teaching to stretch his dollars in between paying gigs. Still, that was it for that level of guitar lessons for my daughter.

*Obviously, not his real name.

My experience is that I learn more from getting something wrong, working out what I'm doing wrong, and then working out how to fix what I'm doing wrong.

People who are lucky enough to have innate talent for something tend not to get things wrong so they don't go through the process of working out what they're doing wrong as often as people without the same level of innate talent do. They don't learn to fix things they're getting right because those things don't need fixing. They may be good at teaching others how to do things they had to learn to do well but they're not good at teaching others how to do something that they themselves never really had to do well.

On the other hand someone who had to work at learning how to do something well, who made their fair share of mistakes along the way or even more than their fair share and eventually achieved proficiency is more likely to be better at teaching someone who has a problem how to do it better. I say "more likely" because teaching isn't just about being able to identify the problem and knowing how to fix it. Good teachers are good at working with students, being patient, not talking down to them, and at encouraging them along the way to developing the necessary skills.

We all tend to be better at helping people learn to do things we had to learn to do ourselves. If we never had to learn to do it, if it came to us naturally and we just kept doing something in essentially the same way we first did it, then we've never really had to learn how to do it ourselves and that makes it harder for us to teach someone else how to do it simply because we've never had to develop a real understanding of just what it is we're doing.

You did a good job explaining what makes a good teacher, but that is only one half of the learning equation. The best teacher of any discipline can't give knowledge to a person that won't receive that knowledge. Whether it is a large ego that convinces the student that he can't be shown anything or just a closed mind that won't even allow them try to be taught, a great teacher will not succeed when matched to this student.

I was a student of the martial arts since the '60s and of course was a follower of Bruce Lee back in the day. He gave a Chinese parable to simplify the value of being a good student. A teacher was trying to give a philosophy lesson to a young know-it-all student who questioned and challenged everything the teacher said. The teacher stopped the lesson and poured tea for he and the pupil. The student's cup filled and started to overflow. The student then said, "Stop, no more can go in!" The teacher then said "Yes, you must empty your cup to taste my tea."

The student quickly saw the analogy. The cup was his mind, and being full would not accept anything the teacher offered... tea or knowledge.

I've always liked teaching skills, one on one. My third job in my first restaurant, still in high school, after learning dishwashing (harder than it sounds) and assistant line cook, was head cook, in charge of grilling all the steaks and steaming the seafood in a sometimes busy steak and lobster place. And cooking the prime rib and finding the right cut for someone.... and training new assistant cooks and cooks. Often training meant a quick demonstration, then watching with correction if needed, and when it got busy, cooking half their food too until they learned how to work at speed, which just took time.

When I taught newspaper in a high school, one of the reasons I took that job was that they gave me a class period to do it in (instead of after school) and I could run it more like a journalism production lab, with me a head problem solver, mostly working one on one.

"If someone is naturally good at something and has never experienced problems, how would they know what the problems are?"

Are you saying that anyone who is good at street photography is just "naturally good and has never experienced problems"? That seems a bit presumptuous, because I certainly didn't say that.

However, it's interesting that you do say that, because the common assumption that SP, unlike other genres, doesn't require the acquisition of skill through practice and technique, does go a ways towards explaining the phenomenon that I alluded to in my original comment.

Also, in both of your tennis examples, it was people who are actually good at tennis providing the instruction, but I'd think both of them would be preferable to an instructor who was just not good at tennis.

I hope this clears things up somewhat.

I've got a great physiotherapist with a practice in legal district of the CBD. Unsurprisingly, most of his clients are lawyers (as am I). Having had my shoulders worked on, he gave me some homework - one simple rehabilitation exercise to be repeated for six minutes once per day. I quizzed him about why only one exercise and why only six minutes. His response: lawyers billed in six minute units and would readily give up one unit per day without hesitation; but they would not give up two or more units. As a simple rehabilitation exercise could be repeated numerous times within six minutes, he always assigned the single most beneficial rehabilitation exercise to be undertaken for six minutes. However much or little that exercise achieved, it was better than no exercise.

I have since adapted his approach to my teaching - my goal is to set students exercises they are both willing and able to do on the basis that if they do them and learn anything (however little), it was better than the alternative; namely, doing nothing and learning nothing.

My first teaching job (part-time) was at a school for the arts in Atlanta, ~1986. I always taught commercial photography and the business of photography, not fine art photography. I studied advertising photography under Gemma Gatti, and she taught successful commercial photography was fine art photography with advertising on top. The school’s full-time photo teacher asked me to teach him location lighting because he was asked to do a friend or family member’s wedding. He appeared a bit anxious in a bad way about this. So we talked briefly, and I learned he had an MFA in photography but had never learned studio lighting or worked a commercial job. So that teaching statement can be true, but sometimes programs are looking for experienced talent with a name locally to boost their enrollment.

I offer the following verso to TC's riddle: Why are those who are highly skilled at some activity so reluctant or, more often, so utterly inept at teaching others?

Ask Michael Jordan how he became so good at basketball. Roger Federer at tennis. Et. al. You won't come away with any useful tips beyond "practice, practice, practice".

Taking photography beyond its essential technical craftsmanship requires skills and talents that cannot be taught. At best, they can be ignited with a camera...or a pencil, or a paintbrush.

BTW, if "TC" is who I think he is, he is an extremely talented and rather renowned photographic artist in his own right!

Powell's Books in Portland often hosts author nights where a writer reads excerpts from their latest book. There is also a Q&A, and I was both disappointed and amused to overhear one with audience questions like "Do you use a pencil or a pen?", "What kind of paper?", etc.

The session seemed to be attended mostly by people trying to become writers and looking for any kind of magic bullet to make a book happen for them. I felt bad that none of those people asking those kinds of question would ever write anything of value. Maybe there was one new budding writer in the room that through it all heard "It doesn't matter. Just write. This is what works for me. You gotta figure out something that works for you."

I had a similar kind of peppering of questions when I returned to school after getting my teaching gig, mainly about what I did on my interview. What was a fascinating exercise for was that , though I'm not a great teacher I am naturally a teacher type, I had to think hard to make explicit to myself, then to the group, what I had done as an interviewee-- e.g. when I visited the schools, thought about what they needed from me and how particularly I might meet those needs with my particular interests and strengths-- basically paid attention to them and made them pay attention to me. I worried that the more vocal peers that asked procedural questions like "Did you email them immediately after?" etc, well, they seemed to line up personality-wise with not being natural teachers, and probably should've sought a different gig.

I love the succinct advice "Meet them where they are." Useful in teaching, useful on an interview, useful on a first date, useful in photography, useful in life.

I can't claim to be a world-class doer, or a world-class teacher, but I do a lot more than I teach.

I love the opportunities I get from time to time to talk about, demonstrate, or instruct in photography. The job is often quite solitary; I've seldom worked on projects large enough in scope to involve an assistant, and rare are the gigs that have needed more than one photographer on hand. Often, when I teach, I will be putting into language skills that I have only thought about and practiced internally.

We all remember poor teachers, and this can reinforce the notion that teaching is an inferior discipline to supposed excellence. But I think this is misleading. Like your tennis coach, a great teacher can do more for the sport and the individuals he/she works with (and on a deeper level than mere technique) than a grand slam winner ever could.

In professional cycle racing the greatest achievers are not usually good at supporting others, whether in a coaching or mentoring role or tactically when in the team car. The driven nature of 'winners' and their leadership role within the group, combined with their innate talent, mean they invariably don't understand the role of their journeyman teammates.

With photography I think I have learnt more from the 'why' than the 'how'. Although learning things like the rules of composition help one understand why some images work better than others, it is not difficult to use a camera. However, it certainly is hard work trying to make meaningful images that stand the test of time. One thing that appears to link all great photographers is a sense of purpose, of needing to produce significant, meaningful work.

Imagine taking a photography lesson from Eggleston or Friedlander!
As much as I love both, I doubt that would be very satisfying.

I would love to sit in on a lesson by Robert Adams. Aside from admiring his body of work, I find that he is by far the most eloquent writer/educator on photography that I am aware of.

-Speaking of Friedlander. Check out this conversation with his grandson - and try to visualise how a Friedlander photography lesson would pan out:

If you've ever listened to a grade-school orchestra concert, you realize that it's not necessary to know how to play an instrument to make valid criticisms of the music. Of course, in that case, you keep your criticism to yourself.

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