This project will explore approaches to teaching photography to identify what makes an effective teaching provision for the subject in Higher Education: what is ‘photography’ in a modern photographic educational context, is there a need for emphasis on the technical aspects of photography and for photography to be taught as a subject independent from other art subjects?
With the aim of listing transferable skills across creative subjects, photography education, is rapidly being homogenised into visual arts curriculums. Photography long seen as a vocational, technical subject, somewhere between science and art, is quickly being absorbed into generic courses such as creative media or visual arts. The franchising of University courses to Further Education establishments has driven a “shift in syllabus…away from practice in favour of research and debate” (Smith, 2016). This move away from the technical aspects of photography is leaving a gap in essential knowledge and an argument could be made for the need to expand the breadth of approaches to photography to facilitate a closer relationship between theory and practice (Harper, 2015).
There have always been issues with categorising photography in both Art and Academic worlds, Figure 1. Shows the interdisciplinary nature of photography. For me the standardisation of ‘Creative’ subjects, particularly photography is flawed. The world through the eyes of a photographer is very different to that of an artist of any other subject and that homogenisation is producing work that looks at the world through similar viewpoints regardless of the medium.
Photography is defined by the frame, as much by what is excluded, as by what is included. The choice to include only what is wanted or necessary in a painting for example, is often not available to the photographer. A photographer’s palette is restricted largely by the real world.
Photography crosses cultural, social and language barriers, you do not need to be able to read or write, speak or understand the local language to communicate using photography. Photography is engrained in every aspect of our modern lives: social, cultural, political, personal. It can be used to provoke social change, to raise awareness, to show peoples stories and communicate different perspectives. It helps to democratise not only art and media, but also society, its role, in every element of life from the mundane and vernacular to the scientific and political, has allowed it to become so commonplace that it as almost inseparable from everyday life.
Yet, the importance of photography seems to be lost in education. It is largely being swallowed up to be insignificantly distinguishable from any other form of art, to be discussed and critically analysed as any other part of the art curriculum or to be used as an artist’s tool. Photography is a tool, a resource that can be used across the spectrum of education and as Noam Schimmel describes “Photography is a powerful way to bring topics to life and enhance students’ understanding of different perspectives and representations” (Schimmel, 2022) and is a “particularly helpful tool for teaching about culture” (ibid).
Photography is distinctly different to other art forms. It is technically full of compromises and limitations. Depth of field, for example, an inherent flaw from the use of lenses, is only evident in photography and so photography has its very own language and disciplines. Without knowledge of those quirks of photography, it is difficult to have a discussion about photography, to critically evaluate or to understand the contextual issues surrounding it.
At the time of writing (July 2023) the qualifying bodies are rapidly removing vocational level qualifications from their offerings, City & Guilds have already removed all of their photography certifications, NCFE and UAL (University of the Arts London) are removing their photography specific qualifications as of the end of the 2022 academic year and other bodies such as EdExcel have already removed lower level qualifications. This leaves a very limited photography dedicated progression route to Higher Education and as a consequence, Higher Education Photography courses are rapidly being amalgamated into ‘visual arts’ courses.
With the current trend in generative AI, photography is currently at a critical moment, where the boundaries between photography and other art forms are becoming increasingly blurred and their is some doubt about what the future of photography will look like. There has never been a more important time to be discussing what the future landscape of photography education.
With the above in mind, my research will explore in broad terms the following:
1. What is photography in a modern educational context?
The ‘democratisation’ of photography by digital technology, means that those traditional ideas and concepts of what photography encompasses, are perhaps no longer valid. The development of the technology means that photography is no longer in the hands of those with technical knowledge or financial access. The ‘camera’ has become a versatile instrument that almost everyone carries and captures multiple media types, stills, videos and a wide range of image formats from panoramic, 360 degree immersive images. With the current wave of Generative Artificial Intelligence (AI), photography is becoming even further divorced from the traditional ideas of ‘camera’ and ‘photographer’. Where does photography begin and end and what parts of it define photography education?
2. How important is the need for photography specific technical training in a photography curriculum?
“Digital cameras focus and expose without user intervention and give instant feedback. They produce publishable images that can be immediately distributed across the globe” (Smith, 2016 p.267) there is an assumption that anyone can take photographs and that the technical aspects are no longer relevant. Now, many of the roles that once belonged to the photographer, have been handed as add on roles to other people: journalists, designers, marketers, influencers who often have no training or experience.
With the introduction of AI applications such as DALL·E 2 and Google’s Imagen that create photo realistic images from inputed text, this question is becoming more relevant. Alberto Romero (2022) discusses the similarity in the way that AI is currently disrupting the art world with the way that photography did in the 20th century.
If it is no longer necessary to know how to use a camera to create photographic images, or even need a camera at all to create them, does the technical training matter? Should the curriculum return to a focus on critical theory?
3. Is there a need for photography education to remain independent from other art forms?
Traditionally photography was separated institutionally between the creative artist and vocational. In the 70s there became an emphasis on social and cultural theory and the ‘New Photography Theory’ challenged the “autonomy of photography as an independent mode of self-expression” (ibid). “This emphasis on theory, contributed to the growth of photography in Higher Education “however it has left drawbacks and inconsistencies in contemporary provision” (ibid). Does a broader arts program provide more transferable skills? If photography specific technical knowledge is no longer required, then would a broader arts curriculum be more beneficial?
Although there is a wealth of information on teaching Arts subjects in a more generalised sense, there is much less literature specific to the teaching of photography. Although I have identified over thirty texts, even the most recent of it is dated. The following texts are the ones that relate the most to my research:
In Talking about Practice: photography students, photographic culture and professional identities (1997) Darren Newbury of the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design describes how “despite the social and cultural importance of photography…photographic education is an area that has inspired very little in the way of academic research” and little seems to have change in the intervening years. Indeed, even the quintessential handbook for many photography courses Langford’s Basic Photography, the most recent 15th edition (2015), dedicates as much of its content to film photography and darkroom editing as it does to digital photography despite film camera manufacturing having being reduced to niche and specialist areas.
The most significant literature that I have identified is from 2016 or earlier (Horner, 2016; Rand et al, 2015; Borge, 2014 ) and although of use, are outdated, partly in educational terms, but particularly in terms of the technological aspects of photography.
Teaching Photography (Rand et al, 2015) is a comprehensive piece of literature and works as an excellent starting place for the project. It explores in broad terms an approach to teaching photography from the philosophical aspects to the use of taxonomies in the design of curricula. However, there are elements that are outdated in teaching and photographic terms, for example the use of learning styles, which have been widely criticised (DfE, 2019 p20) and the technological aspects that have changed in the time since the book was published, both in photography and in teaching, such as the use of virtual learning environments.
I found that the book veered too far from the photographic and into more generalised teaching methods. In narrower terms however, Rand stresses the importance of subject specific knowledge. He identifies the difficulty in maintaining the “flow of knowledge” (p36) and that students ask questions to “clarify, impress, quarrel” (ibid) and without that subject knowledge it is difficult to to respond to those questions if teachers are only “two weeks ahead of the students” (p37).
Ansel Adams An Autobiography (1996) describes Adams experience of developing and delivering photography curricula. Adams reference to teaching is unfortunately a single chapter in the book, however it does discuss the importance of fundamental skills such as composition and exposure and his approaches to making photography courses an “a short-term, intense experience” (Adams, 1996, p268) and the importance of students “taking command of the medium”. He also describes how other artists at the school “arose in wrath and protest; photography is not an art, they claimed, and had no place in an art school” (Adams, 1996, p269). The idea that photography is not an art is even more prevalent today in the digital age, where everyone is a photographer.
The Golden Decade (2016) an immense volume documenting Ansel Adams founding of the Photography Department at the California School of Arts between 1945-55 and his work and that of his contemporary photographers and educators.
Starting as a single 4 week course ran by photography pioneer Ansel Adams the facility over those 10 years included some of what are now recognised as the most significant photographers in the history of the subject. This book is important, because many of the skills and techniques that are now the basis of modern photography were developed by Adams and his contemporaries. Minor White one of those contemporaries who taught alongside Adams at the California School of Fine Art, documented Adams approach (White, 1956). He identifies how the photography courses were “as flexible as possible” giving students the experience of a “practicing photographer” (White, 1956, p151-152).
Rethinking Photography: Histories, Theories and Education (Smith, 2016) is probably the most relevant text that I have found. Specific to Higher Education, the book reflects upon the changes to photography education and particularly the disparity between academic and vocational approaches. It documents the variety of approaches to photography education in Higher Education, discusses those approaches but makes limited conclusions to what the best approach is.
The most recent academic paper that I have been able to access, specific to teaching photography is by the University of Gloucestershire’s Sharon Harper, written in 2016. The paper discusses how photography theory and research has “not kept pace in scale or breadth” with professional specialisations and how, as described earlier, many of the texts used as the “cornerstone” of photography teaching have not changed in decades (Harper, 2016).
Prolific writer on the philosophy of photography, Daniel Rubinsteins’s 2009 article Towards Photographic Education argues that photography education is attempting to “cling to the historical moment of photography” (Rubinstein, 2009, p135) and that it “fails to address contemporary conditions…because it perceives the digital turn in technological terms” (ibid).
The article discusses how Ansel Adams approach to teaching photography may not be appropriate in the digital age and how photography education needs to “become interdisciplinary” as Dimitrios Stamovlasis had described at the Interdisciplinary Theme for Science, Technology and Art Symposium in 2001 (Stamovlasis, 2001). In 2009 Rubeinstein was declaring that “the age of the still image is over” (Rubinstein, 2009, p140) and that “the notion of camera is rapidly becoming a thing of the past”, I would suggest over a decade later the still image and the camera are not dead yet and in my own anecdotal experience, because of the rise of digital photography and its interdisciplinary the demand for high quality photography education, specific to the still image, is higher than ever. By 2024 the UK photo merchandise market (printing) is predicted to grow by 57.9% to a staggering £330 million (Oakley, 2022).
The intended aim of this project is to determine if there is a need for independent photography education in HE, to identify what makes an effective photography teaching provision and how that fits into current landscape of photography education, through researching current literature, qualification specifications and courses, interviewing photography academics, practitioners and students.
The overall objective is to build a resource that can be used as a reference point for developing photography curricula, schemes of work and teaching programmes.
- Primary research – Interviewing academics in current photography programmes and industry professionals about their experiences of photography education. Questionnaires and interviews with students during and after photography education.
- Secondary research – Building on the educational and subject specific research that already exists.
- Professional narrative – the project will reflect upon my own experiences of practicing and teaching photography and developing photography teaching provision.
The project will be an exploration of opinions and ideas about teaching photography, collation of those ideas and analysis of the reaction and responses of students to the teaching.
The project will build on previous photography teaching literature and research and broader more generic teaching literature. The project will not be an analysis of hard facts and statistics, more an exploration of opinions and ideas from people who practice and teach photography and feedback from the students who are in the process of learning it.
How does this project further existing knowledge?
This project will examine photography teaching provision in higher education. With the rapid changes in photography education and image making technology, any new research will have a significant impact.
Previous work in the proposed field
Alongside my twenty four year, award winning career as a practicing photographer, I have been teaching the subject across a diverse range of settings and to a variety of students, from secondary school children to medical students. I have taught to vulnerable adults, in the community, on private trips and tours, workshops and classes and on vocational and academic courses in Further Education and degree level in Higher Education. I have lectured and talked to College and University students, industry organisations, camera societies and clubs and used my experience to teach on broader subjects, such as mental health, media studies and film production. I have knowledge and experience of the pathways and progression routes to Higher Education and how Photography Education in HE is affected by those routes.
My previous research includes Approaches to Teaching Photography in FE/HE: Vocational vs Academic and the gap in knowledge (2022), How has the proliferation of photographic images on platforms such as social media changed the value of photography as art? (2021) and the influence and impact of photography on twentieth century artists (2020). Each of these have elements that will be relevant in this research project.
|Year One||Reading current literature, identifying approaches to teaching photography. Identifying personalities to interview.|
|Year Two||Interviewing and gathering data from academics, practicing professionals, educators, students|
|Year Three||Analysing the outcomes of my research, interviews, questionnaires and evaluating the conclusions.|
|Year Four||Consolidating resources, experience and documentation. Write up.|