Friday, October 2, 2009
Robert Adams on Teaching Photography
I find a startling level of kinship with the thoughts and attitudes of Robert Adams, more specifically within his writings on photography. Adams holds a PhD in English literature, and began working full-time on his photography after many years of teaching on the university level. He also considered being a minister during much of his young adult life, a fact that has equally repelled and compelled me for some time now, although the life of the Jesuit seems more and more distant from my imagination as I continue to grow older and younger simultaneously.
As the spring quarter of my second year of schooling in photography came to a close this past May, I found myself riddled with incorrigible questions as to the nature of arts education, and of the institutional framework which forces working artists to need the economic and political relationship proffered by the university arts-based professorship. I could write pages on the dysfunctional nature of sublimating the arts to a process of standardization and the tutelage and patronage of economic institutions fueling the ideals which art strives against, yet the more pressing question is, what does it take to teach in the context of death-bent institutions funded on the hegemony of a culture of economic and political nihilism--ie: the collapse of local cultures, local economies, the family--the prioritizing and partitioning of life based upon the leviathan of the pathology of capitalism and its myths--and apart from that, how is it possible to teach something like photography as an "art," when it is the newborn baby trying to communicate in a room with the learned elders of the other artistic disciplines?
I will continue to wrestle with many of these questions. Here is what Robert Adams has to say in his phenomenal book, Why People Photograph:
Can Photography Be taught? If this means the history and techniques of the medium, I think it can. The latter, particularly, are straightforward. If, however, teaching photography means bringing students to find their own individual photographic visions, I think it is impossible. We would be pretending to offer the students, in William Stafford’s phrase, “a wilderness with a map.” We can give beginners directions about how to use a compass, we can tell them stories about our exploration of different but possibly analogous geographies, and we can bless them with our caring, but we cannot know the unknown and thus make sure a path to real discovery.
Ought photography to be taught? If at the beginning of my own photography I had taken a course in the mechanics, it would have saved time. Learning the history of the medium might also have been done more systematically in a class, but it was fun and easy to do on my own. As for the studio courses in “seeing” – which usually place student work up for evaluation by both classmates and teachers – I was never tempted to take one, and so am not attracted to teaching one. Arrogantly I believed right from the start that I could see. That was the compulsion, to make a record of what I saw. And so listening to most other people speak didn’t seem helpful. Even now I don’t like to discuss work that isn’t finished, because until it is revised over the span of a year or several years there are crucial parts that are present only in my mind’s eye, pieces intended but not yet realized. If I were forced to pay attention, as one would be in a class, to a dozen different understandings and assessments of what I was putting together it would amount to an intolerable distraction, however well meant. Architect Luis Barragan was right, I think: “Art is made by the alone for the alone.”
Am I one to teach photography? When I consider the possibility I can’t help remembering a question put to me by an affectionate and funny uncle when I told him I might become a minister – “Do you have to?” Experience later as an English teacher brought up the same issue. Teachers must, I discovered, have a gift to teach and the compulsion to use it. And faith. Anything less won’t carry you through.