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Trope: The Well-Made Photograph (3)

A. D. Coleman, 2010. Photograph copyright by Willie Chu.I got stuck indoors in the air-conditioning during the heat wave that began shortly after I returned from China (but is definitely not caused by global warming, as the Angel Moroni recently told Mitt Romney in a dream, according to the latest rumor out of Salt Lake City). Adrift in the doldrums until that hot spell ended last Monday, I spent my off-hours contemplating the monotonous sameness of so many of the individual photographs and photography projects I see, deciding that the main culprit is the international post-secondary photo-education system.

You can dispute that conclusion, of course, and you’re welcome to do so — right here in this space, conveniently, via the “Leave a Reply” box below (so long as you sign your real name to your comment and provide a verifiable email address). I’m intrigued by the fact that such a critique has drawn an accusation of “anti-academic” tendencies on my part, as if that were automatically a bad thing. Even if it were, there’s surely a difference between a broadly anti-academic attitude and targeted suspicion of the value of academic training in the fine arts.

Unquestioning Authority

Poets & Writers, September-October 2013, cover.By coincidence, the rise of post-secondary studio photography programs runs roughly concurrently with the rise of post-secondary creative writing programs. (Full disclosure: I went through one of those, at San Francisco State in the ’60s, for my own MA. In the intervening years, those degrees somehow morphed into MFAs at the schools granting them.) There’s a long-running, widespread, healthy debate in that field over the impact on and consequences to contemporary literary production of the academicization of creative writing. The subject comes up regularly in Poets & Writers Magazine, which periodically has devoted entire issues to it. It’s a discussion in which teachers of creative writing, administrators of such programs, writers both schooled and unschooled, literary critics and historians, editors, publishers, literary agents, and others join, blessedly free (for the most part) of the pro-institutional faction accusing those who disagree with them of bad faith.

No such expansive, sustained public dialogue has ever taken place in the field of post-secondary photo education. No single issue of Exposure, the official journal of the Society for Photographic Education, and none of the organization’s regional or national conferences, has ever addressed from multiple perspectives the basic question “Is Post-Secondary Photo Education Necessary?” (Or, less drastically, “What Went Wrong with Post-Secondary Photo Education, and Can We Fix It?”)

afterimage logo

The Visual Studies Workshop journal Afterimage, the only other periodical in which photo-ed pedagogy gets considered regularly, has sniped periodically at the SPE for various failures, real and imagined, but — perhaps because it’s umbilically attached to an institution purveying post-secondary photo-ed, and its editors and writers have mostly been VSW students and faculty — that publication has never challenged the premise of photo-ed itself. Indeed, I can’t recall a single article ever in either publication that did.

Manufacturing Consent

Nor do I expect that discussion to begin. The current generation of those who teach BFA/MFA photography studied with the first large cohort of photographers who went directly from life as photo students to life as photo teachers. Those now teaching in post-secondary studio photography programs who are under the age of 50 thus represent the second generation of photography teachers who essentially never left school once they entered kindergarten. Their cheerleading for “criticality” notwithstanding, with that heritage one should not expect from them a critical relationship to the system that has welcomed and sheltered them for so long and on which they rely for their livelihoods, nor even assume them to be aware of the manifold ways in which this institutionalization has shaped their thinking. As Marshall McLuhan was fond of saying, “Whoever discovered water, it wasn’t a fish.”

Creative Camera International Yearbook 1975

And, despite all the claims of all the photo-ed programs that they “nurture creativity” and “foster diversity,” the work of their grads, cumulatively and collectively, has an overwhelming similarity and predictability. I anticipated this homogenizing effect back in 1975, at a time when the post-secondary photo-ed system in North America was entrenching itself and consolidating the gains of the previous decade. In an essay commissioned by the editors of the Creative Camera Yearbook 1975 (UK) and titled “My Camera in the Olive Grove: Prolegomena to the Legitimization of Photography by the Academy,” I wrote:

What differentiates an academy from a guild or union is that the academy concerns itself with transmitting not just craft competence but ideas as well. It is precisely in this regard that an academy always poses a threat to the medium it nominally represents. . . .  Conventions, like standards, are embodiments of competence. But creativity and competence are often incompatible with each other. . . .

Conservative by nature, devoted (like all institutions) to stability out of self-preservation, an academy seeks to maintain the past in the present by molding the present with the past. Such an organism, whose phase is predominantly entropic, is automatically at loggerheads with its medium’s avant-garde. . . .  Historically, an academy’s relationship to the living pioneers in its medium has usually been an antagonistic one, since academies are bastions of conventionalism while subversion of the established order — emotional, aesthetic, political, philosophical, and cultural — lies close to the heart of the creative impulse. Academies tend to be the mausoleums of tradition, as museums tend to be the graveyards of art. (Click here for a PDF of the complete essay.)

In short, there’s a relationship between the emulsifying effect of post-secondary photo-ed programs and the “One Great Vat Theory” of wonton soup proposed by Roz Chast in a New Yorker cartoon from 1991. In both cases, it all comes out of the same subterranean pot.

Victims of a Spiritual Lobotomy

Of late I’ve spent many pleasant hours browsing my way through The Glenn Gould Reader, a compendium of the elegantly wrought prose generated, more or less in his spare time, by this polymathic pianist, composer, and pioneering explorer of radio as an art form. I’ve done this while listening to his peerless recordings of Bach and his multilayered, multivocal works for radio, the so-called “Solitude Trilogy.”

The Glenn Gould Reader, 1990

These essays date from the mid-1950s through the early ’80s. Then as now, all classical musicians went through academic training. In one of those essays, originally published in 1966, Gould writes about the kinds of contests in which young musicians vied against each other before panels of judges in search of prizes that would lead to performance offers, recording contracts, and other opportunities. (His jumping-off point in this case was one in Canada for violinists.) In a broader sense, though, his subject was the filtration system through which young musicians were forced to pass en route to professional careers in classical music, which included not just those contests but the conservatory training that preceded them. In it, I came across this passage:

Competitions . . . rarely benefit the supreme artist whose career would come to pass regardless. . . . Most frequently, . . . competitions merely befriend the artist whose vision, though perceptive, falls short of the ecstatic, whose merits, though unexceptionable, fail to attain the transcendental. . . . It would be foolish to discriminate against a level of competence without which our musical life would be the poorer. But while it is entirely proper to speak of competent electricians and plumbers, and hazardous — if not indeed in contravention of civic maintenance bylaws — to bargain for ecstatic ones, the notion of ecstasy as the only proper quest for the artist assumes competence as an inclusive component. The menace of the competitive idea is that through its emphasis on consensus, it extracts that mean, indisputable, readily certifiable core of competence and leaves its eager, ill-advised suppliants forever stunted, victims of a spiritual lobotomy. (“We Who Are About to be Disqualified Salute You!” in Page, Tim, ed., The Glenn Gould Reader, Vintage Books, 1990, pp. 254-55.)

Photo-Ed as Groupthink

Gould’s insight applies just as accurately to the post-secondary photo-education environment. The formal photo-ed system has evolved into a series of contests adjudicated mostly by consensus — a  groupthink environment. Applicants compete for the approval of faculty committees to get into BFA and MFA programs, then compete for the approval of faculty committees to win various departmental scholarships and awards, compete for grades, compete for the attention of the collectors who now troll their studios.

Then, entering a “real world” that increasingly mirrors the microcosm in which they pursued their academic “careers,” they flock to portfolio-review situations, paying for 20-minute cold-call encounters to compete with each other for the attention of movers and shakers, and/or send in slides and money to juried contests, in the hope of getting one image selected for an ensuing group show or (the golden grail) acquired via a purchase award — a credit that no self-respecting professional would have listed on a resumé thirty years ago — in which case they’ll send out an email blast notifying the world of that achievement. (I cannot convey the pathos of those emails, at least a thousand of which find their way to my inbox annually.)

And the single most formative of these competitions, the one I hold accountable for the cascade of well-made photo projects filled with well-made photographs that inundates us now, the young photographers’ first active engagement with the process of soliciting approbative consensus, the gauntlet they must run and survive by conforming their own inclinations to the taste patterns and ideologies of others, is the one in which they must perforce obtain their thesis committees’ approval — first for their thesis proposals, of course, and then for their completed thesis projects.

So let me put a finer point on it: The reason that photographs and photo projects based on these over-used, exhausted tropes surround and engulf us is that, for strategic reasons, their academically indoctrinated makers model them on what’s proven to be the time-honored, unimpeachable, failure-proof BFA and MFA thesis project.

(For an index of links to all posts in this series, click here.)

This post partly supported by a donation from Elsa Dorfman.

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19 comments to Trope: The Well-Made Photograph (3)

  • Len Kowitz

    You are exactly right about this. Much the same thing can be said about the “Gallery” business.

  • Edward Bridges

    Incisive commentary! Thanks so much for articulating this

  • Allan,

    I agree with you that there is a sameness to a good deal of the photographic work produced today, that I find lacking in passion, purpose, or conviction. I also agree that some of the blame for this mediocrity can be borne by the academic culture that trains and nurtures young artists. But that in itself is far too simplistic a reason. Artists reflect the culture they are surrounded by and rail against its’ deficiencies and deformaties. Perhaps this reflection of our current culture has more to do with a desire to fit in and nurture self-interest rather than question the authority of institutions and conventions that would serve a broader community. I think this is an important conversation to have, so thanks for getting it started.

  • Dear Allan

    The main problem as I see it, and have written extensively about in “Studying Photography: A Survival Guide” and discussed it in a lecture entitled “Towards a Coherent Curriculum,” given at the National Conference of SPE in Atlanta in 2011, is that students who end up being teachers, have never been taught how to teach – at least in a conscious manner. As a consequence when they themselves become teachers, the only method they can adopt is to is replicate their experience as a student but from the other side of the fence. I think this lack of education in the field of education is why the process is a self-reflexive as it is.

    It would be a mistake, at least I think, to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Higher education is actually a wonderful thing. However, its curriculum should not be driven by habit and replication but instead by a process of continual re-evaluation of assumptions and outcomes. This would involve a serious evaluation of the edifice of the “Final Project” as it seems you are about to argue, as well as every other aspect of the curriculum.

  • I agree with a lot that you have said, though it makes me wince a bit. As one of these second round educators, I may be guilty as charged (except for the school to teaching bit) Educated in the 80’s I know what is different now but I wonder what has changed in photo programs from the 60’s and 70’s. I struggle to image the the predominately B&W documentary imagery that was fed to me was more purposeful, less derivative or predictable than the images my BFA students are making today.

  • Lou Barranti

    Thanks for these essays. They ring many bells for me. One short echo from my past:

    I was confused and dismayed then, but it certainly is to laugh now. Over thirty years ago (oh, God, can that be?), I had a show in one of those New York bars that had regular photography exhibitions, as some still do. I don’t think there were any images I would want “out there” now, though, alas, enough people have prints that my questionable early work could be outed one day. I was new to the medium, but the restaurant manager (a professional photographer) saw something, some kernel, in my work (which, subject-wise, was all over the map, as was my aesthetic discrimination) and offered me an exhibition.

    During the show’s run, I was hanging out at the bar one night and was invited to join a group of people at a table in the restaurant. A young woman (I was no ancient, myself) there took an interest in the images (for a short time, like fifteen minutes, in me as well, but perhaps she’d had more to drink than I). She had some very nice things to say about them (even after she got over me). But then out came the “where did you study photography?” question.

    Well, I hadn’t. Not formally. I actually went to school for music. Certainly I must have credited the people (my father, a brother, a musical colleague, a photographer friend, a clerk at Olden Camera) who showed me the basics of camera operation, printing, etc. But there was nothing by way of classes, professors, degrees, competitions, and such with which to pad my verbal resume.

    Incredulous, dear M___ could not look at my work seriously any longer. She was a graduate of a Famous Prestigious Expensive Art College and would not, could not, any longer allow that any of what she was seeing could be any good at all, since I had learned/practiced the medium outside of an approved academic structure. Poor, poor M___. She, for her part, was now going to a Famous Prestigious Expensive Secretarial School. She told proudly of a very rigorous and rigid sort of training there that sounded downright sadistic to me. She spoke in the tone of that person one meets now and then, who says, “yes, it was the hardest class I ever took, and Miss Smith was a very mean teacher, she could reduce you to tears, BUT I LEARNED GRAMMAR.”

    • A. D. Coleman

      In the period of which you speak (circa 1980), applications for full-time post-secondary photo-ed teaching jobs in academic institutions solicited information about the prospect’s formal education in the medium, but also invited input about “equivalent professional experience.” It was still understood at the time that hands-on real-world encounters with the craft and art of photography — running a commercial studio, supporting oneself through the sales of prints and books, etc. — demonstrated a comparable mastery of the medium, and that bringing that engagement into the classroom benefitted students.

      Applications for the ever-shrinking number of post-secondary photo-ed teaching slots no longer invite input about “equivalent professional experience.” Not because no one works professionally in photography anymore, but because there’s no one in the photo BFA/MFA industry competent to assess “equivalent professional experience.” They’re mostly career arts bureaucrats who make photographs in their spare time, and have never either earned a living with their craft or supported their creative work with some other form of employment.

  • I am somewhat troubled by this notion that post secondary photography education has produced a group of self replicating clones. My own thirty odd years of teaching–in everything from community based institutions in the 1970s to colleges and universities from the 1990s onward–simply doesn’t support the evidence of this homogeneity. My close contact and relationship with former graduate students as varied as Curtis Mann, Brian Ulrich, Tom Jones, Ben Gest, Alex Fradkin, and a host of others reveals them to be a highly individualized group, successful in the field with no noticeable or conspicuous single idea binding their work. I mention their names only so that one might go to their respective websites to confirm the diversity of their works. They all are recent graduates of the institution where I currently teach.

    Of course, in my case at least, I don’t encourage such single minded thinking, seeing teaching instead as an opportunity to help students articulate their own interests and then finding the form that most clearly and interestingly articulates and visualizes those interests. So this notion that participating in an MFA program predisposes one to a standardized practice as an artist simply rings hollow to me based on real experience and from what I know of my colleagues.

    There are so many academically trained photo based artists whose works are as idiosyncratic and (I think) as engaging as their particular interests that I simply can’t accept what appears to be the basic premise of culpability of post-secondary education as the culprit for “monotonous sameness” of current photographic art practice.

    I do agree, by the way, that it is a problem to have the ranks of academia increasingly populated by artists with little real wold experience outside of the institutional cocoon, and with even less expose to the pedagogy of teaching itself.

    • A. D. Coleman

      I’ve taught only as an adjunct, never as full-time faculty, and not continuously. Even so, I too have a cluster of former students active and successful in various aspects of the medium to whom I could point. Probably true of many of our colleagues who teach.

      Certainly there are teachers to whom my generalizations don’t apply. There are also departments — or, to put a finer point on it, periods in the history of certain departments — where what I’d describing didn’t or doesn’t apply. I see those as exceptions proving the rule

      Be that as it may, what the emerging photographers whose work I see in galleries, at festivals, at portfolio reviews, and elsewhere have most in common is that, virtually without exception, they’ve been through BFA and/or MFA programs in studio photography. Write that off as a causal factor explaining the tediousness of their work and its similarity to work by former students everywhere, if you will. I won’t. The tropes I’m sketching are the new normal.

  • While I think you correctly identify the symptoms, I would submit that you miss the mark on the disease and the underlying etiology.

    Your argument sounds very much like those who, after the financial crisis, pointed to MBA programs as the source of the problem.

    In the words of Deep Throat, follow the money.

    • A. D. Coleman

      Nicely cryptic. So much so that I’ve no idea what you’re talking about. Which “money,” exactly, do you propose one should follow to get to the root cause here?

  • Its dismaying to learn, though I’ve surmised it, that the “professional experience” option has disappeared.

    Although it is likely premature to comment at all prior to the second of more parts there are a couple points to be raised. One involves “the premise of photo-ed itself” which I don’t see defined. In the ’60s and ’70s, concurrent with the publication of Aperture and workshops conducted most prominently by Ansel Adams, an important function was to build an audience for photography by demonstrating through example its practice and art.

    Its success has been, if not ecstatic, then dizzying – taking Weston prints from $25 to $1m+ with others included among them living photographers. This is not to justify “art” by the fact that some sells, but it does impact on the less celebrated who can at least quote prices comparable to other arts without being laughed at.

    A more focused second premise that was articulated by an important teacher was that the purpose was not to create artists (as if a program really could) but to increase sensitivity to both art (photographic) and life. Some chose to continue up the academic ladder initiating a self-perpetuating system. But this is really not different from most if not all other academic fields – the game changers, the innovaters, are few, not only in the arts but also sciences. Now that there is Higgs, its proponents will probably be at the center of things for some time, as certain photo genres have been for so many years since you wrote that 1975 piece, and for the many monochrome (more specifically, gelatin silver) years in institutions preceding that time.

    My own limited academic teaching experience showed me that if you encourage students to look to a variety of artists and help them with materials and techniques without predisposing them to a particular aesthetic they will figure out for themselves what they want to do, and it will likely be different than what others do. But they may not be able to make a living at it, as few creative writers make a living by writing fiction.

    • A. D. Coleman

      “The premise of photo-ed” — specifically, the premise of post-secondary photo education in degree-granting studio programs, the form of photo-ed under consideration here — is that the teaching and learning of the practice of photography in an academic setting is a good thing.

      Starting post-secondary degree-granting programs in studio photography in order to “build an audience for photography by demonstrating through example its practice and art” seems an extremely bizarre strategy for achieving that goal. Imagine rationalizing the creation of the Juilliard School as a means for increasing music appreciation via its “audience-building” function. No music conservatory, dance school, film school, art school conceives its function as “audience-building.”

      As for creating such programs for the purpose of “increas[ing] sensitivity to both art (photographic) and life” — if an individual feels himself or herself insufficiently “sensitive” to either art (photographic) or life, I don’t consider getting a BFA or MFA in studio photography as a logical or reliable cure for that condition. Sounds like New Age amateur psychotherapy to me.

  • Bruce Pollock

    This is a fascinating series of essays and I hope that, after identifying the problem, you may also provide insight into a solution and suggest photographers we could study who have broken the mould.

    I’m also interested in the comments of Jeff Hoone, above, who said, “Artists reflect the culture they are surrounded by and rail against its’ deficiencies and deformaties. Perhaps this reflection of our current culture has more to do with a desire to fit in and nurture self-interest rather than question the authority of institutions and conventions that would serve a broader community.”

    I find myself wondering how much of this ‘sameness’ is triggered by the fact that, nowadays, the number of photographs produced every day must number in the billions. Everyone with a cell phone and Instagram is a photographic artist. Is it possible that we’ve simply photographed every thing there is to photograph? And done it in every way imaginable? Like the proverbial room full of monkies with typwriters, have we finally written a novel?

    I hope I’m wrong, but it’s too sad to contemplate.

    • A. D. Coleman

      I’m not near the end of this series of posts yet, but (spoiler alert) I haven’t come up with a “solution” in all my years of observing and participating in the photo-ed system here and abroad. And I don’t expect to arrive at any solution by the time I complete this set of posts.

      The good news: Technological change may obviate the need for a “solution.” Photo programs everywhere scramble nowadays to adapt themselves to the new digital environment. Most of them are tearing out their darkrooms and installing computer stations. They’re renaming themselves as departments of digital imaging, media arts, time-based arts, and other neologisms. Their promo is relentlessly practical, more suited to the polytechnic institute than the university or art school, but it’s also consequently free of blather about “increasing students’ sensitivity to life and art.”

      In short, photo education in the sense that we’ve known it since the days of the Bauhaus and the Clarence White School, as a pedagogy for the instruction of people who would become full-time still photographers, will vanish rapidly, as still photography becomes simply another option in the media toolkit.

  • Bravo!!!
    The SPE quickly became a Job Fair.

    Walter Chappell saw it coming in the 1960’s when he titled a selection of images “Images Without Credentials”.

  • “The premise of photo-ed. . . is that the teaching and learning of the practice of photography in an academic setting is a good thing”

    OK, sure, I agree.

    In fact, these 3 Tropes (I only later realized there had been two previous) contain a veritable storm of implications that might launch a thousand theses or planning documents, if not innovative photographs.

    In the context of post-secondary education I’d set aside for now the matter of Julliard, or any “music conservatory, dance school, film school, [or] art school.” In spite of whatever gifts qualify their students for admittance no such school can guarantee a student a career as a star although individual teachers might venture such encouragement. It would be to risk a suit for false promise. Such are increasingly the case with “no-frills” schools-for-profit. And the life-sustaining teaching positions they provide art photographers are relatively few compared to those that general education can offer.

    The foundational example for your Tropes – the “doppelganger” motif – as implied in Dawoud Bey’s objection, points to the very heart of the educational process – critical thought. Nothing in recent years has pointed more clearly to the need for greater visual literacy and the ability to make critical distinctions than Bush and Iraq, and the havoc that illiteracy wreaked from inability or unwillingness to look critically at blurry pictures. The digital revolution has only increased that need. Such an area of study intersects much of the academic environment including science, where manipulation of imagery
    is taken for granted.

    Post-secondary education is not only the art products of BFA programs and teachers from MFA programs. It involves teaching students who voluntarily choose photography – studio or history – whether as a serious elective or just for fun (or an easy grade). They are a much greater number than those in degree programs. Those choosing studio may also be hoping to develop a marketable skill to pay for their education, by working in specialized photographic environments, up to working as an assistant. Once that might have included such a mundane task as spotting prints. Now it will involve some computer skills as well. Their experience with the medium can impact other aspects of their education. Even teaching basic skills used for making art, of all kinds, is a “good thing,” and research since the 1950’s has demonstrated this.

    Graduates of BFA programs need be and likely are no better qualified as “professional” artists than an English graduate is to write a novel or a graduating engineer is to build a bridge, but the artist or English graduate might have work that someone else will want to exhibit or publish, however slim the chances, or which might at least demonstrate useful skills.

    The BFA and MFA programs should offer or even require exposure to other facets of the art world than creating and exhibiting one more set of dour student head shots or empty streets.
    For some students, arts or business management, or city planning, e.g., might prove a more attractive focus than replicating visual themes over-explored by others. The programs should also require exposure to and digestion of important cultural documents that predate if not contextualize Benjamin, Sontag and some others on that “ur-reading list.” In particular works from the Great Books series selection wouldn’t be inappropriate, and IMHO, from possible overexposure to streams of social media imagery on Facebook, there is renewed relevance for Northrup Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. The categories, they’re a changin’.

    For Dan younger’s quandary as well as for others concerned about the diminished visuality of contemporary photography, I’d suggest a moratorium on text-assisted images until the student’s photographs can be directly read and felt. Otherwise, encourage them to take some writing classes.

    • A. D. Coleman

      I didn’t intend my citation of the Doppelgänger premise as a “foundational example.” In fact, as subsequent posts make clear, the trope I consider most common, and most exhausted, is a taxonomic, sociological, cataloguing format that neither of the Doppelgänger projects identified in that first post resembles. By contrast, the Doppelgänger premise is much less common, and of relatively recent vintage (though it has its antecedents).

  • “a taxonomic, sociological, cataloguing format” –

    Hope you’re ready – Facebook is on its way to universalizing this format, in the way that it provides visualization of 4 or more images uploaded simultaneously (4 being a variant of two rows, and 9 or more, a matrix of 9), with content potentially user determined.

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