This a heavily retouched version of the “first photograph from nature” by Niecéphore Niépce. There is a very nice article and series of related pictures at an ad for Red River Paper (which is as very good paper for digital printing). Titled My search for the World’s Oldest Photograph the article is written by Harrald Johnson, a very good photographer, writer, teacher and digital printer. It’s now been a year since I quite teaching photography as an adjunct. The courses I taught included History of Photography which I started doing to fill a gap in the full time faculty. I was dubious at first, then I found it fascinating. The first year I had little concept of what I needed to be doing so I taught in a didactic fashion presenting a chronological litany of relevant photographers and a few of the historical movements or genres. It took me several years to begin to understand pictorialism, and I am not certain that I have a full grasp of it even now. I am also not sure if at this point it makes any significant difference.
I had full classes, usually 45 students or so. It was a required course for those majoring in Technical Photography, the official name of the major and the department. I soon learned that most of the students were not in the class willingly, but were there to fulfill the requirement. The size militated against much in the way of discussion. I also eventually learned that the students who were genuinely interested sat in the first 3-4 rows of seats in the auditorium while the rest scattered out in the mid and rear seats. Over time I realized that I was teaching the course in an irrelevant manner. If people were interested in a particular photographer, they could find more on the internet than I could ever teach them.
In the early years I required a research paper on topics selected by the students but approved by me. I made the students submit the titles, then a one paragraph summary, then a bibliography – all at various points throughout the semester. I thought this sort of organization would be good for them. It was awful! They did it, but the effort was poor, the work sloppy, and yet their final papers were generally good. I found that I needed to have the papers submitted several weeks before the end of the semester so that the students with limited writing skill could take their efforts to the university’s writing center and get help. Some would do this, others just accepted the low grades. I eventually realized that most of these students were in a technical, read vocational, photography program, not an art/esthetics based curriculum. Further, they were visual people, not so much verbal. The research paper came to a well deserved end. I still felt they needed to be made to write and form some ideas regarding photography, so I started a series of assignments that each contained some degree of writing. The most any assignment would require was two pages, about 500 typewritten words. Some were group projects, these had all sorts of problems. I finally made the groups report their work to the class and then let the class grade them using a simple rubric based scale. The peer teaching was met with general success and approval. The only change I needed to incorporate was the concept and ability to divorce a group member who was not contributing. I had to hold court perhaps once or twice a year.
The main advantage of this approach was my ability to intermingle cultural. political, and social history with its relevant photography. Instead of three lectures on the invention of photography, I covered that topic in one lecture called Great Discoveries. The students were immediately attracted when they came into the first class and Crosby, Stills, and Nash were singing “Marrakesh Express” on the audio. When they heard about role of Graham Nash in the development of digital printing it was relevant to them. A lot more than me talking about John Herschel or Thomas Wedgewood! I told them that I doubted that Thomas and John Knoll were hiding in their family’s basement listening to rock music and smoking dope in the 80s, but the brothers did go down their regularly and use their dad’s computer to produce the basics of what became Photoshop! I probably went overboard with some assignments such as the one in which I asked them to compare and contrast Lou Reed’s “Venus in Furs” with several of Lee Friedlander’s images. They just could not get the music!
Throughout all of this I began to understand the reason we need to study history. History is so much more than a series of events or dates. It is a rich story of people and their ideas. It considers the successes and the failures, hopefully with equal emphasis. It does incorporate the events that occur throughout the world and the lessons to be taken from them. In a description of a conference regarding photographic research and history I found a very meaningful statement: “Dominant histories of photography, with their attention on individual photographers have poignantly concealed much of the interpersonal, cross-cultural and collaborative relationships that have been at the core of the development of photographic technologies and processes, photographic images and objects, knowledge and education, as well as of the making of the hegemonic history of photography itself.” As I began to understand the dominance that image making has in present society I realized that as in most professions understanding how things came to be the way they presently are would always be a huge challenge for both teachers and students. I think my experience if nothing more taught me how studying history works; now that I am retired I could be a damn good teacher.