When you teach photography in college there’s a background plan. Students don’t see it but it’s the shape of what they learn, when they learn it, and why. On a PGCE training it’s called the scheme of work and lesson plans. You are examined for this, because it’s an essential part of teaching. If Ofsted inspects, they want to see those notes.
As the years pass it becomes unnecessary because a good teacher internalises the work. You know what you’re doing because you’ve done it before. Ofsted still want to see it, so it’s a performance more than a check on ability; but that’s another matter. The fact remains, planning underlies teaching and you must know how to do it.
My ten week courses started with basic technical matters about workflow, software, different cameras, computers and the internet. You can’t assume the ability of students and must be prepared for anyone, then adjust the skill level according to who arrives. You have a structure, then improvise on the basis of questions and needs.
The end of my courses were more conceptual, introducing famous photographers and their practice. I taught about Martin Parr for example, and a woman called Shirley Baker who worked in Manchester and Salford. Parr is well known for satirical pictures mocking both upper and lower class society. He photographed seaside resorts and holiday destinations, depicting tourism as an alienated consumption of other places; not the adventure or idyll of travel brochures. Baker photographed back streets and poverty areas with a sympathetic eye, capturing human spirit with artistry and compassion.
Photography is partly conceptual and partly aesthetic. It’s based on technical knowledge comparable with other crafts, like using a saw in carpentry or cutting marble for a sculpture. There is a theory and practice intersection, and you might wonder for example how Parr or Ansel Adams exposed their pictures. The first often used a ring flash which creates a flat light effect without the shadows of a normal flash gun. The second used what he called the Zone System which translates (I taught this) into an understanding of the digital histogram.
The teaching methodology of craft and concept, used in colleges, is built on the idea of a photographic vocabulary. It’s the basis of my teaching whereby landscape practice rests on multiple factors you learn to understand. The traditional ‘workshop’ scenario consists of introducing students to an iconic location with viewing potential, partly for the pleasure of being there. But this doesn’t always cover the full photography vocabulary which is independent of a location; and it relies on tolerable weather and photogenic conditions.
Here is one of many concepts to consider: can you obtain a good photograph in a modest place? The answer is yes, depending on other factors such as the light. Conversely you will find some pictures of Scafell Pike, Torridon, other iconic places, are not very interesting. This leads to another concept which is the difference between what the eye sees, connected to your feelings at a spectacular location, and what the camera sees. You’re excited, inspired, enjoying the moment; but then your pictures disappoint if you don’t understand visual vocabulary.
A comprehensive teaching methodology isn’t based on a good location. If a student photographs the view of Great Gable from Wasdale, seen a thousand times, your job as a teacher is to point out the limitations of what’s already been done. This doesn’t mean don’t photograph it, indeed there are reasons for doing so. It means there are different contexts, goals, intentions, and photographic vocabulary isn’t confined to a location. Conceptual understanding applies anywhere. You may not have the opportunity to walk in wild places as much as you would like, but want to advance your photography anyway.
There’s a difference between static photographs at an iconic place, and walking photography as you enjoy the outdoors. The first confines you, usually with a tripod, waiting for the vocabulary of light. The second is the more widely pursued activity, with a varied vocabulary as the landscape changes. There’s also a philosophical difference. In the first scenario, you stalk a scene for dramatic potential. With walking photography you travel through a landscape with feelings about nature, relationship, and discovery.
I write like this is a magazine column. With research, references, and a lot of time. If you like it, perhaps you would support me.