The teenage photographic challenge

We live in a world where more photographs are made than ever before.  The teenagers that I teach are part of a generation who are barely able to live without their ever-present phone and photographic device in their hand. They are totally comfortable it would to record all around them and themselves for digital sharing on one of the many social media platforms.  It is all so easy and immediate.

As an art teacher it is fantastic to have the possibility to make use of the photographic medium so easily.  Yet experience shows that successfully getting worthwhile pupil work is surprisingly difficult to achieve.  Indeed, one of the problems I feel I face is the very casualness of the way many teenagers approach photographic documentation.  It is all so easy, point and shoot, endless quantities of images can be taken at no cost at all and the device of choice (the phone camera) always being with us in a pocket or bag. This same casualness brings also a sort of complacency or at less a much-weakened critical judgement.  Few teenagers ever look at their photographs on a screen bigger than that of their phone, fewer still bother to stop and evaluate the successes or failures of a composition.

Over the years I’ve experimented with a number of photographic assignments. Some have produced the results I hoped for such as a photographic exchange project and photographic art work reconstructions, others haven’t though and have resulted in mediocre or simply disappointing results.

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By David Hockney

This year’s photographic variation is a project based on the collages made by the British artist David Hockney during the 1970s and 80s. Hockney’s work used extensive sets of photographs that he had taken of various subjects, people, interiors and landscapes. These were reassembled in an overlapping fashion to document the view and made active use of distortions, disruptions and twisted perspectives that the process produced.

The resulting works are fascinating to see.  I showed my two classes of fifteen year olds a selection of Hockney’s work. I explained. They looked. Were they actually seeing and understanding what they were looking at and grasping the process? To be honest, in education I have that feeling more often. For most of them is was a completely unfamiliar way of working with a camera, but to be honest, I didn’t think that it was so complex or difficult!

 

A week later the pupils arrive with their own set of photographs at school. In most cases, still on their phones. There is a misconception that teenagers are technological able and literate.  In some areas maybe, but occasionally a surprise comes along…..in this case it seemed like more than half of the class had little idea how to get photographs off their phones and onto a desktop computer.  It seems a little symptomatic of a development I’ve noticed over last couple of years.  At the school where I teach all pupils have an iPad.  I’ve written before about how we in the art department make use of it.  There are new tools and new possibilities, but with it has undoubtedly also come a diminishing capability and familiarity with using a laptop or desktop computer.

I am digressing a little……. eventually the photographs the pupils have made are onto the computer and the creative process begins.  The room quietens, and the pupils gain that fixed gaze that comes when a computer-based activity engages them.

It is a puzzle, but a fascinating one to do.  In the end, the work is relatively quickly done.  The results in some cases are quite complex.  As always, you learn during the process, what are the extra directions that you need to give to guarantee a suitable set of photographs or maybe spend just a few more minutes looking at and analyzing Hockney’s collages in order to make sure the pupils have some insight in choosing appropriate subjects.  But overall the results are good, certainly interesting enough to have another go at it next year.

 

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Stealing the physics’ department thunder…and a little art room magic

Every year with my classes of first years (12 year olds) I spend part of a lesson looking at the Anolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck. It is a beautiful painting from the 1430s. It is a fantastic example of van Eyck’s technical brilliance, it is also a painting loaded up with symbolic content, has an interesting narrative back story and contains unbelievable levels of painterly detail.  All good reasons to show it to the pupils.

arnolfiniThe question always comes up….’how did he do that?’. It’s a very understandable question to ask and one that British artist David Hockney also asked in his book and tv programme entitled Secret Knowledge that raised a similar point and gave particular attention to the hugely intricate chandelier that hangs at the centre of the painting.  It is a phenomenally complex object that has been rendered with an accuracy that it difficult to believe. The perspective of the decorative arms of the chandelier just looks so ‘correct’ as Hockney puts it.

Hockney’s theory is that van Eyck was an early user of a camera obscura to aid the drawing of this intricate structure.  The device makes an optical projection that could, just maybe have been allowed to fall on his canvas, thus allowing him the chance to simply trace over it.  It is a theory that I have to say I see as being very plausible.

I explain the theory to my first years, draw a diagram on the board and give them a basic physics lesson about the behaviour of light. Often I’m not completely sure if the whole class is ‘getting it’. So, I dash down the corridor to the physics department and borrow their camera obscura. I set it up, with its tracing paper screen overlooking the railway that runs past the classroom and invite the pupils to come and have a look. It’s a real ‘wow’ moment that follows!

Even in this world of mobile phones and huge LCD screens the projection the pupils see silences them. CinemaScope it certainly isn’t, however, using such basic materials I am able to create a projection quite unlike anything they have ever seen and something that gives a scientific insight into a way of working that Jan van Eyck, nearly 600 years ago may just have been making use of.

Are we all romantics at heart?

The exhibition ‘Romanticism in the North’ at the Groningen Museum in the north of the Netherlands presents an extensive collection of landscape paintings, mostly from the early nineteenth century, and features work by the likes of William Turner, Casper David Friedrich, John Constable and Johan Christian Dahl. It is a succulent collection of paintings that ooze technical quality and present, not unsurprisingly, a romantic view of, predominantly, the landscape. The effect of light and dark on our surroundings is a recurring theme as is the weather and in particular an inclination for the slightly threatening nature the weather can take.

But it is the locations that the paintings show and how they are framed up that catches the eye. There is beauty and drama, and it is all so carefully composed. I find myself almost wanting to be there. These are the sorts of places in the busier and more hectic moments of our day to day existence that we might wish to escape to.

Romanticism in art regularly encouraged a sort of reflective escape, an escape from the present and a look back to the past. A reaction to a period to change perhaps, the hints of a more modern world lay on the horizon.

Now, two hundred years later we can still relate strongly to these images. These are still the sorts of places we like to visit and document for ourselves, although nowadays that is more likely to be using a camera whilst on a day trip out or further afield on a holiday. We still love the landscape and still have a pretty romantic view of it. We like to frame up a photograph of a lighthouse in the breaking waves, a mountain stream or the descending sun that is turning the whole sky a burning shade of orange.  In these paintings human activity is held at arm’s length, we view any figures at a distance, there is little engagement. It all feels a little individualistic.

And yet in the romantic landscape there is an understated side dish, that takes us away from a sense of idealised tranquillity. This more unsettling edge comes in the form of weather at its more extreme. An impending storm gathers on the horizon, a lone figure battles with the wind, mist or darkness descend on the landscape, a ship is dashed on a coastline or a waterfall plunges from a dizzying height. All of these would have brought an edge of danger to the viewer more than two hundred years ago, a danger in these sorts of environment that they were maybe more familiar with than we are today. Yet of course, when viewed by way of a painted image then there is little actual danger involved. It was an experience more comparable perhaps with the way we approach, and love the safer sort of danger, as it is presented to us in an adventure or disaster movie.