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.

Alice Neel exhibition…. Portrait painter

Let me start with a confession; the paintings of Alice Neel had largely passed me by until a few months ago. My attention was then drawn to them by an image that was sent to me by my colleague artist and art teacher, Pasi, in Finland.  We’ve been busy setting up a photography project between my pupils in the Netherlands and his in Finland. (For more information about this use the link below).

Netherlands-Finland photography project

One aspect of the project has involved drawing some comparisons of photographic portraits and painted ones.  Within this context Pasi sent me a collection images, including a self-portrait painted by Neel when she was in her eighties. It’s an unusual and somewhat eye catching representation of the elderly artist, sitting naked in a chair whilst painting her self-portrait.  It was this very portrait that you encounter as you walk into the extensive Alice Neel exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague at the moment.

img_3164The exhibition walks you through a large body of this relatively forgotten artist, an early life surrounded by revolutionaries and political activists before nestling herself amongst the cultural life of New York. Unusually for a portrait artist Neel didn’t document herself in her work until right at the end of her life, instead the focus lies on partners, lovers, children, friends and others she came across in the circles she moved in. The result is a fascinating journey through the muted early work into the increasingly colourful and expressive work that came later.

Constant throughout the exhibition is a feeling of focused intensity, both from the artist and the subject. The sitter often stares out of the image with large penetrating eyes.

I enjoyed the show hugely and found myself unusually reading everything on the gallery walls building up a picture of a very colourful and varied life. It’s clear to see how the artist drew on the work of Munch and Van Gogh for her inspiration. It is also evident why Dutch artist Marlene Dumas finds her interesting. Personally I see a strong connection to the work of David Hockney.

The texts that accompany the exhibition make much of a feminist agenda that perhaps caused Neel to be neglected. That may well be the case, but it also has to be said that when the artist was producing some of her best work, in the fifties and sixties she was close to where she needed to be, painting portraits of gallery owners and others within the cultural world.  Her fringe position within the cultural scene must surely also been down to the fact that the American art world of this period was pre-occupied by very different things. Yes, it was a very male dominated and macho place to be, but also one focusing on abstraction, minimalism, Pop art and conceptual art, there was little space for an essentially traditional portraitist, no matter how good and how intense her work was.

Why is Drawing Important?

The importance of drawing as a basis in art is often talked about. The Campaign for Drawing (http://www.campaignfordrawing.org) takes up this point and promotes its central place in a whole range of areas. This recently produced film stresses drawings place as a media of communication in various fields and is presented by one of its patrons, Andrew Marr.