Photography, language and communication (a clil assignment)

A while back I wrote a couple of posts about an internationally orientated photography project that I was working on with my art teacher colleague Pasi in Finland. I have never really written a reflection on how the process went, although I think both Pasi and I already have a pretty good idea about the strengths and weaknesses of the setup we had.

The project placed its emphasis on several key points:

  • Learning about photography: using a camera in a considered way, appreciating what makes a good photograph, etc.
  • Writing in a descriptive way and a way that communicates ideas clearly
  • Creating a degree of collaboration and engagement between pupils at Pasi’s school in Finland and mine in the Netherlands.

There were several elements to the projects that we drew up, including the analysis of various forms of portrait photography that we encounter in our modern lives, from the selfie to the school photograph and the celebrity photograph to a wedding photograph. Pupils were also asked to look at images of power in a photographic sense and draw comparisons with how our politicians and leaders present themselves when looked at alongside painted portraits from the past.

But perhaps the most complex and engaging part of the project involved the Finnish pupils writing 200 word descriptions of photographic portraits made by contemporary Finnish photographers and my pupils doing likewise with Dutch examples.

We ended up with descriptions such as this:

The length of the photograph is a bit longer than the width. The background is completely black. The back of the person is touching the left side of the photograph. The person covers a little bit more than the left-half of the photograph. The head of the person is almost reaching the top and the body is cut off at the chest. We can only see the right side of the body and face. The female is looking down. She is wearing a black shirt with a v-neck so, we can see her right collar bone. The black shirt blends in with the background so we can’t really see the edges of the shirt. She is wearing earphones; the wire is underneath her middle finger and on top of the other fingers. Her hand is positioned relaxed in her chest. Under her left sleeve, we can see a little bit of her watch. She has dark-brown curly hair braided in a Dutch braid on top of her forehead, which becomes darker and blends in with the black background. She might be listening to classical music I think. She’s wearing an earring in her right ear. The light is coming from the bottom right corner, there’s shadow in her back and the rest of the left-top. The darkness is important in the picture, the picture is very dark and the face is very light. Her face is neutral and she isn’t smiling.

In this case written about this photograph by Dutch photographer Suzanne Jongmans.

The text was then sent off to Pasi’s school where a pupil then set about remaking the photograph without ever seeing the original and only having the short text about it to work with. The resulting pair of photographs looked like this with the Suzanne Jongmans photo on the left and the pupil’s work on the right:

It was a fascinating process not least for the big ‘reveal’ at the end where pupils get to see the original that they have been trying to reconstruct, and indeed the results that others had made based on the text that they had written.

In some cases, a number of photographs were made by different pupils using the same description, a process that showed further how language and interpretation played a significant role in the process.  The link below takes you to more extended documentation of the project:

project documentation(shortened)

For me, the most interesting part of this whole process is how it opens pupil’s eyes to the use of different forms of language in communication. The limitations of text and description often become quite visible and obvious to the pupils in this way. Their descriptive texts often aren’t nearly as absolute and concrete as they thought. Misinterpretation and misunderstanding is at times highlighted, which can certainly provide good learning experiences.

Alongside this is the more visual language of photography, the images we used were so much more that ‘just photos of people’. Each told its individual story, gave us a view into a real or maybe constructed world and highlighted the whole series of decisions that a photographer makes when setting up, framing, lighting and directing their subject before finally taking the photograph. This was of course a series of steps that the pupils could experience for themselves when making their new versions of the originals.

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Photography and posters on teenagers’ bedroom walls

This may turn out to be just an initial post on this subject as I am just starting a photography project that I’ve been working on together with Pasi, an art teacher colleague in Finland. It will hopefully throw up some interesting work and stories to tell over the weeks ahead. The two of us have been working hard over the last couple of months creating an engaging series of assignments and collaborations that will hopefully culminate in some sort of online exhibition.

That though is all for the weeks ahead, yesterday was for me at least, just the introduction lesson, aimed at framing up the context of the weeks ahead. I gave an introduction presentation to two classes with a total of about forty-five pupils. During the lesson we talked about the place of photography in our daily lives in 2016.

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It’s no secret to say that teenagers (a society as a whole) are taking more photographs than any generation before, but I wanted to talk in more depth about the place and importance these photographs have , why we take them, what we do with them and what they say about us. We talked about the selfie-culture, school photos, holiday photograph albums, wedding photos on the mantle-piece at home and photographs of the children of the family on the bookcase. We also considered the places and ways we store/organize our photographs nowadays. It was an interesting and enjoyable discussion with both classes. However, in the last twenty minutes of the lesson, I broadened the discussion out a little bit into other areas where we find and collect photographs. Having two teenage children I knew that we also had to talk about the bedroom wall at home.

I moved the discussion onto the photographic images, firstly of musicians and performers and then sports stars, thinking in both cases we would be able to talk about this genre of photographic imagery in poster format on bedroom walls.

It was at this point I made a surprising discovery, of my forty-five pupils just two had pictures of any form of ‘hero’ on their bedroom wall! So much for my view that the bedroom wall was the bastion of self expression and identity, a place where you could mark out who your heroes are and freely associate yourself with them.

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This seems, alright within my relatively small sample, simply not to be the case. ‘What do you have on your bedroom walls?’ I asked, ‘my tv’ came the answer back! I shared an image that I had on my bedroom wall as a teenager, a huge poster of Beatrice Dalle from the Jean-Jacques Beineix film Betty Blue. A film that made a strong impression on me as an eighteen year old.

I have to admit to feeling pretty curious as to why this is. Do my pupils simply have no heroes? My own children seem to have them, my daughter is constantly changing the pictures on her wall. So what is it with my pupils at school. Too shy to say perhaps? Somehow I don’t think that this is the story here. I have a theory, and perhaps that tv or computer screen on the bedroom is a clue. This is a generation that has access to so much. A huge array of multiple tv channels, online entertainment in the form of games, films, Spotify and YouTube. They soak it all up, often I feel in a fairly uncontrolled and unfocused way. It’s like they experience and expose themselves to everything (or at least a whole lot) and become in doing so, fans of nothing. Ready made playlists are their music, focus and identification with a particular artist or performer seems to be occurring less. A consequence of our media saturated times perhaps? What I do know from my pupils, if I ask them about their favourite band, singer or film even, they find it difficult to express opinions that have any real focus, it is all rather generalized and vague.

I could go on to express many other opinions and theories as to why this may be, but a particular favourite I have, and I do think that it is highly relevant is the idea ‘shared experience’ being important in forming opinions in this sort of area of cultural identity. In the past pupils would talk about the film that had been on the tv the previous evening or the music programme they had all seen on tv. Discussions the following day would occur and cultural identities and preferences would slowly start to be formed. This simple sharing of experience to a large degree has been lost as young people make their own way through the media and cultural world in a more independent way.

This independence might well be a commendable and valuable thing, but there is maybe a flip side, are they becoming fans of everything and at the same time nothing?

Gearing up for my first solo show in quite a while

The last couple of months I’ve been gradually getting ready for two exhibitions.  The first is a group show in the Dutch town of Nijmegen.  The second is a solo exhibiton, in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the town that has been drawing all the attention the last few months for its Jheronimus Bosch exhibition.

The exhibition is going to give me the chance to dip back into work influenced by the very Dutch interiors made by Vermeer, that I was making when I first arrived in The Netherlands back in the nineties. This will be hung alongside more recent work that is  more orientated towards the Dutch landscape and our relationship with this most manipulated of environments.

Without giving too much away, I can promise a place for both of the painintgs below.

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Empty Room, Oil paint on canvas, 1993

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Untitled, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 2016

Getting closer to Mondriaan…..

I should start by saying that love was my main reason to move from England to the Netherlands back in the 1990s. But having said that, there were other reasons I was enthusiastic to travel over the North Sea and experience life here. Top of that list at the time was the affinity and fascination I had, and still have, for Dutch art. Top of my list was Vermeer, I’d grown to love his work from the four of his paintings that can be found in London at the National Gallery, the Queen’s collection and Kenwood House. But along with Vermeer there was Rembrandt, de Hooch, van Doesburg and Mondriaan to name but a handful. It is a very rich land when it comes to painting. Two decades later I am still discovering new things and perspectives on this particular piece of the history of art. Today being one such day of discovery. mill Two friends from England were over and staying near Amsterdam in a windmill on the eastern side of the city. Whilst looking up where exactly we had to get to in order to visit them I was coming across information that suggested that there was actually a Mondriaan connection. Having visited there today it was confirmed, this was a windmill that the artist painted in the days before he had settled into his more well-known abstract style of later in his career. In the early days though he was very much a painter of the flat Dutch landscape. mondriaan And so from close up I came by a little more insight into this little corner of Dutch history of art, it’s kind of a nice feeling to have lunched in a place that seems to have changed very little since the artist painted his work back in the first decade of the twentieth century. Did Mondriaan also lunch in the subject of his work…..? Probably not I guess, but the sense of place is nice to take with me, next time I visit the painting in the Rijksmuseum or one of the other museums who have other paintings he made of the same mill.

So what was it a again that cultural life gives us?

On my way backwards and forwards to my work I pass through the Dutch town of Nijmegen. On this journey I don’t normally see much of the town, it is simply the place where I normally change trains, each time having just five to ten minutes to make my way from one platform to the other.

A couple of weeks ago a piano was positioned in an open space on one of the platforms where there is a high roof above. An invitation was placed next to the piano inviting anyone who wants to, to take a seat and play for the passers-by. It is an approach to public performance that I have seen elsewhere, but here in Nijmegen it has certainly been an instant hit. Even when I pass through the station at 6.50am there is almost always someone playing, and in the afternoon it is often a lot more than just the piano, just now it was piano, double bass, guitar and accordion all playing together.  And it was also plenty more just passer-by that they were entertaining, they had a whole audience.

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What is it that culture gives us is a question I often enough have to field from pupils at school. A quick look across the platform in Nijmegen certainly gives one answer, joy, pleasure and a tangible lift in emotion, that is certainly what I experience as I move by. There’s not even an open guitar case on the floor for loose change to be thrown into, this is about sharing and coming together, be that the players themselves or the ever changing audience.

Others have certainly also been noticing the performances in Nijmegen as this film shows:

Three films, three classes and three reactions

My art and cultural education course that I teach to my groups of 15 and 16 year olds normally begins with a module about film and filmmaking.  This year has been no different. Film as a cultural experience is close to the world of the teenagers and easily accessible to them. With three large groups to teach and a total of 90 one thousand word essays to mark at the end, I chose, for my own sanity to use three different films. This way I would at least have some variety in the resulting report reading.

I like to select films that are just outside the pupils own film going experience and ones that challenge the to consider certain choices made by the film makers concerned.

The first class are now half way through watching the Schulman brothers’ and Henry Joost’s film Catfish and are absolutely loving it. It’s a film I’ve used before and knew that I was on fairly safe ground. The Facebook relationship story with its documentary style and tense moments works tremendously well.  It is a scenario that they can easily identify with.

The second class are now half way through Asif Kapadia’s documentary Senna. The initial reaction of the class to watching a documentary film for two hours was fairly sceptical. They want a good story…..they said.  I asked them to be patient with the movie and after fifteen minutes of watching it was clear to all that a good story is exactly what the film delivers. I explained before the start that I had thought long and hard about whether I should show this film. The film uses only genuine footage to tell the story of the life and death of the formula one driver Ayrton Senna.  The car crashes in the movie are a crucial part of the narrative.  A genuine death on film is course different to the countless deaths that teenagers observe in the more normal film fodder that they consume. I discussed this with the class before the film and offered an alternative to anyone who really didn’t want to watch. We are at the moment half way through watching the film, it hasn’t reached its climax yet, although the film is being watched in a focused silence….not always easy to achieve in a classroom of 32 watching a film together. They seem to realize that this is something different and that from my perspective is exactly the point. Senna is an excellent movie when it comes to throwing a new light on the sort of detached sense of realism with which we approach most films. Normally we have to give ourselves over to suspending our disbelief, but here we are living and thinking along with real people, their conflicts, their relationships and the risks they take. I’m curious to see how the second half is experienced.

In many ways, my third choice was the one aimed most specifically at my teenage audience. I wanted to make use of a film where music played a strong part. Sometimes I look a little bit further back into film history to find films that nobody in the class is likely to have seen. This is what I did and chose Alan Parker’s 1991 film The Commitments, a film about a struggling and ultimately, failing, bunch of teenagers trying to form a band in Dublin. The movie is packed with music, has a lot of humour and the leading roles are almost exclusively filled by teenagers. On the face of it you would think a highly appropriate film for one of my classes. Here too, after one lesson we are about half way through the movie, but I find myself perplexed by the reaction of the class to watching it.  It is a film that is heading towards being 25 years old, but I certainly feel that that isn’t the problem, it has aged relatively well. When a class is watching a film I often find myself watching the class, gauging their enjoyment.  The problem we are having is that they aren’t getting the humour. I can see that there are one or two in the class who are getting it, but the majority are watching in something of a stony silence. So why is this……? At the end of the lesson I had no time to quiz them; it could be a language issue, the strong Irish accents aren’t always easy, but then I have subtitles on to make it more accessible (they are after all watching in their second languages – Dutch being their first). Or is it that the Irish/British humour is so different to that of the Dutch? This is a regular topic of discussion with my Dutch colleagues at school. In our bilingual department we use so much British or American material to support our educational programmes, and humour, particularly British humour, is so often problematic. How can sensibilities in this area be so different? A point of discussion for another blog post perhaps, but for now I am spending the weekend wondering whether to scrap the second half of The Commitments and try something else!

High heels and creativity

High heels and creativityThe kunsthal in Rotterdam has been experimenting with audience participation in its exhibition planning. What would you like to see as a theme for a future exhibition? That was the first question. Shoes, Victor Vasarely and dinosaurs were the options on offer. Perhaps not surprisingly, shoes came back as the popular choice, although I dare say that the under twelves voted differently!

Subsequently, further choices were offered that related to the presentation of the shoes, pr and advertising issues were also open to a degree of consultation. It is not so very different to an assignment I might offer the older pupils I teach (16 year olds) in their cultural education lessons. Choose a theme for an exhibition, research the artworks that you want to include, plan a layout for the exhibition and design the advertising campaign with a poster or a information folder.
The end result in Rotterdam is very good. In dimly lit spaces created in the basement hall of the Kunsthal close on five-hundred shoes are displayed. Exclusively women’s shoes, and as my wife pointed out, almost exclusively high-heeled. There is huge variety, from the familiar and practical, to eccentric and surely unwearable.
Though I am unlikely to be able to take my own pupils to see the exhibition, the costs involved and the cancellation of too many lessons, stand in the way of that. It is the sort of display I would like them to see. There are a number of reasons for this, reasons such as:

  • The familiarity of the objects on display. We all buy and wear shoes and are used to the selection criteria we impose on them when choosing.
  • The shear quantity on display, it’s a chance to see an impressive variety.
  • The pupils are perhaps more ready to come with their own opinions and evaluation than with some other areas of the arts where they perhaps feel confused or pressured by the opinions of others to like or value something they struggle to understand.
  • But perhaps the nicest aspect of hundreds of shoes placed side by side is insight into creativity it gives when working within a restricted frame of reference, in this case a pair of shoes.

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Let me expand on this last point a little more.
We all like to have choices and it is not different in education. Teachers are encouraged to built elements of choice and differentiation into their lessons. As an art teacher we can offer choices of two-dimensional or three-dimensional, traditional materials or digital media, painting or drawing, collage or printmaking techniques, large or small, the list goes on and on. The choice of how exactly, and with which material, to develop an idea can definitely be an integral part of the creative process. But it can at times be an awkward distraction as a pupil struggles to choose and maybe struggles also to fully explore the numerous creative possibilities a material or process offers.
We want our pupils to be creative and we want to give them the chance to be creative. The shoes exhibition provides an excellent contained frame of reference of creativity. Everything in the exhibition is a shoe, to be worn on a woman’s foot. That’s the frame of reference, but within that frame there is huge variety and examples or designers stretching the creative possibilities. Just how far can you in being creative with a sole, a heel and upper of the shoe. Some of the results border on the sculptural while others seem quite conventional, but the interesting dimension here is the range.
Back in the classroom, by offering pupils endless diversity in the choices on offer you don’t necessarily extend the creativity in the work they attempt. My experience is often quite the opposite, they become restricted by the choices.
We hear often enough that children and young people like to know where the permitted borders lie. The challenge for the art teacher, and maybe others too, is to set the frame of reference wide enough to offer challenges and choices in finding creative solutions, but not so wide that it ultimately inhibits the very creativity that you what to stimulate.
It’s a long while since I did a shoe design assignment with one of my classes, maybe it’s time to have a go at it again.

A new beginning……..an Apple for the teacher

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One of the motivations for setting up this blog was to document and reflect on a forthcoming change in the nature of education that I am involved with.  In short that is an increase in the speed of digitalization at the school at which I work.  As from September 2014 all the first year classes I teach will be working with ipads.  As an art teacher my initial reaction is wow, great a new medium to work with, but I feel quite certain that there are a whole load of possibilities that I haven’t even thought of yet.

Today at school the first step in this digital journey took place when I was given my first ipad.  I’ll not bother with an unboxing film, I’ll be doing that at home later.  I’m not overly familiar with Apple products so the first thing on the agenda is a couple of weeks of play to find my way a little before the first course that I am signed in to follow comes along next week.  More digital experiences will doubtless follow…….