Wednesday, May 15, 2013

End of term

So, another semester has come to a close. I cannot recall ever being so happy to see a school year wrap up, with the singular exception of my graduation from A&M back in 1992. Those of you keeping score at home will remember that I enrolled in 9 hours of coursework at Texas State back in January, primarily photography related. Those who've kept tabs on me for a long time will recall I did this same thing four years back, and learned a great deal. This time around, however, my courses weren't so agreeable. By mid-March, I was experiencing serious issues. The prerequisite "Basics of Drawing" class, which all fine arts majors had to take, kicked my ass in a serious way simply because of the overwhelming timesink it became. I went in at 8 a.m. and came out at 11 a.m. completely exhausted and sore from the intense work. And classroom assignments could never be completed during class time, so they had to be taken home and worked on into the wee hours of the night--along with the actual homework assignments, which were every bit as time consuming. Missing class resulted in terrible make-up assignments, so when I had to miss a day for a court date dealing with my grandmother's guardianship, I was about ready to cry. The prof was sympathetic, but he'd designed the grading structure and make-up assignments to discourage students from skipping his class. There wasn't any leeway for him to cut me a break (too complicated to explain). By March I was pretty certain I'd struggle to finish with a high C. So I consider it quite an accomplishment that I finished with an A. But it left marks.

My other two classes were both photography related: Traditional Photography II (film and darkroom) and Intro to Digital Photography. Now, I've been assisting The Wife as a second shooter at weddings, not to mention so commercial and portrait assignments I've done for her over the years. And I've always enjoyed macro and landscapes and astrophotography on my own. But she wanted me to earn the Certified Professional Photographer designation from Professional Photographers of America, the testing for which is highly technical and exhaustive (I know--I watched The Wife study for her exam for six month and turn into a nervous wreck as she awaited her scores). I figured going though a semester of more advanced photography courses at Texas State would put me halfway there as far as CPP testing went. After all, I'd learned so much four years earlier, my knowledge base would increase exponentially after the latest courses, right?

Wrong. I have seldom been so disappointed. My film class instruction amounted to "Photograph what you photographed before, but do it better." We watched slide shows and videos exposing us to an array of photographers and their different styles, and had free reign to use any focal length or specialized lenses (in Traditional Photography I, we were restricted to 50mm primes), but that's about it. Oh, and we printed on 11x14 fiber paper instead of resin-coated. That's it. My prof, an old-school film guy who'd done commercial work in the past, did not instill me with confidence when he expressed ignorance of PPA. "I don't know what that is," were his exact words. He actually refused to "teach" any new techniques, instead telling students to figure it out on their own. Essentially, if we wanted to learn, we'd have to teach ourselves, or more bluntly, re-invent the wheel. There's a big difference between learning a technique and mastering or refining it. Instruction is not the same as spoon-feeding. A few of us wasted untold hours in the lab puzzling over technical hurdles--the rest simply gave up and turned in whatever crap they happened to shoot before coming into class. My first assignment I tried to experiment and use light in ways I'd never done so before. My experiment failed miserably, I got a crummy grade and came away thoroughly discouraged. I thought for sure the best I could hope for in that class was a low B. By the time it came for my final project, I'd hit upon a fairly straightforward process for shooting macro still life images. I didn't really want to continue that style--I was actually interested in exploring pinhole photography, another area I didn't know much about--but I'd worked too hard to risk losing a possible A, which was within striking distance. So I photographed like a madman, commandeering the dining room table from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. most nights and shooting huge piles of thorny, brittle and otherwise odd plant and insect matter. And I produced 18 solid prints for my final project, a number that could've been much higher had I enough time to make better prints in the darkroom from additional negatives I never got around to. Yes, my prints were very good, but the test shots I took with my digital 7D were much better, and convinced me that for all the nostalgia tied up with film, digital is the superior medium in countless ways. My macro project earned an A. I finished with an A in that course, too.

Intro to Digital Photography was probably the most frustrating course in a semester that boasted an overabundance of frustration. The prof is what I'd term a film snob, in that film is now and always shall be superior to digital in his mind. He even went so far to suggest that digital shouldn't even be called photography at all. Yet here he was, teaching into to digital and making us waste the entire first month of class "photographing" objects with a flatbed scanner then combining them in Photoshop with images of the same object taken with a camera. A. Entire. Month. This is an assignment that could've been completed in a single class period, but it wasn't, because he never actually explained the project fully, just giving us little hints and pieces until the class before it was due. Most of our reactions amounted to, "That's it? For real?" He seldom seemed prepared for class, and often had us watch videos about photographers, during which he retreated into his office to log onto Facebook the entire period (I sat across from his office, so I watched him do so). The breaking point came when he assigned us a project to "shoot like William Eggleston," that is, take one image and move on, with no attempt at recomposition or exposure allowed per subject. Now, of all the "great" art photographers out there, Eggleston is perhaps the one I loathe the most. He's a great example of someone with minimal talent but tremendous obsessive-compulsive tendencies striking it rich by knowing the right people at the right time, and having a trendy gimmick in the dye process he used to print his images. That's it. And our prof wanted each and every one of us to aspire to create photographs like Eggleston, despite lip service to pursuing our own unique vision. So if I had to shoot in that craptacular style, I'd do it right. I photographed the Landa Park Railroad, taking close-up shots of the wheels, rails, cow catcher, depot, spikes... lot of details. I fretted over composition and angles, took care to control depth of field, the whole nine yards. At this time, I might add, we were restricted to shooting at the "equivalent of 50mm" with our lenses on crop body DSLRs, which meant I had to shoot everything at roughly 31mm with my Tamron zoom lens. That preserves the purity of 50mm and the dignity of film, or somesuch. That shit gets annoying real quick, I can tell you. Instead of teaching the class to use the right tool (in this instance, lens) for the job, he simply repeated the narrow parameters of the Intro to Traditional Photography course every single one of the students had taken the previous semester (except for me, who'd taken it four years prior). Okay, fine. I played the game. I shot the shots as I was expected, then spent close to six hours in Photoshop, carefully matching the white balance, working to draw out detail and texture, making sure the color matched across the series (as the sun was setting, colors did tend to drift a bit). The whole nine yards. Those prints looked damn good. They earned strong remarks in critique from the class. Then I got my grade: 85. I was stunned. Seriously. I'd turned in exactly what was requested and required of the assignment, and spent a hell of a lot of time processing them to get them perfect (he harped on white balance and such in class). The grade, of course, came with no feedback, so I sent an email requesting clarification. This is the response I received:

your images were a decent B which is what the 85 is but didn't reflect much work
Oh, it's on. Just because something looks easy doesn't mean it was easy. That, coupled with the fact that some students turned in random images with bad white balance and camera shake got better grades really, really pissed me off. Don't throw arbitrary parameters at me to justify an unfair grade. Now, some of you may think an 85 is nothing to get worked up about. In most cases, that's true. But I wasn't taking these classes as a lark. I wanted to become a better photographer, but by this point I'd realized I wasn't going to be "taught" anything I didn't already know. In the absence of actual learning, I wanted to earn an A, come hell or high water. So I'd tried to play the game his way, and gotten smacked down for it. Fine. If he insisted on giving me a B or C, then he'd do it on my terms. So that inspired my Missing Persona project, a narrative photographic series that amounted to me double-dog-daring him to say it didn't look like I put much effort into it. He gave me a 91--which is fine, on the surface. But several people I sit near went into fits of laughter, as other assignments scored higher than mine, despite lack of white balance control, compositional coherence or even a discernible narrative element, despite that being the prime element in the assignment. To make matters worse, my grade remained a B, and even if I scored a 91 on the final and another 91 on the nebulous "class participation" element of our grade, I'd still end up with a B. Clearly, it was time for the dreaded triple-dog-dare: Infrared levitation. The stakes were higher. With this series, I challenged him for the entire course grade, daring him to give me anything less than an A. I knew good and well that this series was beyond his ability, that although he could learn, this was my turf and game, set and match were on my terms. During our mandatory class consultation, I showed him one, simple preliminary print, and he immediately tried to dissuade me from this project. Oh, he wasn't so blatant as to tell me no after I'd asked repeatedly if there were any technical or subject restrictions for this project ("No LOL cats" was his only answer). But he did try to convince me that the series would be more striking and more surreal if I didn't use infrared. Laughable. That's like telling Napoleon he'd be more successful if he'd give up the high ground and find a nice swamp to fight in. For our final critique, most of the class was pretty much stunned by my work, except for the few who knew of my private little war, who thought it both amusing and insane for me to invest so much effort on a relatively meaningless class. Not only was Infrared Levitation the most technically and artistically realized final project presented, I'll go so far as to say it lapped the field. Is it arrogant for me to say that? A show of hubris? Maybe, but it's also the truth. I can go through each image and cite a laundry list of shortcomings and mistake and flaws, so I'm not claiming they're perfect or even contest worthy. But they were by far the best images produced in that class this semester. And my prof agreed (although reluctantly, if you'll look at the grade he gave me for participation lab, which is joining discussions in class. Some days, I was the only one discussing anything):

Does this post make me sound bitter? Well, good, because I am. This was a semester lost that I will never get back. I was stressed and irritable around my family, with a terribly short temper because of the tension of taking 9 hours while maintaining a 40 hour work week. I felt intense pressure to set a good example for my children, how good grades had to be earned, and personally it was important to earn a 4.0 for the semester. But did I learn anything? Not anything that I didn't teach myself. In all honesty, I learned more new things over the long weekend I spent in Atlanta for Imaging USA, and that's even considering the fact I considered the conference's programming track repetitive and superficial. For photographers, spending a week at Texas School would be an intense but beneficial learning experience, because the attendees there are working professionals--they're not paying to teach themselves, they're there to learn new techniques and skills and master them in a very short amount of time so that they can improve their business.

This semester damn near killed the joy of learning for me. The joy of drawing took a beating. The joy of photography came perilously close to loathing. Time and again, talented photographers in both of my classes were discouraged and turned away from photographing what inspired them--and that they excelled at--because the prof arbitrarily deemed it "not fine art." One guy excelled at street photography, and created some great work, but was rejected as "not fine art" nevermind that Henri Cartier-Bresson was lauded in both classes and held up as a great artist. Likewise, another talented student received a string of disappointing grades that had him considering dropping out of college all together because his project looked "too commercial." By that, I'm assuming the prof meant that everything was in focus with proper white balance and thought given to composition, because their greatest praise was always reserved for out-of-focus images plagued by camera shake because the photographer was too ignorant to understand the focal length/shutter speed ratio. But that shouldn't be surprising, since that basic photography concept has never been taught. It makes me want to cry. I heard repeated derisive comments about commercial photography from the faculty, and as many about film vs. digital. The degree is undergoing a serious revamp, and that's good, because the bias toward film in the program is pervasive and overwhelming. Film needs to remain a component of photography programs, because I do believe darkroom work makes you a better photographer--to a point. As it stand now, however, these students are akin to aspiring NASCAR drivers learning the intricacies of proper buggy whip handling. Coming from a journalism background (and a smattering of photojournalism, which is practical and pragmatic almost to a fault) and assisting with The Wife's photography business, the pure "art for art's sake" mentality pervading the program is disheartening and a disservice to students. Pragmatic skills and knowledge are ignored. Business instruction is non-existent. There is an optional studio management course, but it's not always offered and is somewhat limited in scope, from what I understand. PPA and WPPI run annual "state of the industry" surveys, and year-in and year-out, photography, along with restaurants, are the most likely businesses to fail in their first 12 months. And having taken a good number of fine art photography courses, I understand why--these graduates are being sent out into the world to fend for themselves, with no survival skills. It's like a school of journalism teaching their graduates how to write a beautiful story, yet failing to instruct them at all on media law, how to research, how to interview, etc. It's unworkable. After one contemptuous comment from a prof against commercial photography, a girl sitting next to me whispered, despairingly, "But that's what I want to do. I want to eat."

So that's why I'm done. I'm tired of the petty agendas and the arbitrary definitions of what constitutes art and what doesn't. There's too much navel-gazing and not enough practical knowledge being imparted. For any future photographic learning, I'll either teach myself of invest a week into Texas School. Either way will save me time, money and headaches, and I'll come out a better photographer in the end.

Now Playing: David Byrne Uh-Oh
Chicken Ranch Central

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