Monday, January 29, 2007

Photography 101, The Creative Process

I guess I should talk about photography now and then just to keep myself honest. One of my first assignments for teaching photography is to have each student talk about themselves for a bit, then we get on to learning photography. It is the price of admission that they pay me directly; nobody gets into my classes without it, and acts as the basis for everything I have to offer.

I tell my students that the creative process is as a slippery thing that exists; I cannot claim to teach it, and they have to find it within themselves in order to grow. I tell them that I’ll just get pissed off if they whine about not being inspired, because they missed the whole point; that being inspired is something that they have within themselves and if they’re not inspired about life, they need to get out of the house every now and then and experience what life has to offer.

I once told one of my students that he should drop out of school and go travel for a year because he was just floundering around without direction. I told him to try living by his wits for part of the journey and if he crashes and burns, he may learn something important about himself. Sometimes improvisation under fire brings important stuff to the surface that one would never know about oneself. This is why people who have had to overcome difficult odds in life make some of the most wonderful work. This is because they have had to struggle in order to win. Sometimes lose, after fighting the hardest battles of their lives. People are interested in what happens in the heat of battle, because this is what sets us apart from each other and is also our great commonality, which is why irony crosses all cultural boundaries, especially with art, because art is ultimately about life, what we experience and how we respond to it and next interpret it in some manner, via their/our art.

This means that a lot of the most interesting photography has a layer of relevance to our times; that people can connect with it. I tell my students that they can learn photography from a book if they’re diligent or really love what it has to offer them. For most people, that means just the technical aspects of a beautiful photograph, which are quite easy to make if you have the time and resources. However, what they cannot learn from a book has to do with making work that has a relevance to it; you generally need a level of critical feedback in order for that to happen, which is where I come into the proverbial picture. Every student I ever taught has to pay the price of an initial presentation for me, then we start talking about cameras, light, why their photographs look the way they do, and what they can do to make them better on a lot of different levels.

None of the above is mine alone, I learned photography from a lot of people, like fellow artists Hulleah Tsihnahjinnie, Zig Jackson, the great Lee Marmon, Shelley Niro, Jesse Cooday, fellow MFA students Will Wilson and Rosalie Favell, Hulleah again, Professor Patrick Nagatani, at the University of New Mexico, Meridel Rubenstein, my first teaching colleague, the famous Arnold Newman, and other not so famous photographers like Pete Cottle. Cottle taught the equivalent of a photographic boot camp, if there ever was such a thing. Students hated him because he was so unrelentingly tough, and made up nasty nicknames for him behind his back. The class involved black & white technical photographic perfection, and many people dropped out of Brooks because of that class. Brooks would use it to sort out the fluff early. I can’t say I learned anything creative in that class, but my photographic skills made a dramatic leap. I had no idea that my photography was crap until I took that class. Dang. Enlightenment can be painful. I wish I could teach a group of students photography right after they take his basic class. Instead, I use a bit of his philosophy (I pretend to be tough, but students usually see though this act fairly quickly) of being tough with the technical aspects and combine it with a coaxing out their interpretation of what they see and to make a visual manifestation of it with their photography.

Strangely enough, I learned photography from our long heritage of Northwest Coast artists who have been making astonishing world-class art for thousands of years. They taught me that it takes a life-long commitment to make your art evolve to a higher plane and that mediocrity is not allowed, especially when learning the artform.

A critical part of learning about photography is crediting the people who taught you about life. Like many other people, I think that my own family taught me the most about life; each person had something different to offer that was very relevant, including the ones that were viewed as societal rejects, the black sheep as they say.

A very critical part of the dialogue here has to do with talking about photographic content without being flippant about subject matter. This is because a person, photographer, artist or student may have some very relevant and important work to make about whatever their life’s experience has taught them. This could be anything, which in turn means that the initial meeting with me has heightened importance; that the relevance in their photography is an essential part of their being and to try and separate them would be not only unnatural, but contrary to everything the creative process is all about.

This entry is kind of a proclamation that our time is really quite limited and we don't have time to waste regarding being a photographer. If you are one of my students reading this, you don't have to read between the lines to know that we get right into the thick of things regarding the creative process and don't mess around. The reason for this is because I am quite possessive of my time as an artist and won't give it up to people who are not committed to what I have to offer. In the meantime, lets make some really great photographs...

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