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A PHOTOGRAPHIC EDUCATION IS NOT ABOUT SPECIFICS?

Many of the rules and principles of photography learned in a formal education, I have forgotten or have chosen to abandon. I would have a hard time recalling equivalent exposures and lighting ratios. I was taught to utilize various focal length lenses and change apertures to create visual variety. Now I rarely use anything other than a fixed focal length, 28mm lens and never stray from f/8 unless dim light demands f/5.6 or if I really want the photograph in even dimmer light, dare I… f/4. I probably wouldn’t bother repairing my lens if the aperture was stuck at my home base, f/8. I don’t use flash often. Unless it is to fill the entire frame with broad, even light… democratically bringing everything onto the same plain.

Some of my instructors I believe embraced this idea that education is an open platform and some did not. I was forced at times to shoot in color when I wanted to try black and white. Likely, the instructor did know that what the assignment would benefit most from was color. But some instructors allowed me to find out on my own what works for me and what does not. In a photojournalism class I was assigned to photograph the town in which I resided, and to objectively as possible represent in what would be many of our first attempts at a photographic essay, that town and the people within. I choose to and was allowed, to photograph the entire project inside the laundry mat around the corner from my apartment, with a single subject… my neighbor who maintained the property. In a portraiture lighting class for my final assignment I elected to photograph a series of portraits using outdoor, available light. This was if I were honest now, at least on one level an attempt to justify not using strobes because frankly, I am not apt at using strobes. Despite a key objective of this class being working knowledge of various lighting techniques (mostly strobes) I was allowed to shoot the final project the way I saw fit. And I appreciate the flexibility of that instructor. Based solely on the objective criteria of that lighting class, I should have failed. But because what perhaps he believed was that an idea is worth exploring and that I was attempting to foster a particular perspective and understanding of photography, overlooking my shortcomings was worth more than my ability to use a flash and that was worth a passing grade. Given that I was studying photography within a visual journalism program, where traditional principals of journalism such as objectivity and an unbiased approach were taught, this was and had to have been, an intentional restraint from my instructor to allow me to do so. The opportunity to try and fail is much more educationally valuable than are objective goals.

Many class discussions I have forgotten. Many techniques have been lost or intentionally neglected. But much like when we come to the final page of a book, or a song, or when we leave a particularly well delivered lecture… unless we are studying specifically how to be a writer, musician or orator or perhaps for future emulation, what we carry with us and remember is not the very word tense, rhyming scheme, or oratorical tone. These are no more than tools to communicate an idea or feeling. We carry an idea, an understanding. So in a student’s photographic education, what is important is that they hopefully walk away from each class discussion not with specific knowledge only, not simply knowing that f/8 @ 1/500 is equivalent to f/4 @ 1/1000 but a broadened perspective, one that could be embraced or abandoned. Those conversations are what is important. The instructors who pass on not just knowledge but a dialogue is what is important. And although we might forget so much in the process of trying so much, that we forget it together and try together is what will last. That we absorb, that we expand, that we see and then do and not that we objectively obtain knowledge, but that we try perpetually and actively to understand not just specifics in order that our knowledge be reconciled by limitation, finitely bound by an end objective, but rather that our understanding be brought to less than what it was before and then tried again.

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