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Photography education as apprenticeship

Ok, so I’m carrying on with a series of posts that I could entitle ‘the grass is greener abroad’ series. I’ve just come back from Paris this time, from taking part in portfolio reviews and a panel discussion at nofound photo fair. The photo fair is a new initiative led by Emeric Glayse and with events organised by Yasmina Reggad / Photo-Festivals. I’ll try to write one post about portfolio reviews that I have pending since Renctontres d’Arles, another one about how conservative the British gallery scene appears when compared to France (I’d be glad to be proved wrong), and this one.

I’ve a few times discussed with people about how photography is taught. Lots of students tell me how their degrees are rewarding on the project side, but that the most effective part is when they get to meet photographers or go on workshops where they learn a specific way of working. Doesn’t really surprise me, as for being a photographer the craft side of things, and the visual knowledge seem to be the main thing. More academic knowledge seems useful, but not indispensable compared with sh*tloads of shooting time, photobook reading and peer review. However, further knowledge comes in handy if you want to curate, edit, be a picture editor, a critic, a historian, etc, etc. Or roughly so goes my perception of it. I mean, I’m more keen on a student that has organised / curated some exhibitions or has a cool project than one that got a first and handed essays in time!

Going things as they go in terms of tuition fees, and a photography degree heading towards 3 years and £36.000 + expenses, I’d imagine that people would look at alternatives. After all, with that money you can take quite a lot of time off to shoot projects, get into workshops, try to get a mentor, or become an assistant. Most people getting degrees go to do these things anyway, and isn’t it rewarding to work with a photographer whose work you admire?

I bumped in Paris into JH Engstrom (whose work you might love or hate), and runs one of these alternative courses. It is a one year course, in which the much exhibited and published photographer reviews a project monthly, provides guidance, and organises three meetups in Paris. The whole thing comes to a hefty £3000 + expenses, but maybe it is worth it if you want to just focus on the photography and not become, for example, a curator? It is an interesting idea, it sort of brings the one to one mentor and apprentice relationship back into play.  We all complain about the cost of workshops but the alternatives usually ain’t cheap either. Documentary photographer Mimi Mollica has been organising an online photography workshop at Photowrap. Three weeks at £500, focused at giving individual attention to the participants.

I’m wondering where this post is going by now. But what is a minimum photographic education? How much would you expect to pay for it, and what would it cover? Would you be happy to leg it to Nepal for two years to live in a buddhist monk temple with an enlarger and an old grumpy retired photographer to end up without a degree?

<—- post contributed by Joni Karanka from Third Floor Gallery —->

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    3 comments to Photography education as apprenticeship

    • Meh to pieces of paper is what I say (and did, over on my other place a while back, about qualifications in general). Really, I’ve been thinking about doing an MA and a big amount of it boils down to “If I have a project I’m gonna shoot anyway, getting a qualification that might help me get teaching work could be useful…”

      That’s not to criticise either the facilities or the quality of the teachers at various institutions. I just feel that even projects require a certain mount of latitude for individual development.

      I’ve spent hours not just looking at photobooks but also thinking about different photographers and how they worked – how e.g. Shore changes up what and how he’s shooting so much, while Gilden pretty much sticks to the same formula, and what that entails for each of them. That’s crucial. I don’t want a “quick guide to…” I want depth.

      I also want to learn more about the business, which only comes from doing it, really. So, I organise exhibitions, and I collaborate with others, and I seek/field (actually more the latter and it was a shock – big props to the kind folk who helped me out with it) requests to publish some of my projects.

      And I want to be able to experiment with new things and have a solid community where I can throw ideas around; both my own and others.

      I don’t see anything in the university literature that really convinces me that I’ll get any of this. What I see is “do this degree and you end up with a piece of paper and a group show that we’ll promote” and also the numerous “student awards” that are run.

      That’s all nice enough. But is it worth £9k per year? I really don’t know. It might be, or might not. What I am fairly convinced of, however, is that I wouldn’t go on any course expecting it to be my primary source of education.

    • I have been through both processes… I have a degree in visual art and I did a workshop with David Alan Harvey and James Nachtwey…and in the balance? The workshop was far far more useful.

      I have also taught many workshops as well and I think why they are better is because there is no actual course curriculum that is set by a standards body that says this is what you have to attain a certain recognisable level. Workshops flow around the quality of the work via peer review.

      Having said that it also depends on what you need to get out of your life. If bits of paper do it for you because you want a mainstream type of career then a workshop is not that useful…

      But if you want to be a great visual journalist or artist then I think hanging out with the people that create the best work in the world is definitely the way to go…

    • I think, like everything in life, it all depends. It all depends on you, your personality and level, it depends on the course, the group dynamic, and it depends on the teachers.

      I’ve been on workshops and – this week – I’ve handed in my final project for my MA photojournalism/doc photography at LCC. It’s been a fantastic experience and I feel it’s been very worthwhile indeed – even more so because I’ve done it part-time over two years, studying remotely and online while balancing a career as a freelance.

      My first workshop with Ed Kashi in 2009 was a brilliant experience – a small group (about 6 people), a teacher who was very generous with his time, and I was pretty new to photography so had a huge amount to learn.
      Bit different but my workshop the same year with duckrabbit was excellent – again I was very lucky that just two of us signed up and since we were learning new skills and had great teachers, we grew a lot in just 3 days.

      In 2010 I went on the Foundry Workshop and was in Rena Effendi’s class. She’s a very nice lady but I didn’t really get anything out of the experience – the group was too big (about 10 I think), the workshop was ginormous (more than 100 photographers) and I didn’t like the atmosphere, which I found very cliquey. I came out with a nice body of work, but I really don’t feel I grew in any way during that week. I decided as a result that I wouldn’t do any more workshops – that from now on I’d invest all my spare money in my work.

      In Jan 2010 (before Foundry) I started my MA. It all depends how you look at this but I think £2,000 a year is actually quite reasonable for what we’ve had in return (especially when I compare it to workshop prices….when I looked at politics MAs after graduating in 2003 the prices at Manchester Uni were similar).

      I have already undertaken independent photography projects at home and abroad, been commissioned by newspapers and magazines, been published and all of that before my MA started, so in some senses I had some of the skills and experience you are talking about already, but what I’ve gained from this course is being pushed to think in a completely different way about my practice. I really don’t think I would have produced the same kind of work on my own, and I’ve particularly enjoyed the research side of the MA.

      I’m not particularly trying to make a living purely from photography but want to balance it with my existing (writing) work. I don’t think any of my classmates are naive enough to think it’s going to get them jobs – we all just wanted to grow as photographers and people, cheesy as that sounds.

      I think people find the path that is right for them in the end. Uni courses work for some, workshops for others, and just going out and doing it for others.