Teaching Photography as Art: A Short Critical History
Published in Smithsonian American Art Journal, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Vol. 21, No. 3, pp. 19-24, Fall 2007.
Throughout photography’s history, photographic “training” has been as diverse as the varieties and genres of photographs that exist. The direct instruction passed between master and apprentice, professional and assistant, friend to friend—still an important if not the most important form of training—was early on supplemented by a rich instructional literature in the form of periodicals and manuals, not to mention the development of technology so intuitive to use as to seem to teach photography all by itself. What concerns me here is the development of the advanced study of photography in academies, colleges and universities in the United States. It may well be that art photography is ultimately a form of applied photography with its own evolving rules and conventions—much like professional standards of commercial, media and scientific photography. But art photography has also harbored a larger promise—to probe and perhaps harness photography toward insight and cultural contribution. It is precisely in the context of teaching photography as art that questions of what photography can do become questions of what it is and can be.
The progenitor of modern photographic education in the United States was the Ohio-born Pictorialist Clarence H. White, a founding member of the Photo-Secession in 1902. White began to teach photography in 1907 at Columbia Teacher’s College and later at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, before founding the Clarence White School of Photography in New York in 1914. His curriculum drew together three elements: first, Pictorialist commitments to the photographic image as a primary engagement with beauty—of feelings and artistic sensibility before fact and information; second, John Dewey’s progressive conception of learning by solving problems from immediate experience, what both men called the “project method,” rather than rehearsing prescribed themes or paths; third, the priorities of Arthur Wesley Dow, whose widely influential 1899 book, Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers emphasized composition (line, mass, color) above observational accuracy. Centered around the galvanizing figure of White himself, the program taught technique, design and art history as tools of personal expression through assignments that asked students to work on discrete formal issues often found in everyday situations.
If White’s program appears today as a form of workshop-based advanced studio education—whose direct heirs are, for example, the Maine Photographic Workshops, the Santa Fe Workshops, the Center for Photography at Woodstock, Light Work (Syracuse, NY), the Center for Photographic Art (Carmel, CA)—his example was likewise seminal in bringing photography into the art academy, which began in earnest in 1945 with Ansel Adams’ founding of the photography program at the San Francisco Art Institute. Adams’ program was as resolutely modernist as White’s, if different in its pictorial attitude. What both shared was the conviction of a photograph as a making, an act of seeing handled, a creative process as demanding as in any medium. In both cases there was an effort to channel—that is, to legitimate—photographic creativity and personal expression through rules, in White’s case centering on design, and in Adams’ case through technical methods treated almost as law. Adams’ famous Zone System—still considered the gold standard of photographic technique—was not merely a reliable way of controlling photography’s exceptional formal plasticity, but fundamentally a promise that photographic scientism (the cult of photographic science) would act as a guarantor of photographic art and the status of the photographic artist. Adams’ curriculum proposed a consonance of exactitudes—scientific, aesthetic and observational—as terms of lucidity and ultimately insight. In principle the method was transferable between otherwise vastly different photographic purposes, from the natural to the social, Group f/64 style landscape to urban documentary.
Still unique in the history of photographic education, the New York Photo League (1936-1951) was a non-commercial cooperative offering affordable, vigorous studio courses in photographic practice, as well as critical courses in photographic history and aesthetics, maintaining a gallery and regularly publishing Photo Notes, a journal with reviews and criticism. With its school centered around the charismatic and inspirational photographer Sid Grossman, the League was distinctive for its progressive commitment to community-based, socially engaged photography, and for its investment in discourse as a constitutive part of the photographic process—in the words of Aaron Siskind, “we discovered a relationship between the clarity of one’s thought and feeling and the clarity of picture-making.”1 Among its initiatives was the Feature Group, a collective of photographers and writers active from 1936 to 1940 under Siskind’s direction; the group’s spirit of mutuality, self-criticism and democracy would guide Siskind’s important teaching career. By 1947, having become in many ways the institutional center of photography in New York, the Photo League was set to realize an ambitious plan to become the Center for American Photography. The League’s demise began after it appeared on the attorney general’s list of subversive organizations in 1947; it disbanded in 1951, a casualty of McCarthyite witch hunts.
The dominant model for photographic education since the Second World War emerged at the Institute of Design in Chicago (I.D.), which began to offer a Master of Science degree in photography in 1952, the first graduate program in photography in the U.S. Founded in 1937 in Chicago by László Moholy-Nagy as the New Bauhaus, the program’s roots were the experimental modernism of the post-revolutionary Russian avant-garde—cameraless imagery, simultaneously clean and abrupt design, a fearless attitude toward abstraction, the active use of montage, collage, multiple exposure and juxtapostion—and the spirit of a laboratory/workshop/collective resistant to the idea of individual genius. Under Harry Callahan’s leadership (1949-1964), and particularly in the context of the legendary synergy he shared with Aaron Siskind, who joined him after 1951, the program morphed into the paradigmatic example of modernist photographic education, emphasizing design, craft and observational acuity as the vehicles of expressive vision. The school’s influence cannot be overstated. “Hardly a university exists in the United States,” observed Charles Traub, “that does not have a photography teacher who studied there or was a student of one of its students.”2
Underpinning the I.D. tradition was a presumption that photography is a particularly inquisitive art, that “photography should be about something, in addition to being about itself”—and that the single photograph, however expertly and diligently made, was insufficient as a unit of thought.3 Rather the series (the collection of pictures) and the sequence (the collection seen in a particular order) became not only the goal of photographic production in the context of the academy, but the very terms of visual thinking. The thesis as a culmination of study—another I.D. contribution—emphasized the sustained project, and the image-combination as the grounding terms of advanced photographic education. How pictures form a semantic context for one another, how they pass meaning back and forth in controlled ways and in so doing, sanction new artistic purposes—these questions became the fulcrum and promise of photographic education. The mandate of photographic education became—and broadly remains, even now—the nurturing of self-conscious individualist auteurism, whether in the vein of abstraction, documentary, portraiture, surrealism or their variants and combinations.
By the end of the 1950s, advanced study of photography along the lines of I.D. modernism was poised to make its leap beyond art, design and technical schools (such as Rochester Institute of Technology) and into colleges and universities, sometimes in departments of photography but more often as part of the burgeoning offerings in studio art. This move was predicated on two arguments. The first is that photography is a discursive as much as a material undertaking—that language intervenes crucially and ineluctably upon photographs to produce their meanings, just as photographs intervene upon the visual. An insistence on the indivisibility of language and the visual from within the modernist framework took varying forms—from Nathan Lyons of the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester to Minor White (whose long teaching career included time at the San Francisco Art Institute, the Rochester Institute of Technology and MIT), to Henry Holmes Smith of Indiana University.4 Lyons, White, Smith, Siskind, Walter Rosenblum (of Brooklyn College, former Photo League president) as well as Beaumont Newhall and John Szarkowski were among the founding members of the influential Society for Photographic Education in 1962, still an active and important professional association.
Second, the practice of studio art, including photography, was positioned as a part of liberal arts education, an aspect of educating the “whole” person, much like the study of history or literature—and not necessarily for producing practicing artists, much less professional photographers. Photography in the context of the university became, in its own way, a discipline in the humanities. The growth of the history of photography as an academic discipline within art history bolstered this development. Following his groundbreaking 1937 study, The History of Photography, Beaumont Newhall himself joined the faculty of the University of New Mexico, and along with Van Deren Coke, Thomas Barrow and Betty Hahn developed a program noted for an explicit integration of studio work and photographic history. From the mid-1960s, the aesthetic history of photography and the expressive formalism championed in the I.D. curriculum were mutually reinforcing within the context of the university—photography’s new pedigree was at the same time a mandate for earnest creativity with contemporary currency and presumably wholesome aftereffects. Faculties burgeoned. Students set out to determine what the Socratic injunction to “Know Yourself” amounted to when uttered with a camera in hand.5
By the mid-1970s, photographic education in universities increasingly reflected competing visions of and for photography. New developments in modernist formalism took hold, associated with the influential MoMA curator John Szarkowski. Szarkowski proposed accident, contingency, indeterminacy and fragmentation as heightened terms of photography’s medium-specificity, and normative terms of aesthetic value.6 Photography’s uniqueness, which meant for Szarkowski its normativity, lay precisely in its paradoxes: the ways that making goes by the name of finding, time arrested is time propelled, space severed is spatiality expanded, de-situated fragments present whole worlds, what is picturable both confirms and denies what is experienceable, insight is both extruded from and projected onto appearances, truth is a function of illusion no less than lies, the vital and the vapid are matters of equal intensity. The upshot was an attitude quickly integrated into the university model: photography as elastic visuality turned toward itself, inclined toward irony and complexity (Fig. 4).
The university also proved a place where avant-garde initiatives associated with Pop and Conceptualism began to unfold new understandings of photographic possibilities—giving rise to “art using photography” as distinct from “art photography.” Artists with few or no investments in photography’s own self-consciousness as a medium discovered in it practical strategies for exiting the modernist strictures of other media.7 For Pop, this meant a turn toward the (photographic) vernacular—product, press and snapshot pictures—and a piquant devolution of the conceits of high photographic art. For Conceptualists, the turn toward notional systems, linguistic directives and (often idiosyncratic) data that lay precisely “outside the frame” yielded a heightened thought-experience that alternately elaborated and undid the photographic illusion. Southern California emerged as a key locus of alternative photographic education in both these directions—at UCLA, under Robert Heinecken, John Baldessari and Mary Kelly, and at the California Institute of the Arts, led by Douglas Huebler, Michael Asher and Allan Sekula. Both programs stressed cross-pollinating approaches to photographic practice, mixing photography, painting, printmaking and sculpture, and particularly in the process-oriented Post Studio program at CalArts, intensive emphasis on reading, discussion and critical thinking.
At the same time, the university naturally emerged as a place of traction for overtly dissident and critical practices aligned with Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis, post structuralism and new directions in critical theory. Artistic, critical and historical work became mutually implicated as photographers and critics—who were at times the same, most pointedly Martha Rosler and Allan Sekula—leveraged radical discourses emerging from within the university toward photography and its role in the production of visual culture. Practicing photography came to mean contending with the range and volatility of photography’s histories, uses and identities—as technology, art, fact, fiction, tool, nexus, relay, circulation, totem. Photography so conceived was not just a practice that the university could be made to accommodate, but a field strongly rooted in the university. More than any other cultural institution, the university facilitated photography’s multiple and contested meanings, particularly how photography joins thinking and doing, how it not only depicts but “writes” culture, and how language and discourse are central and not incidental to photography’s histories and practices. In effect, photography within the university emerged as a kind of interdisciplinary prism through which all manner of intellectual and artistic inquiries concerning representation pass—alternately iconophilic, iconophobic, activist, contemplative, ludic, ascerbic. By the 1980s and afterward, photography studies in the university entailed multiple combinations of artistic and scholarly practices across the disciplines. The photograph had become a protagonist not just in its own narrative, but in many narratives.
The upshot of these developments, ironically, was to augment photography’s cachet in the art market and the museum world, which began to rise in the 1970s, dramatically so since the 1990s. Between the late 1970s and the early 1990s, critically-driven art became widely fashionable, and university programs became conduits to the art world. In the main, they have adapted to remain so, keeping pace with the art world’s decisive turn in the last decade toward residually post-modern decorative formalism. The leading university programs now proceed according to what might be called a slanted parallelism in which more or less blatant careerism and authentic artistic development run side by side—converging, conveniently, at the graduate’s horizon.8 In the context of a highly professionalized art world, this often amounts to a photographic education premised on the refinement of imperfect mimicry, in which young artists study the aesthetics, history, theory and contemporary trends in photography and other fields—each of these having made their way into photographic education over the decades—for the sake of whatever minimal variance from the given becomes cognizable as a signature and hence “originality.”9
A century of innovations in photographic education are legible in many ways in the arrival of photography into the very center of the art world today. On the other hand, the history of photographic education suggests multiple alternatives to the exhibition-based model that currently prevails for students and faculty alike as the readiest terms of success in the practice of advanced photographic art. Some of these alternatives have rich traditions and some are just emerging—the photobook, the serialized periodical, the collaborative photo project, the interactive DVD, the hyperlinked web-based photo experience, various heterogenous forms of photo-circulation and public art outside the gallery-museum nexus, not to mention the limitless combinations of original photographic work and social research.10 It is clear that universities will prosper, if nothing else, as clearing houses for students and faculties in the thrall of collateral visions achievement held over from the past, and modish visions of achievement with a prescribed (if not easy) payoff.11 It remains indeterminate to what extent the university will grasp itself as an independent cultural space for photographers and artists invested in photography’s unique position as an interdisciplinary form and forum for visual studies.
1 Photo Notes (June-July 1940), pp. 6-7, cited in Anne Tucker, “Aaron Siskind and the Photo
League, A Partial History," Afterimage, May 1982, p. 4-5.
League, A Partial History," Afterimage, May 1982, p. 4-5.
2 Charles Traub and John Grimes, "A Visionary Founder: László Moholy-Nagy," in The New
Vision: Forty Years of Photography at the Institute of Design, New York: Aperture, 1982. Also cited
in Stephen Longmire, “Callahan’s Children: Recent Retrospectives of Photographers from
the Institute of Design," Afterimage 28 no. 2, September-October 2000, pp. 5-8.
3 Longmire, ibid.
4 See Leroy F. Searle, “The photographs of Nathan Lyons concerning the power of the
preposition,” Afterimage, January-February, 2004.
5 According to surveys sponsored by Eastman Kodak, by the late 1970s, approximately 1000
educational institutions across the U.S. offered courses in photography to well over 100,000
students. See Peter Miller and Janet Nelson, The Photographer’s Almanac, Little, Brown and
Company, Boston, 1983, p. 33.
6 As elaborated by Szarkowski, these formal elements conferred artistry on all types of
photographs, whether or not self-consciously “artistic,” and so colonized all of photography
for the high seriousness of self-conscious art.
7 John Roberts, The Impossible Document: Photography and Conceptual Art in Britain 1966-1976,
London, Camerawords, 1997, p. 9-11
8 The list of the top nine ranked photography schools, according to U.S. News and World
Report’s America's Best Graduate Schools 2007, based on a 2003 survey of deans and
department chairs, is strongly weighted toward departments with decades-old histories:
1. School of the Art Institute of Chicago; 2. Rhode Island School of Design; University of
New Mexico; 4. Rochester Institute of Technology (NY); 5. Arizona State University; San
Francisco Art Institute; 7. Yale Univesrity (CT); 8. California Institute of the Arts; 9.
University of Arizona; University of California Los Angeles.
9 See Howard Singerman, Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University,
Berkeley, University of California Press, 1999.
10 In many universities, non-exhibition based practices remain controversial as evidence of
tenurability, and nothing close to a consensus on photographic art as research has emerged
within the academy. Six decades of university photography programs have not yielded a
publication of photobooks, for example, as a clear professional standard for tenurability, or
any equivalent of peer-reviewed papers—short, focused visual studies. Likewise,
photography titles remain exceptional in university press lists.
11 Or to put the point differently, in the current vogue for oversized, mannered and often
elaborately staged photographic tableaux we see what were once post-modernism’s strategies
of resistance—irony, artifice, simulation, randomness, disjunction, reflexivity—reduced to
mere elements of style in a resurgent formalism whose authorizing terms are painting and