I had the distinct pleasure of teaching a group of awesome students this semester: sensitive, hard working and very much personally invested in photography. They made some great work and also allowed me to post some of their images.
If these images look familiar to you, you are not mistaken: this was their emulation assignment, in which they had to research an iconic photographer, analyze his or her style and produce images inspired by it. So that’s why you may recognize something you’ve seen. You would think it’s wrong to teach students to imitate and reproduce others’ work – we have enough derivative imitations flooding the virtual space. But actually, it’s a crucial exercise. Remember that beginning drawing students often are tasked to make copies of masterpieces in order to figure out the mechanics of great work, but also to figure out what they would make differently while finding out how it physically feels to make it.
Emulating others is actually a spur in personal creativity: if you feel attracted to an artist’s work, you are bound to produce similar work even without realizing it. By consciously imitating it, your mind works through the appeal of making that kind of work, “gets it out of the system” and you are then liberated to do something else. Or at a minimum, figure out how you want to build on it, evolve based on your inspiration of it. Find out – emotionally, intellectually – that this is one way to make work among others.
And, most importantly, writing about it helps articulate your visual thinking. They did great on all accounts.
What was different this semester is really how much students have changed. The type of students who take photo classes is different now. They are well informed of photography, more likely to have a good camera and experience in it. But they are also fewer in number. Most young people who may casually be interested in taking pictures – and getting feedback for them – already have that interest satisfied by their smartphone + social media combo. On the other hand, those who actually register for a class are the ones who already know that photography is more than clicking. This means they are bound to be sophisticated in their visual thinking but also that you’ll be getting only those, and not the previous group.
This poses some challenges: since they have experience, they may think that the way they have learned to do things is THE way, while it is actually just one of them. Or worse, may have internalized the countless internet memes of the kind “10 tips for great photos” that annoy me so much. And if some of the material sounds familiar, they may not be paying attention to find out the parts that they don’t know.
Anyway, I believe they learned a lot and overcame many stereotypes. Made beautiful photos.