Teaching Photography

In past posts I have written about the upcoming architectural photography class several of us are teaching at Penland in North Carolina in April. Last week we had a meeting with all of us at my studio except for one, Nick Wheeler, who lives out west.

This was our second teachers meeting and Mercedes Jelinek drove up from NYC to attend. Mercedes is one of the two Studio Asssistants that will be at Penland with us. Earlier I wrote a profile on her and her work: Profile. The other studio assistant will be Elizabeth Ellenwood. I also wrote a profile on her and her work here.

Mercedes and I went out to have lunch together after the meeting. She has just landed a teaching job back in New York and is finding out what it is like to teach photography weekly. We had a laugh talking about how you now have to look like a teacher, sound like a teacher, behave like a teacher, etc.

This, of course, got me into remembering what that was like, when I started teaching at New England School of Photography in Boston in September, 1975. This was two years after getting out of graduate study and my first real teaching job.

I learned this right away:

How do you know if you really know the material? 

Find that you have to teach it. 

I told Mercedes that back then I thought I knew the Zone System (Ansel Adam's system for controlling exposure and contrast in black and white) until I realized that I was going to have to present it logically over several weeks to students who didn't have a clue what I was talking about.  I also felt in those days that I was required to know the answers to every student question. It is the insecure teacher who feels this way. The secure teacher, the one I became later, felt free to say " I don't know" and then tried to help the student find the answer themselves. As she teaches adults in her classes, she often finds she has students who are trying to impress her with how superior they are, how much they know, as though their age or position in life sets them apart in the class. I find this as well in the workshops I teach. I sympathize with this as it would be hard for me at my age to be in a class with a teacher 26 years old, a few years out of graduate school, and not try to impress her/him with just how much I knew. But a class really only has one place for a leader and it needs to be the teacher.

Good teachers learn as much from their students as they teach to them. If I miss anything about university level teaching several days a week it is this: Teaching isn't about the teacher it is about the students. Leave your ego and need to be worshipped at the door. Students are paying top dollar to be in your class. You have a responsibility to be on point, up to date, relevant, exacting, compassionate, decisive, and to know your topic.

I am still teaching, of course. A workshop here, a class there. And I am enjoying that. Workshops are great because most of your students are there because they want to be there. University teaching: not always so much. As I am older, I am impatient with students just biding their time or wasting mine. A day long workshop has a kind of honesty about it, a kind of single mindedness of purpose that seems right.

Last weekend I taught a one day workshop for Digital Silver Imaging in Belmont, MA that was on the topic of making a portfolio that gets noticed. I shared everything I could think of that related to making and presenting a portfolio. The students were wonderful; motivated, interested and interesting. 

Do I have a teaching method? Listen really hard, try to figure out what the student is saying , really saying and then address that. And don't put any kind of "superiority spin" on it. More experience is just that, not better. Also, a teacher needs to be decisive, able to say which is better, where a student needs to go with their work, how their work is either succeeding or is not and then why.

Ah, teaching. It has been the other half of my career, the counter to the self serving nature of making pictures. I am extremely pleased and relieved to be free from academia these days. My friends used to tell me there were two Neals: summer Neal and winter Neal. Winter Neal was more serious, a little intense and focused, troubled and hassled and perhaps a little less happy. Summer Neal was more carefree, would smile a little easier and more often, was less troubled and life didn't seem to get in the way of what he wanted to do. Summer Neal might just as easily be found out in a kayak in Boston Harbor or paddling along the coast in Maine as he might be seen with a camera or schlepping prints to or from his studio. Safe to say it is summer Neal pretty much all year around since I retired.

Topics: Commentary,teaching

Permalink | Posted March 20, 2013