Topic: teaching (10 posts) Page 1 of 2

Digital History

As most of my readers know my teaching career was primarily at Northeastern University for thirty years in Boston with 13 years at Harvard University that overlapped with NU during the 80's.

I had been hired by Northeastern in 1981 to head up a new program in photography. By 1990 I was a tenured associate professor and was successful in helping to design and oversee construction of all new facilities in a renovated building. We were teaching as many as 5 intro photo sections per semester with 25 students in each class every semester year around. Even then the classes were wait listed with as many as 150 students trying to get in.

Photography at Northeastern was on a roll.

In the early 90's I wrote a grant application to take an intro to digital photo class in Camden, Maine at the just built Kodak Center for Creative Photography. The class, I believe, used Photoshop 1. I remember being shown how to use a mouse. It was early days. I  learned that the Center had an 8 x 10 film recorder in a special cool room that also had a hi-end Howtech drum scanner. This was for "special projects" only. I definitely wanted hands on these machines. I wanted to use the 8 x 10 LVT (Light Value Technology) recorder in the worst way. Although this was very early digital days scanning was a fairly mature technology.  

Back at Northeastern I made my case to my dean that I needed to do more research in Camden. He funded me and I began 1 1/2 years of going back and forth to learn more, to take classes and to get hands on with the 8 x10 LVT. Eventually I was awarded the status of using whatever I wanted and to be there whenever I wanted, sit in on any classes and, in the end, had a one person show of my photographs in the Center's gallery. The Kodak Center was built to research, use and develop software and hardware for the coming digital photo revolution.

Why so hungry for that one piece of equipment, the LVT? The only way I was going to be able to make a high quality print from a digital file was to scan existing negatives on the drum scanner, work those files in Photoshop and then write that file with the LVT back onto another sheet of unexposed film to be able to take it back to my darkroom to develop it, and then print it conventionally from that negative in my darkroom using an enlarger, trays and chemistry. In those days there were no inkjet printers.

That's just what I did.  I wasn't thinking of applying digital technology so much to my own work yet. That came later. But I was very interested in it for the program I ran and for my students. 

Back in Maine at the Center I scanned an 8 x 10 negative of an alleyway I'd shot in Cambridge, worked on the digital file with a computer to remove some trashcans with the clone tool, wrote the new image back onto an unexposed sheet of 8 x 10 black and white film using the LVT and developed the negative back in Boston in my darkroom.

I made a print of both the original negative with the trashcans in the frame and also the new negative with the trashcans removed. I tried to make the two prints as identical as I could.

I then went to see the same dean who had funded me to be up in Maine in the first place. I brought the two prints.

I remember this very clearly. His name was Jim Stellar and he was a young, savvy  and aggressive dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and he had been a psychology professor before becoming an administrator. We sat on either side of a coffee table, he on a small sofa and me in a chair across from him. After initial pleasantries, I placed the two prints side by side on the coffee table saying, "see if you can find the difference between these two photographs". He looked at both for a second, looked back up at me as though he didn't get why there were two prints of the same thing, and then looked at the prints more closely, going from one to the other, back and forth. Finally, a light bulb went off in his head and he said, "the trashcans!"

Remember, this was very early times in the world of digital. I explained to him just what I'd done, so easy to do now and yet so difficult in those early days. He was dumbstruck but got the importance of this one example right away. For him it became his tactic to take the idea of beginning to teach, support digital photography and computer based programming at Northeastern to the school's provost, president and board of trustees for funding. These two photographs became a symbol of the creation of new labs, equipment and a curriculum in a broad array of disciplines that became the major in Multimedia Studies a few years later. New faculty, additional support staff, continuing allocations for updating, software and yes, not an 8 x 10 LVT, but our own 4 x 5 LVT.

This framed image with the two photos side by side still hangs in the Multimedia lab in Ryder Hall at Northeastern today. It's a little hard to see but if you look closely you can tell that the image on the left has no trashcans along the side of the left building, the one on the right does. 

No way could I lay claim to sole credit for all this. Getting the University to first understand and then move on this whole new and large scale project took years and scores of dedicated people to plan, initiate, lobby for and succeed in obtaining what was needed but yes, it all started here with these two prints.

You can draw your own conclusions but the takeaway from this is what I would say to my students: act on your ambitions, innovation doesn't come easily as there is always resistance to the new. Be persistent. Patience helps. Confidence too. Don't take no for an answer. But if you know you're right, hang in there. 

Topics: Digital,teaching,Northeastern

Permalink | Posted September 27, 2016


Now that I am home after my second hip replacement surgery and all is well it gives me great pleasure to announce I will be teaching a class in Creative Practice for the Griffin Museum of Photography that starts in March.

The full description and instructions for signing up are: here

Please feel free to email me if you have questions: here

Class starts March 30 and runs through June 8.

Topics: teaching,class

Permalink | Posted February 10, 2016

Teaching 101

Rattling around in my brain these past few days are some of the routines I pulled on students to provoke them into making better pictures. I taught photography at the university level for 40 years.

Let me share one story with you. By 2007 I was an experienced teacher, a full professor at Northeastern University and headed up summer semesters with 25 students or so to places like Venice, Italy for over five weeks of classes. We would house them, teach classes, take them on field trips and immerse them in the life and culture of a small ancient city in a lagoon in northern Italy in the summer that was overflowing with tourists.

Of course all sorts of mayhem would ensue. College kids from 19-23 years old let out on their own in Venice? OMG! Suffice it to say that my job entailed a lot more than teaching them photography. I needed to get them home alive. But at least in class they were captive and safe. Furthermore,  I taught a legitimate 4 credit university level course in a program that was a concentration that I ran: I would teach and they would learn.

In the case of Venice, students would arrive, settle in for a couple of days to acclimate and find their bearings and then would come come the morning of our first class. We would head off to the nearby Zattere  with its wide walkway to sit in a circle of sun warmed stone. I would ask them to put their phones away. I'd wait for them to settle down and give me their attention. I then handed out postcards I'd bought of Venice: famous places in the city, standard pictures of touristy places like the Rialto, San Marco, Arsenale, Murano and San Giorgio. 

As they looked at the cards I asked them to really examine the photographs, paying attention to the design, lighting and perspective. I then explained that their first assignment would be the "Emulation" assignment, meaning that they would be photographing these same scenes shown on the postcards. I told them I wanted their pictures to mimic the postcards as closely as possible.  I then said that this was their one chance to make pictures of these places for our class, as I never wanted to see another touristy picture from them while we were there. At the end I said that we were going to make real projects while here in Venice. We were going to connect with its people, its culture, the local environment and its history. They were going to go far deeper and immerse themselves to make pictures that weren't just of the standard touristy locations but real essays on what life was like in Venice.


Off they went for the next two days with their postcards and their assignment. I had set a trap, of course, because they soon found out it wasn't easy to emulate the postcard scenes at all. The postcards were made by pros, with the best equipment at the right season, at the best time and kind of day. The assignment brought them very quickly up against their photographic inabilities, their lack of experience and expertise. So what did I do?

I berated them.

When we met to look at what they had made I ripped their efforts apart, making sure they realized the differences, just how bad their pictures were and why they were so bad.  They were humbled but it dawned on them that perhaps they didn't know it all as they thought they had and that this photography thing was actually going to be hard. Having stripped away over confidence and inflated egos, we then could start with the clear challenge and goal of making pictures that said something that combined increasingly good craft with a concept, an idea or an approach.

Now we could start.

What would they end up making? Examples might be to work with a glass blower, a shop owner, a vendor, sometimes with local families, out at a remote island in the lagoon where some of the  farms were, ride a water bus route day after day, photograph at night when business shelves were restocked and so on. I would urge them to go deeper, to explore a topic farther, seek out different perspectives, investigate a project to its logical conclusion, to make a point and say something with their pictures.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia said that it is difficult to teach a language people assume they already know. 

I agree.

Teaching 101

Topics: teaching

Permalink | Posted January 14, 2016

Teacher Rant

Apologies if it seems I am beating a dead horse but I  have one more thing to add to my series on the unsung heroes of the photo world: teachers.

I have written before about the teaching profession here.

Photo teachers are massively underutilized as portfolio reviewers. There, I've said it.

Let's play this hypothetical out. I am rich (or not), I've gone to art school and I like galleries so I buy one. I like photography, although I didn't study it, and so I decide my gallery will be a photography gallery. Right away I am making decisions about who to show, what kind of works I want on my gallery's walls and what artists I want to represent. I also am now being sought after to do portfolio reviews, both locally but also nationally. My qualifications are suspect at best as I am new to the whole process. Yet people are sitting across the table from me at reviews, showing me their work and wanting my say whether the work is good, merits attention and recognition, and whether I will give them a show in my gallery. I look like and seem knowledgeable and to be an authority but I am not.

Second hypothetical. I am a career photo teacher. I have been through undergraduate and graduate study in photography. I am well versed in the medium's history, its contribution to the modern fabric of our society, am up on current technology and lecture frequently about photography's impact, its pervasive nature, assumptions and misconceptions people have about it and whether student work is effective, beautiful, powerful or not. In fact I am a trained and career-based photography portfolio reviewer. I review student work daily and weekly, sometimes of intro students and often of senior or second year graduate thesis students. Lastly, I am very connected in my community for I often use local museums and galleries for my classes, invite curators, prominent artists and critics to speak to my students. I do not own a gallery nor am I sought after to conduct reviews even though, arguably, I am among the very most qualified to do so. 

Why? Because I don't have the position or the power to award an exhibition or to agree to publish a photographer's work.

I think this should change and I believe it may soon. Portfolio reviews are a fairly new system, devised to connect people with decision making authority and photographers looking to increase the exposure of their work. And it works, to some extent. This is how curators, gallery directors and publishers are now choosing work for exhibition or publication, for the most part. But talk to the really good reviewers and they say that most often they are ladling out advice and their opinions about the work in an effort to make constructive criticism of the work, not to award a show. Furthermore, they counsel the reviewee that this is exactly what they are doing. Now, go back to the hypothetical clueless gallery owner. Do you really want him/her advising you about your work? Or would you rather have a career professional looking at your  work, someone who is hugely qualified and experienced?

I believe that we are beginning to see a maturing of the portfolio review business, at least I hope so. After all, when someone gets their work reviewed it is a business transaction, with a client (the reviewee photographer) and the reviewer (the service provider).There is money exchanged. What is needed is a balance with those that can offer things like exhibitions with those that can advise the client best on the efficacy, relevance and worth of their photography, and make helpful suggestions about how to improve.

Come on Photo Lucida in Portland, Photo Fest in Houston, Paris Photo, Review Santa Fe, etc. I understand everyone who's coming to be reviewed wants a show, but for the vast majority the benefit is having someone really qualified, really good, reviewing their work. It's the photo teacher every time. It is a no brainer. Put more teachers in place in portfolio reviews and do it as soon as you can.

I am now finished with my Teacher Rant. Whew! Thanks for reading.

Topics: Commentary,teaching

Permalink | Posted August 15, 2014


As I wrote about approaching the end of  40 years of teaching  (A Dual Career) and what it was like to carry on two separate threads over a whole career I thought it might be helpful to discuss what it feels like on the other side of the employment divide, what is commonly referred to as "retirement". If you are young be careful that you don't dismiss retirement as irrelevant. It will happen to you. For many, retirement is almost a dirty word, denoting atrophy, decline and death. For others the word "retire" implies freedom and a life "smelling the roses".

I don't think either of those definitions quite fits what I am doing. I believe, two years into retirement, that I have been set free to do what I wanted for now many years: make pictures. This has resulted in much new work (some might say too much), perhaps as much travel as being at home, some teaching and a few residencies.

What's that like?

Mostly, really good. No deadlines, few meetings, lots of free time and productivity photo-wise like you can't believe.  If you're one of those people always trying to steal time to make art, retirement's for you. I can remember wishing for a day here and there with no schedule, no class starting at 8 am or 1:35 pm, no commute and free time to make art. At times this can be a "be careful what you wish for" thing as there can be too much down time but that simply means I haven't moved to schedule things down the line that will be interesting and allow me to make new discoveries, meet new people and extend my pictures into new realms. Also, it is important to have enough money to do as you wish. If you are early in your career please heed this: retirement could be really bad should you not be able to afford to do what you've always wanted, be it travel, work on projects, obtain exhibition, publish and so on. So, save for retirement, put money aside or plug into your company's or school's retirement plans. Start early, try to ignore it while its building and stick with it.

As I age, my health and ability to do what I want factors in, of course, but so far (knock on wood!) I don't seem to be too limited. I'm not climbing mountains anymore but don't feel so deprived. (BTW: I taught a mountain climbing photography workshop in the late 80's in Colorado's San Juan Range.) My particular kind of photography makes me rely on traveling to make much of my work, so that part has to be planned for. For the past ten years or so, I have tended to rent someplace when I travel. VRBO and AIRBNB have turned out to be mostly good but, if new to these services, it is buyer beware. Do lots of research. If you are like me and need to be somewhere else to make your pictures then think about how best to do that. If you flash through places, as in the the equivalent of 16 countries in 16 days, nothing you will do will be anything more than a first impression. But if you establish a "base camp", a place you call home while you are there, you have wonderful options and opportunities to visit a place or an area several times. I often describe this way of working as a center where you sleep, eat and rest. This is, in effect, the hub of the wheel. The day trips you take to photograph are the spokes and fan out 360 degrees from the hub. Can't get far enough away in a day or find yourself in an area where you want to work more? Stay over a night or  two, then head back to the hub when done. Hotels and motels get old for me after awhile. Restaurant food too. And driving all day every day is no fun either. I did this a whole lot when I was younger but now tend to fly to where I want to go and rent a car. Renting  palace to live and a car makes much more sense to me.

As I am single I don't have any others to consider when working or traveling to make new work. I don' have pets and I don't have plants. That's so I can go away whenever I like.  

I have a tendency to become reclusive, to hide away and do my work, without enough contact with others to keep me out and active. I have learned to search out people, to ask for help, to reach out to what Jason Landry of Panopticon Gallery calls, the"art community". These are the people that can provide support, recommendations, counsel and criticism when needed. I value them tremendously and learn from them often. 

Since what we do (exhibit our work) means very often having things scheduled quite far out it is also important to have short term goals too. Keeping yourself curious and invested is important in retirement. This can be hard to pull off but consider the alternatives: once again, "atrophy, decline and death". Oh boy.

And finally, I believe it is important to give back when you get older. If you've been in a community for many years and have benefitted from it, think about how you can help others in that community. This could be the town or city where you live, but could also be to volunteer for a non profit, serve on a board as a trustee or to give your time and/or your dollars to help others that are newer, younger, or up and coming. Wouldn't it have been great if someone or some organization was there to help you as a young man or woman trying to break into a new profession? As you retire, consider giving back.

Sometimes I get caught up in the day to day, just like I used to when I worked. Try to remember to savor what it is that you do have as someone retired. Keep up your health as being sick is a drag, especially when you don't have to work. Finally, you can't only do one thing all the time. Try to diversify your interests. I play the piano, for instance, not well but I work at getting better and have been taking lessons. 

The other day with my former student's daughter, Rose, in California:

Smelling the roses.

Topics: teaching,Commentary,retirement

Permalink | Posted February 25, 2014