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Education feature: photography

The adaptable, ethical artist-technician

Mireille Juchau

Selina Ou, The Butchers 2001 Selina Ou, The Butchers 2001
"The generation going through tertiary education now is going to live through a period of more rapid technological change than [any] other in the history of the species. If you believe some reports they may, by the time they are in mid-life, already be post-human."
Alasdair Foster, Director, Australian Centre for Photography.

How are current teaching practices dealing with these rapid technological changes and other challenges facing today’s photomedia students? I asked curators and teachers from around the country about the quality of photomedia schools and their perception of recent graduate work.

Alasdair Foster says, “It’s no longer enough to teach current skills and assume that occasional retraining will suffice to keep the individual up to speed. I believe strongly that education has to be more about learning how to change and adapt than learning specific information or skills.”

While many curators and teachers note a shift from teaching traditional ‘wet’ photographic processes to new technologies such as DVD, net art and video, some suggest the importance of teaching more traditional skills.

Curator of Contemporary Australian Art at the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) till 1999, Timothy Morrell suspects, “...the craft of photography is not taught so thoroughly now as it was in the middle of the last century. Many of the photographic processes currently used by artists are visually seductive because of advances in technology. Camera and darkroom skills are becoming quaint and outdated ideals. It may be that the demand for greater technical training that painting students began to make roughly a decade ago will be repeated by photography students.”

Martyn Jolly, Head of Photomedia at the Australian National University’s School of Art says this technical training is already occurring at ANU where the school has “...made a massive re-investment in [its] darkrooms.” While ANU students are taught digital photography, video installation, animation and the web, Jolly says, “...chemical processes, particularly in the areas of the ‘fine print’ and the contact printed alternative technique have a big future, particularly within the studio-based teaching ethos of the ANU School of Art. We have begun research into digitally producing ‘lith negatives’ to be chemically printed in the darkroom.”

Curator of the Northern Territory University Art Gallery and lecturer in photography at NTU, Judith Ahern believes the ideal teaching model is “a learning environment where the student has access to traditional modes of creating photographic images along with knowledge of the new processes...Most institutions are working in this kind of space at the moment, and attempting to work with both and understand the differences and potentials in both modes of production.”

Timothy Morrell believes the art schools “have responded properly to the changes in contemporary culture brought about principally by photography and the electronic media. Since the 1980s the theoretical basis of the teaching in art schools, for all students, not just photographers, has been strongly informed by the mass-media, in which photography plays a major part.” However he warns that the sheer range of relatively new photographic processes “and the expanded notion of what constitutes a photographic practice, has allowed students an almost bewildering freedom.” The resulting difficulty of “making so many choices quickly sorts out the determined and motivated students from the less focussed ones, who lose their way.”

Outgoing Director of Melbourne’s Centre for Contemporary Photography, Tessa Dwyer sees, a “shift towards multimedia practice in photography and photomedia courses. Where once students might have mixed digital and analogue techniques in the production of still images, they are now moving into a variety of other screen and digitally-based mediums such as video, DVD, CD-ROM, and sound art. The change in an institution like the Victorian College of the Arts is quite noticeable. These days, students have access to a wide range of mid-career and established practitioners working in a variety of mediums.”

While students will often seek out particular teachers in determining where they choose to study, Foster wonders “if artists always make the best educators. To be an artist is, to some extent, to be self-absorbed, to be focussed on your work, to have a heightened engagement with a particular set of perspectives. That’s a very necessary thing. The best art grows from a sort of obsession. This does not always sit well with giving time to helping to encourage nascent ideas of the student.” The best education for emerging artists balances “exposure to practitioners, contact with educators whose aim is to facilitate and guide the idiosyncrasies of the individual’s vision and, perhaps most important of all, peer interaction...,” Foster says.

Most concur that the main difficulty for students is being able to afford to produce the kind of work they’d like to. Morrell says “...most schools are, like the students, strapped for cash. Students live in and are influenced by a media culture that is based on massive corporate funding (advertising, movies, music video). They can’t hope to have the resources to work at the same level as the practitioners who for many are their principal influences.” This means that students may base their choice of where to study on the range and quality of facilities offered by particular schools.

Jolly says, “Of course the cost burdens of such a technologically based medium are a real problem....[I]nevitably costs will be transferred to students. Students will need to have budgeting skills and earning capacities as never before.”

Despite these constraints and challenges, the curators I surveyed are generally impressed with the work emerging from institutions like NTU, Sydney’s College of Fine Arts (CoFA), the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) and the Queensland College of Art (QCA) to name a few. Many see a relationship between certain schools and the work emerging from them.

Morrell thinks that “the connection between art photography and cinema is strong at the moment, probably influenced by Tracey Moffatt and possibly Patricia Piccinini...A really important influence on students now is an awareness (I think produced by their education) of the social significance of photography in such areas as security surveillance, journalism and science (especially anthropology). The ability of photography to create its own version of the truth is even more significant in an age when manipulating information has become so sophisticated. Good art schools make the students think about this, not just how to get a fine print.”

As a teacher and curator Judith Ahern sees a range of graduate work from around the country and is always impressed by “...the strength of concept and the way that is reflected in the work...” She sees evidence of their training in the work of some Northern Territory graduates. Examples include, “Karen Neville, whose Type C portrait series RDH documented patients and visitors at the Royal Darwin Hospital. A strong documentary emphasis is part of the teaching practice in the photography department at NTU. Jo Gerke is producing colour images based on her experiences in the Territory. Cherie Kummer is producing landscape-based work in colour and black and white that has a lovely lyrical angle on landscape photography. Peter Eve produced a very powerful documentary essay based on the life of the ‘long-grass’ people called Long Grass, short life.”

Thinking about QCA graduates over the past 5 years, Morrell says, “it’s good to see that sensitivity to traditional values such as composition, mood and light is still fostered in a photographer like Annie Hogan. An interest in the constructed narratives of movies is evident in Paul Adair’s work.”

Dwyer finds it hard to “pinpoint specific artists and their influences” but sees “strong work” from Media Arts and Interactive Media Departments at RMIT and VCA. “Recent graduates such as Paul Batt (VCA), Madelaine Griffiths (RMIT), Rebecca Ann Hobbs (VCA), Paul Knight (VCA), Philip Murray (RMIT), Selina Ou (VCA), Sanja Pahoki (VCA), Koky Saly (VCA) and Van Sowerine (RMIT) are some examples.”

Curator of Sydney’s Phototechnica Gallery, Karra Rees says, “At a time when everyone seems to be a photographer, photomedia artists need to work at discovering new ways to look at things. Often, at student exhibitions there are similar works on popular themes or current trends...the works attempting to create something different usually interest me. She regularly attends art school photomedia shows to keep up with work from emerging artists. “Although the quality and appeal of [this] work can vary, I have generally found these exhibitions to be refreshing and innovative,” she says.

Rees cites impressive work from CoFA’s 2002 graduation show: “Charles Gordon’s exhibition series White Suite 2002 is part of a larger body of work entitled The Dream House Project. This work explores the intricate connections between migration, dislocation and memory...You couldn’t miss Lisa Anne’s series Home, they are huge, colourful and seemingly unreal.” She also mentions Georgia Walker’s Transfiguration series. Rees says these “creepy, soft digital images of her sculptures made out of stockings, hair, and what appears to be golf balls, as well as other assorted items in mute tones...really stood out in the [CoFA] exhibition, not only as remarkably different in style, but also in process and concept.”

When asked what needs improving in the current approach to education for photomedia artists, it seems a thorough understanding of the history of the form is vital to offset an obsession with the ‘now.’ “...[S]tudents need to be encouraged to remain critical of fashions and trends, while not denying their keep asking questions, challenging assumptions and retaining their personal vision,” says Tessa Dwyer.

For Judith Ahern it’s vital students are “aware always of the extraordinary history of photography and the way it has shaped and continues to shape contemporary ideas and art practice” and that their teachers should “keep teaching the traditional modes of making photographic images, [and] to look back as well as at ‘alternative’ processes as offering new ways to approach old ways of making images with light.”

Martyn Jolly says, “It is an interesting phenomenon that photography has become the prime concern of many other art school departments: painters paint ‘the photograph’, printmakers also deal with digital reproductive technologies, everybody is making videos. [ANU has] encouraged a renewed exploration of documentary traditions in photography, with a critical underpinning and by engaging with new technologies.” This approach “has been very successful, it is a way of getting the students off campus, and getting them engaged with local communities and related institutions.”

This community interaction is essential Alasdair Foster believes, because “...broader relevance is a difficult thing to achieve when a ‘market forces driven’ educational system is under pressure to deliver discrete paper qualifications in highly defined disciplines in order to succeed financially...Art as much as science desperately needs its pure research and its exploration of ideas for their own sake. Otherwise we will find ourselves forever behind the 8-ball.

“Art cannot afford to be left to the art world. We need to find ways to educate that ensure a breadth of understanding of many aspects of life...If we do not, we are in danger of evolving an art language with less and less relevance to the wider community.”

RealTime issue #56 Aug-Sept 2003 pg. 39-

© Mireille Juchau; for permission to reproduce apply to

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