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Teaching photography: practically & conceptually

Interview: Joe Felber, Adelaide College Of The Arts

Lajamanu Souvenirs, Emmaline Zanelli, red sand from the Tanami Desert, digital print on Tyvek, mixed media sculptures made from Tyvek prints, found wood boxes, rods of Tasmanian Oak, glue, cotton and tape. Lajamanu Souvenirs, Emmaline Zanelli, red sand from the Tanami Desert, digital print on Tyvek, mixed media sculptures made from Tyvek prints, found wood boxes, rods of Tasmanian Oak, glue, cotton and tape.
Joe Felber is a practising artist whose work includes painting, photography, video and new media art. He has exhibited internationally since 1985 in New York, Europe and Australia and has been Lecturer in Photography for six years at the Adelaide College of the Arts. When RealTime spoke with him he was about to show an installation at CACSA, titled Call for Action, with 120 posters: “I started out as a political artist 30-40 years ago and it looks like I’ve decided it’s time to embrace political action again.”

In June last year at CACSA, Felber invited a group of African immigrants living in South Australia and local actors to create a script to be performed in his installation about migration, Kontaktraum Auslander (RT122, p52). He says his interdisciplinary practice is reflected in the diversity of resources available at the Adelaide College of the Arts: “There’s a perfect relationship between Visual Arts, Performing Arts and New Media. Each one functions independently but the crossover occurs in terms of encouragement—certainly by me—to address inter-disciplinarity a lot more because, as we all know, artists today can no longer function only in one medium. In Photography, we’re a team—Gregory Ackland (Principal Lecturer, Visual Art; Studio Head, Photography and Digital Media), Will Nolan (Lecturer, Photography) and myself.”

Since 2001 Adelaide College of the Arts, part of TAFE SA, has delivered a Bachelor of Visual Arts and Design, and this year, says Felber, “we introduced a dual-award with Flinders University, the Bachelor of Creative Arts-Visual Arts. This is a fantastic new hybrid of both VET and Higher Education. Students draw on the strengths and reputations of both TAFE SA, the centre of excellence in visual arts training, and Flinders University, the leading provider of creative arts courses in South Australia to combine visual art theory and practice in a course like no other. Our students have access to all of the resources of both institutions, including our galleries and museum collections. We’re preparing them for sustainable careers in the arts by honing that balance between making and thinking.”

Felber teaches Conceptual Photography, which he sees as “relating to minimalism and earlier movements in the visual arts and addressing the conceptual rigour in the execution of the photograph. It’s divided into two parts: Studio Photography, which engages with contemporary portraiture and allows students to get a handle on the camera and the best way of using different ones—there are so many types now. Will Nolan, in his practice, loves to execute certain photographic outcomes in terms of what a particular camera can achieve. We also deal with analogue photography, introducing students to the creative processes of printing, working with collage and found objects, including making a rayogram [an image made without a camera by placing an object directly on a sheet of photosensitised paper and exposing it to light.] The aim is to liberate students from certain aesthetic expectations about what a photograph is or can do.”

So the first six months, says Felber, is about the fundamentals, dealing with documentary as well as studio-based photography where lighting allows students to experiment with the differences between the two. At the same time they are engaging with the fundamentals of drawing, painting and new media. How do they choose which medium to pursue? Felber says, “They often say they go by their personal response to the experience. Printing is very technical and some students love that and working within its limits to explore certain possibilities.”

Teaching Conceptual Photography, Felber introduces students to the evolution of photography from its beginnings to postmodernity and current practices, emphasising that it continues to have a voice. “I reinforce the concept behind the artwork, the extended process of making and thinking that allows students to become more adventurous in their work. In third year some students move away from photography and use photographic images they’ve made of an object and then ‘destroy’ it in some way so that it becomes a sculptural object.” Felber sees this as a transformative spatial relationship so that two-dimensional photography gains new dimensions, which he thinks is now important more generally in the visual and interdisciplinary arts. “Recently we’ve introduced installation into the curriculum. I used to have it in my photography class as an elective which invited painters and sculptors, photographers or printmakers to expand their mediums.” The outcome will be a three-day installation exhibition in the college for assessment and public viewing.

Reflecting on the challenges for students, Felber says, “there’s a struggle involved in learning conceptual thinking and I’m very frank about that. There’s a real art in teaching conceptual photography. I grew up with it in Europe and I struggled with it myself as a young man. So I introduce each concept with an example of practice. For instance, if I’m teaching about postmodernity and appropriation I use Jeff Wall’s idea of borrowing imagery from elsewhere and translating it into a different outcome. Then as the students practice it, it starts to sink in and you see a better understanding emerging.

“Recently with second year students we looked at the history of the Grid and did a phenomenally good exercise—they had to do three different approaches to the concept of the Grid—rational, improvisational and compositional. They came into contact with the whole realm of postmodernity and cross-disciplinary processes from painting to sculpture to... They opened up, coming up with great examples in photography. One student said, ‘I’ve never been so engaged with this subject.’ And it was hard work. I asked them to keep a journal and a practice book where they showed me each week new examples and we discussed the issues. In their second year they also execute some works involving the body—for instance about body and confrontation in postmodernity—and create a work in appropriation or rather interpretation, not directly appropriating a work but adopting approaches like those of, say, Jeff Wall or Andreas Gursky.”

For their third year students propose a body of work and create it working independently, says Felber, addressing “the execution of the process as personal. I say this quite early to the students, to embrace it because anything to do with the world has to be personal. I see some amazing students in the second half of their second year [beginning to] identify themselves more through their work. Then in the third year they have to make that work. The responsibility is big. In this semester just completed, I’ve had some terrific examples where the proposal and the work in progress over the 16 weeks have just been phenomenal, a total eye-opener. It demonstrates the benefits of the first two years.”

Cross-disciplinary projects are an option in third year, says Felber, or open-ended ‘visual explorations’ where, for example, there might be “an emotional attachment to do with gender politics, feminism or whatever and students explore that territory with sculptural elements­­—they make objects they then photograph in the studio. The result is often very challenging. So in terms of choosing a medium, we don’t say you can’t do that. I have some third years now whom I’ve encouraged to experiment with video because the still photograph has its limits for their ideas.”

Asked about the careers of ACA graduates, Felber points to fashion and industry photography and design companies and to opportunities to move on to Honours and postgraduate studies. For example, Felber thinks that Emmaline Zanelli (see image above), “who is 21 and majoring in photography, has a very interdisciplinary approach, is full of energy and very much ready to go to Honours.” Zanelli describes her work as “exploring the conceptual boundaries of the medium by combining photography with sculpture to provoke the viewer to question the material and symbolic qualities of the image.” She is a 2015 SALA [South Australian Living Artists Festival] Award winner, receiving The Centre for Creative Photography Latent Image Award for an Emerging Artist using Photography.

Recent ACA photography graduates—Lana Adams, Lauren Playfair and Barbara Green—have gone on to complete Honours at the University of SA. Another, Ben Mclaren was selected by curator Sam Stourdzé, Director of the prestigious Musée de l’elysée in Switzerland, to exhibit at the Pingyao International Photography Festival in China in 2012. Now, says Felber, “with our partnership with Flinders University we will be able to offer further postgraduate study options for students here in South Australia.” RT

Adelaide College of the Arts Graduates Exhibition, Hill Smith Gallery, Adelaide, 13-29 Aug

RealTime issue #128 Aug-Sept 2015 pg. 12,18

© RT ; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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