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Teaching High School Kids About Photography

Jamie Smith, a man who I met in 2010 while attending a week long class by Greg Gorman has remained in contact and become my friend. Jamie worked with the famous Jay Maisel for over 10 years in NYC and now runs Social Fabric Collective“Social Fabric Collective is a non-profit organization that provides professional photography equipment, education and inspiration to high school students who are as diverse as they are dynamic.”

Earlier in 2018 Jamie asked if I would be interested in speaking to his class of young high school students about my view of photography. Prior to becoming a full time pro I was in the field of training at the corporate level. Even back then I HATED/LOATHED/WAS DISGUSTED by PowerPoint or rather how people attempt  to utilize PP. So I opted to do my hour long lesson old school, with paper that students read and actual photographs they could hold and view. As a training professional I know that a self paced lesson lends itself to much more retention. I know that so many people today like video because ‘it’s easy’ meaning it’s passive. And it’s NOT self paced, especially in a classroom environment.

So I thought I would post what I presented in the event it helps others pick and choose parts of my syllabus to teach others. The first part was handing out a printed form of this:

“July 17 2018 – Palo Alto CA

Hi my name is Mark and I’m a full time professional photographer. Prior to this life I was a trainer for Sony Playstation, a 3D animator and back then some of my clients included Johns Hopkins University, Estee Lauder, Nike, Bausch and Lomb, and DHL.

Photography tends to be a solitary activity and although I have no idea why you decided to enter this course I will assume that you have in interest in creating imagery. The type of imagery everyone wants to create is as varied as the number of people in the world. Today, everyone is a photographer, whether we’re talking about the ever present ‘selfies’ (ugh) or taking photos with whatever you have at the time. Photography is a satisfying pursuit, and I have found it is my lifelong endeavor. My preference is photographing people – dancers, actors and musicians. In reality I use a camera just to meet people.

It’s kind of easy to get into the ‘tech trap’ wondering what is the best camera, the best lens, the best light, the best camera bag. You get the picture. My personal view is to not allow myself to get hung up on that aspect of this life. It’s easy to see if you peruse photography forums, heck forums of any kind. There are always haters, boasters, see ME! types. Always discussing gear, what is the BEST, blah blah blah. But what is so apparent are the haters seldom if EVER post photos they’ve created other than silly test shots. Buying expensive things does not make an expert or an artist.

It’s also easy (and in most cases necessary) to focus solely on the technical aspects of photography. F stops, depth of field, shutter speed, sync speed, ISO noise, blah blah blah blah blah. But there are literally TONS of sites and Google searches we can do to find that info. And yes those elements are important but what I want to try to pass on to all of you today is what took me a long time to learn for myself….the art of seeing.

My epiphany happened when I was watching an Argentine Tango performance and became captivated by the light, the movement and the shadow. Those elements didn’t need a camera to be appreciated and were not the elements that made me a photographer. Nope, it was all about looking at the world in a way I had not encountered before. Instead of just looking – I would view a scene, a person, an object as a story. As I looked upon a sunset, a sunrise, a beautiful scene, an interesting or beautiful face, a tragedy, an object of any kind, my mind would begin to formulate a story about what I was viewing. I’d identify the feeling I’d emote while looking at the person, object or scene. I’d notice the light, how it fell upon the scene/person/object and how the light made me feel, how the shadows played against the light. The EMOTIONS I was feeling as I focused my gaze.

It went even further. I began to associate imagery with senses not normally associated with a picture. The smell of a sunset, the taste of a rock, the music I would hear in an expression. It was then that I began to notice that my photographs turned into much more than just a ‘pretty picture.’ Without a story, without feeling, a nice photograph is just a pretty picture. Some of my favorite imagery by artists I admire are underexposed, overexposed or blurry. But it’s the FEELING and STORY of the image that moves it from nice to fantastic to memorable.

Immerse yourself in the moment. I found that looking at the back of my camera while I’m out and about often meant that the truly GREAT shot was missed because I was paying attention to the wrong thing, the past, not the moment. There’s plenty of time to appreciate or loathe the image you shot…..later.

All art is about FEELING and STORY. Focus on the elements that don’t depend upon a camera so that when you have one in your hand, you will create something incredible. Be patient and watch. Observe, listen, smell, taste and touch. It will make your work rich beyond what you could have imagined.

Welcome to a different world. Welcome to Seeing

When you’re done reading this, but more importantly understand what I’m saying, raise your hand.”

Once each student was done reading the handout, I gave them an envelop with 10 photos and 10 index cards with these instructions:

Instructions

In this pack are ten images along with ten index cards. The images have a number written on the back of them. On the index card I would like you to

  1. Write the image number you are viewing on the index card
  2. Write a title for the image
  3. Write the Feeling you get when viewing the image
  4. Turn the card over
  5. Write your story of the image

Do this for each image, so in the end you should have ten index cards with a Title, Story and Feeling

When you are done, raise your hand

Here are the ten images that were contained in the envelop:

I then had all ten of the images posted at the front of the class with the corresponding numbers on envelops below each image. I asked each student to place their corresponding index card into those envelops. I asked each student to read all of the other cards to see how people view images differently. Unless you go to galleries with others or those who have also attended it’s tough to hear what others think of the very same image. What that does is it allows people to understand that everyone brings their own bias or experience in viewing any image or painting. It ‘opens your eyes’ to the view of others.

I also asked each student to text me their favorite photo. It didn’t need to be taken with their phones, but they must select one favorite image. I printed out each of the photos and made a lanyard so they could hang their favorite image around their neck….backwards. Each student sat in front of the class facing the whiteboard while the other students voiced how they each felt about the photo and what the story was for the image. The student who took the photo just listened, no feedback was allowed be it verbal or physical in nature. This allows each student to hear other people’s impression of their work. It gives them a window into how people perceive what they’ve created. That is an important part of learning in the creative arts. For the two students who didn’t send a photo I believe they missed an opportunity not often offered.

 

And finally I had a Q/A session where each of the students could ask me questions about photography.

And of course, a lit class photo.

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