This post was written by Pat Thomson on her visit to Thomas Tallis school in Greenwich.
Studying photography is not just about learning how to make images. It is also learning how the photograph itself can be understood.
On a recent visit to Thomas Tallis, I saw a visiting artist working with a Year 10 class. The artist was Dafna Talmor and her practice involves the manipulation of images to produce non-naturalistic landscapes. Her workshop ran for a whole morning, and the students were to learn a new process – cutting, marking and re-assembling “analogue” slides to make a collaged image.
Jon, the teacher, began the workshop by revisiting a threshold concept for photography – photographs are abstractions, shaped by technology. This was, he noted, as he started a short discussion, a difficult idea.
The guided conversation covered key points:
- the photograph is not a mirror on the world. It is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional world;
- the photograph is framed, usually by a rectangle. This is not how we see the world;
- the photograph flattens and rescales what we see;
- the camera sees with one eye (the lens);
- the photographer alters the image through their artistic decisions;
- what the photographer can do is shaped by the technology they are using.
Students were encouraged to bring these understandings to Dafna’s work; this is more obviously what might be understood as abstract.
Dafna explained that she thought about the photograph as an object that worked with loaded histories of image-making. She was working with images of landscape, but she could not avoid the ways in which landscape had been photographed in the past and was still photographed in the present. She told the students that she wanted to question the ways in which landscape images were often seen as ‘real’. She hoped to make visible some landscape features that photographs often left hidden, as well as making clear the ways in which the photographer’s decisions and actions generally remained out of a viewer’s sight.
The students were not only challenged by these ideas, but invited to play with them themselves. For a good part of the morning they experimented with second-hand slides that Jon had bought on ebay. They were surprised at what happened when their tiny slide was projected – colour was changed, composition of formal elements become more apparent.
The workshop was an experience not just of learning technique, but also putting a difficult idea, a threshold concept about abstractions and technological manipulations, into practice.