Isn't it funny how photography can sometime dominate one's thoughts? On Saturday, I read a piece by Rachel Cusk in the Guardian. Focusing on ‘the inexorable rise of creative writing workshops’, Cusk asks, ‘can fiction writing really be taught and by what academic criteria can it be judged?‘ Weirdly, I found myself substituting the word ‘photography’ into the text, each time ‘writing’ was mentioned...
So, with all credit to Rachel Cusk, please find to follow short sections of the article. Where I have amended her text, you will find my words in italics.
On how being a ‘photographer’ is changing:
‘The ascent of photography courses has given photographers a different kind of work to do, and is transforming every established role - photographer, reader, editor, critic...’
On photography within academia:
‘In one way it’s high time photography was formalised: academic institutions offer a shelter for photographic values, and for those who wish to practise them, in a way that publishing, being increasingly market-driven, does not. Painters and musicians have long been protected in a similar way - it is both an entitlement and a necessity for creative people to study and refine their craft. Yet photography courses are often seen as being somehow bogus, as even threatening those photographic principles they set out to enshrine, though the truth is that the separation of art from popular values in photography has been virtually impossible to bring about. this is a source of great dynamism in photographic culture, for anyone can be a photographer - at the very least, while the average person could not compose a masterpiece, a significant minority want to make good pictures.’
Concerning the subjectivity and variety of the photographer/audience/tutor:
‘A photography workshop will contain students whose ambitions and abilities, whose conceptions of photography itself, are so diverse that what they have in common - the desire to photograph - could almost be considered meaningless. Moreover, different photography tutors will respond to the work in unpredictable ways. One will like what the other dislikes; contradictory advice can be given in two different classes about the same piece of work. So the question is, how can academic appraisal proceed on such terms?
On the subject of assessment:
The upper benchmark of academic assessment is that the work should be “of publishable standard”, which implies (though doesn’t actually state) a touching faith in publication as an assurance of quality. Students are asked to demonstrate a critical and theoretical understanding of their own processes; they are formally entitled to individual attention from tutors, by rota in workshops and by a stated number of contact hours outside workshops; their work is regularly marked, double-marked, and submitted to an external examiner as a failsafe mechanism; marks are lost for misuses of, among other things, grammar, punctuation and spelling; tutors are answerable for the marks they give before a board. Appraisal, in other words, is rather more rigorous than a lot of what happens at a picture editor’s desk.
Thinking about standards and the changing of ones’ opinions:
How are standards - publishable or otherwise - defined? The answer is: by agreement. There is no autocratic way of assessing photography: the shared basis of visual language forbids it. Agreement is the flawed, frightening, but ultimately trustworthy process by which photography is and always has been judged. When Virginia Woolf read ‘Ulysses’ she dismissed it out of hand, then she talked about it to Katherine Mansfield and changed her mind. Photography teaching is predicated on something like that model.
Concerning the power of photography:
Photography is not only the medium through which existence is transacted, it constitutes [one of] our central experiences of social and moral content, of such concepts as freedom and truth, and most importantly, of individuality and the self; it is also a system of lies, evasions, propaganda, mis-representation and conformity. Very often a desire to photograph is a desire to live more honestly through the photograph; the student feels the need to assert a “true” self through the photograph...
You can read the on-line version of Cusk's piece about Creative Writing courses by clicking here