Thursday, 20 June 2013

#artmooc week four: through the lens… lessons for practice

This week was interesting on many levels: content, task, student reactions. The course covered portraiture from Egyptian statuary to the feminist photo-portraits of Cindy Sherman. We explored the differing relationships between the portrait and society; and between artist – model - society.  Early portraits demonstrate power and status, caricatures became political commentary and documentary style photography was used in the early 19th century to educate the workers about the new technology of the industrial revolution. Dorothea Lange documented the Depression and the Second World War in America – with specific reference to the impact on the lives of ordinary people.  This sort of documentary work was not just to record inequality in society – it was designed to change society.
This week’s task was to take a black and white photograph of a chosen subject – and then to render that as a collage portrait using newspaper pieces. The intention was to get us to explore texture and tone in a very slow, intense and embodied way; and to use those to portray the essence of our subject to the audience.
Here are some of my pictures – with a brief discussion of what I was trying to achieve – followed by potential lessons for practice.

 Wild one:
I developed a collage portrait of a youth in a leather jacket standing in a still wild space in urban London.... This was the 1980s and had exactly the feeling that I wanted to explore - human 'wildness' in an urban setting. After sketching the face onto a larger sheet of paper – using a pencil to indicate tone – I started to build up the portrait.
When making the collage
I sat down with the photo in front of me - and the sketch on the floor and a large pile of Observer newspapers. I started to tear off dark strips to capture the darkest parts of the picture - and also to set a shape to the face. As I started to fill in the outline and formalise a shape, I started to use elements of more organic pictures - earth, rocks, trees, elephant skin, sky, clouds, fur - to detail the face and create the wild feeling that I was after. I don’t think that I obeyed the ‘rules’ of the task – but I am really pleased with the final portrait and the effect is achieves.
General lessons: As always - the most basic lesson for practice is to recreate this activity as a multi-modal experience - requiring students to slowly create meaningful images... Or you can set students the task of documentary photography - either to teach a topic themselves in a photo-essay or to record a particular phenomenological situation. If your students are making their own digital artefacts, the whole lesson that we covered would be useful. You could set the students the task of exploring the development of the portrait from the Egyptians through the imagery of the middle ages and the renaissance to Cindy Sherman - and to convey what they had learned visually. They would learn much that would develop their ability to tell stories in ways that put them in control of their own imagery. Here are a couple of other things I discovered:
#8 There will be dissent… but *still* the best student is not the most obedient
No matter how interesting or meaningful or challenging the assignment - there will be dissent. When you have set a good task with excellent learning outcomes, stick with it – do not be ‘bullied’ by negative student voices… At the same time – the best students are not necessarily the most obedient ones. It can be the most engaged who are often the ones who push and pull at the boundaries – who challenge the rules and constraints. It is our art to know the difference. 
#9 It is worth investing time in slow, embodied learning
So many students in the MOOC complained about this week’s task… and yes, it was a slow and painful process to put the portrait together. It would have been much easier to create tone and texture with a pencil… But this difficult and ungainly task allowed difference and otherness to emerge – and built a different relationship to tone and texture. In this byte-sized 24/7 world it is still important to create these slow learning moments. One way to recreate this in your subject might be to get your students to create 3D models of the concepts and theories you are exploring…

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