today’s job with yesterday’s tools

Posted by on Mar 3, 2016 in Daniel Johnson | No Comments
today’s job with yesterday’s tools

In the field of photography, I hear image makers complaining about the loss of the individuality in their work to the new simulation technology, that their (romanticized) role is demeaned. Battles over copyright laws, resale of work, alterations of originals, model releases, and authenticity are growing in frequency and may possibly even impede the application of the technology. But, the root of all this anxiety may be, again as McLuhan put it, “in great part the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools—with yesterday’s concepts.”

–Charles Traub from The Imaging Revolution, a lecture at Ohio University Athens, 1986

I first met Charles in 2010 or 2009 when I decided that I wanted to go to grad school for photography at SVA. I had never taken a photography class, and I had only taken one art history course when I was in high school. He saw something in my work, and encouraged me to apply. I’m not quite sure what he saw, I’ve looked back at that work that I applied with a few times since graduating, and it’s laughable. Maybe sincere, but mostly laughable. This week I decided to talk to Charlie about education because I wanted to touch on some issues that I’ve discussed with students and other educators.

DJ – So I just wanted to talk to you about education because you guys have one of the oldest graduate photo programs, right?

CT – We are certainly one of the most continuous and stable graduate programs. You know, there’s the Institute of Design, New Mexico, and Visual Studies Workshop. I don’t know about the New School or those places. I guess UCLA goes back to the 70s. We’re certainly one of the oldest I guess. One of the most continuous and coherent in a way.

DJ – You guys were around since 88, right? Started in 88 and the first class graduated in 90. So when did you guys decide to abandon film?

CT – We never abandoned film. But the darkrooms in this department were phased out in the late 90s. They were upstairs and they were individual darkrooms, color and black and white and so forth. And they weren’t being used. And slowly throughout the late 90s, we gave them to the undergraduate department, which did use them. A couple of the editing suites upstairs were former darkrooms. I don’t think we’ve had darkrooms, specifically germane to this department since 98 or so. Maybe earlier than that.

DJ – I guess I’m wondering, since you say that they weren’t being used, was this because of your instruction? Like, you’ve always talked about technology being really important to this field, and how if you want to be an artist, then you need to learn to use the tools of your time.

CT – No question. I started this program with that premise.

DJ – Do you think that the students just innately understood that and just sort of rejected film?

CT – Well it’s complicated. Some did, and some didn’t. Some held onto film saying, “Oh, it has to be done with film on a big camera or whatever.” For way too long.

DJ – But you still get students like that don’t you?

CT – Right, we still get some like that. But they seem to move away from it very quickly. I think they realize that there’s so much to learn in the technology that they don’t have time to learn all of it. They don’t have time to learn all of that and the new technology. There was a time when we were running three labs: the digital lab, an analog lab, and video editing labs, as well as other things with computers. So that was very complicated. Students realized that becoming a good digital printer or managing these digital files is just as difficult as managing film. And in the last 5 or 6 years we were quite aware that digital capture and digital imagery is every bit as flexible and sharp and more resolute than film. I mean, if I go through Facebook right now, I get friended by all of these people in front of their big 8×10 cameras. I mean, it’s absurd. You know, it’s a trope of, “Oh, you’re not a photographer unless you have an 8×10.” I mean, most of the people that are using them are making all stuff that was made 50 years ago. And then there was a period where certain street photographers and documentary photographers always had to have a Leica. They didn’t even know how to use the damned things. Kids coming into school with Leica’s around their necks. Most of them, what they were doing, had no relevance whatsoever to why we once used a Leica.

DJ – Yeah, totally. There was this thing you said at a lecture at Ohio University…

CT – They’ve had a graduate program for many years by the way. They go way back to the 60s I think. Where’d you find that lecture actually?

DJ – It’s on your website.

CT – That’s where I met Bob Bowen actually. What was that 88?

DJ – 86

CT – Yeah, boy. Woo.

DJ – So you wrote,

Nevertheless, I suspect I am like most photographers of my generation: I am caught in some sort of cultural lag or gap between knowledge and application, not sure of how to apply the new imagery imaginatively.

I’m interested in hearing you talk more about that. Recognizing that you’re caught in between these two worlds, right. And it’s interesting that you said this back in 1986 when, since now it’s 2016 and it sounds like it could have been written yesterday. We have all of these students who are still so invested in film as an integral part of the photographic process. I taught my first photo history class in 2014, and I had a bunch of 18 year olds who were really into film. Like they were lecturing me about how important film is. And how they have to shoot black and white film. You know, there’s this allegiance to film that just doesn’t make any sense to me.

CT – Well, you know, I was caught in that lag because I knew everything that was potentially conceivable with where the technology was going. We hadn’t gotten there yet. In other words, the cameras were really awful. The printers were awful. But there was no question that it was going there very fast and that you could manipulate imagery in a way that was agile and sometimes too facile, but which allowed you new ways to combine things that we never even dreamed of or, that would have taken forever, even in 86. So I knew where it was going. I had good informants, people who were developing this equipment.

I was caught there because of the same reason that I’m caught there right now, I’m just a bad learner. I’m a shooter as they say, doing real world witness picture-making, and one had to invest some real time into learning how to do those things. Having whatever little time I had to go out and shoot, I had to work with the way that I was familiar with. That said, it was pretty clear that I was going to be able to digitize everything that I was shooting with film. Even though it hadn’t happened yet. And then there were all the debates about what kinds of mechanisms, what kind of platforms to use, you know that we were still talking about. We weren’t even talking about Apple then. I remember, one of my informants said, “Oh, you know Apple will never go anywhere.” Yeah, well I bet you wish you bought some stock. But you know, and people on the other side, even people here at SVA that were saying, “If you’re going to be an image-maker, you gotta learn Apple.” This is probably 88 or 89.

So those lags existed because there were a lot of people—and students couldn’t see that potential—that couldn’t understand. Look this is going to change exponentially in your time. And while it’s not there now, if you don’t start here, you’re never going to get there. And some of them never got there. Maybe that’s wisdom or maybe that’s just age. I had been around long enough to see things happen. Today, there are students like that too, and the nostalgia comes out of that because the people that make the imagery that they get educated on—it’s like the Robert Frank syndrome. You know, you would think that Robert Frank was the only photographer who ever looked at the social landscape of life in America with a notion of… You know the amount of Robert Frank’s sycophantic stuff out there right now is just absurd relevant to the many other great photographers. Not that he wasn’t a great photographer.

DJ – Yeah, I mean there were a lot of photographers who were making similar, maybe even better photographs.

CT – Of course there were! And comparable things, we’ll just put it that way. The heroes that these students learn about—the canon—gets welded into these young people’s minds. “Oh well if you’re going to be a photographer, you have to work this way.” When I was coming of age, there was this romantic notion of the photographer as a kind of idiosyncratic free person who could look at the world in his or her own terms and be expressive that way. And maybe you could make a living doing some annual reports or working for Life Magazine or whatever. But basically, it was “I have camera, will travel.” What a romantic life. Even though we know it’s fraught with all kinds of difficulties. And you know, this generation looks at those people as heroes and thinks, “Oh you gotta do film because if you don’t do film, then you’re not a really a photographer. You’re not really legitimate.” And then there’s a whole group that says you gotta do it 8×10 because you frame things differently, and everything’s quiet dadadada. And the digital is too fast. dadada. But that’s all discipline.

DJ – Those are all symptoms of a problem. You can work slowly with a digital camera or even a cell phone.

CT – Of course you can! And you can actually deal with more because you’ve got much more to edit and more to deal with. Time, expenses, and all kinds of other things. And there’s a bunch of Luddites out there who still want to protect their world by saying, “You have to do it this way.” That darkroom upstairs is ridiculous. It’s an anachronism. What’s the point of it? It doesn’t teach anybody anything. And most of them don’t even do it right. I’ve watched them agitate their film. They shake the can, and they throw it upside down. They don’t even know how to get good grain out of it. So what’s the point? What’s it teaching them? When they could use that time for content. For just learning an algorithm or learning how to program. It’s just dumb. It’s stupid.

DJ – I feel like that’s the thing. You know, I always get in these conversations with people because they treat the darkroom like it’s some kind of hero—

CT – Like it’s a temple.

DJ – The darkroom can be something that changes your life. And I guess, I’ve always thought that it’s the art itself, it’s photography which has always been about technology. For some reason people have become attached to these older methods of working and completely ignore how to work intuitively with the technology of today. To be a part of the world right now. The forefront of photography has always been about technology.

CT – It’s nostalgia for something that you’ve never had. And you know, you’re never really gonna have. “It was better in the old days.” Well, you know, maybe it really wasn’t better. You know, certain kinds of automobiles really were wonderful in the 60s, but they were also dangerous. They were also gas guzzlers, and ecologically unsound. And in fact, they didn’t last as long. They only lasted about three years most of them. And they weren’t as versatile. And they weren’t as comfortable really. They’re beautiful in some ways, but not very functional relative to today. Photography was different.

DJ – There was another part of the lecture where you referenced McLuhan, saying that technology is a democratizing force. Could you talk more about that?

I hear the photographers’ fears of losing the primacy of their images as they become manipulated by the Sytex machine and random foreign users into something distorted from and other than their originals. I counter that technology is democratizing the process, that the photographer can just as easily alter the images back again, change them even further, separate their parts, reassemble them with other messages and disseminate them once more through their own electronic publishing systems. Information need not be in exclusive hands. We must not resist technology. We can evolve with it, accepting the revolution and the power it offers us as creative people. “Reproduction emancipates photography,” as Walter Benjamin wrote, “from a parasitical dependence on ritual.” There is no longer a one-way flow of information in this tech-age of simulation.

CT – Well, it’s pretty obvious. Anybody and everybody can make pictures.

DJ – And do you think that’s a good thing?

CT – Sure it’s a good thing. Why shouldn’t you be able to write? Anybody can write. It doesn’t mean that everybody is a great writer, but the fact that you can express or record your life or your child’s birth. I get a picture from my grandchild every day. What a fantastic thing. I get it even though I’m not there. That’s an important part of photographic history. That’s an important part of our communication of our language of literacy. We have this visual record of everything that can be done extremely economically. It’s much more accessible than if I had to go out and buy an expensive camera and buy film. You know, I can do this with my cell phone, and probably make a better picture than I could with my little Brownie! And I get back instantly. And I can send it anywhere in the world to whoever I want.

DJ – I guess that’s what I’ve always found—there is some magic in making something without seeing it, but as far as education goes, when you can make a photograph and get immediate feedback…

CT – It’s an incredible tool. You get a chance to see exactly what it is that you did, and as a street photographer, I use that all the time. I look at what I’ve shot immediately, and I erase what I’m not interested in. I make very quick decisions because I know how to look. I mean, it could be weeks before I got film back sometimes. Now, I can act quickly. And this is really important as a real world witness photographer. This is an incredible opportunity. It takes editing; it takes intelligence. You have to pay attention. Maybe this is what they’re not learning, is that you have to look, and you have to make decisions. Quantitative and qualitative decisions.
The democracy issue, that’s just as obvious as the sky being blue. What revolutionized photography? The Kodak Brownie at the turn of the century. You know, not everybody could use cameras before that. Photography was left to an elite.

DJ – Right, you had to have money. You had to have time. You had to have access to these very complicated processes.

CT – Or you had to hire a professional.

DJ – That’s the thing that I’ve always enjoyed. Knowing that this is something that anyone can do.

CT – It doesn’t mean that you’re going to be a great image maker. But you could be.

DJ – Just using the camera to communicate. I think everyone should be able to communicate.

CT – We do it all the time now. I can send you a picture on Instagram, and if you’re close to me, you’ll know that that picture has meanings other than what’s initially legible in the image. It’s about a dialog that you and I are having. There’s a structure to it. And we know that. There are many people dialoguing that way. Now that doesn’t mean that you don’t need words. Or that you don’t need to speak or learn how to write. But I would put it the other way too, that just because you know how to write and you know how to speak, I think you also need to learn about the literacy of the image. And I don’t think we’re teaching enough of that at the primary level. What does an image mean? How is it structured? How do you communicate with it? How does it relate to other images and dialogs and to the word?

DJ – I feel like that’s the kind of education that we need. A kind of education that doesn’t reinforce class distinctions. There’s a lot of do-gooding in education that really is just another form of segregation. A lot of them, yes, have noble intentions, but like ICP at the point. They teach a bunch of kids in the Bronx how to use darkrooms. On the surface, great. Nothing wrong with that, but what’s really happening? Why are they doing this? It’s this really damaging belief that by exposing these kids to bourgeois aesthetic resources, that they’ll be better for it. By giving them a taste of what it’s like to be someone that has access to a different social circle, that they’ll be changed, right. Major transformation. But when they get out of the class, what happens?

CT – It’s not functional for them.

DJ – How many darkrooms are there in the Bronx welcoming these kids? Why isn’t anyone actually trying to destroy these hierarchies?

CT – You know Kathy and others, we know that teaching digital photography—whether it’s the elderly, people coming out of prison, or in school and out of school programs—teaching them really how to make a narrative. How to deal with images that they’re taking and how to manage them in a computer. How to make a book. That’s teaching them literacy. That is teaching them how to make something. How to realize that they have a creative—the word I want to use is voice, but that isn’t the right word. That they have a creative way to make something that is expressive and about them.

DJ – Well, it gives them agency, right.

CT – Agency, that’s the right word.

DJ – I can do this, and I can say something and it matters.

CT – We did this project called Visual Life, about, what must have been almost 10 years ago. Do you know about that? We had foster kids coming in from the Children’s Aid society. I think, ages 13-19. They met here at SVA in the old lab with graduate students during the summer. They met three nights a week, and they learned the computer. They learned image making, they learned Photoshop. And they made a book. We have a few in the library. It was immensely successful and a couple of those kids even went on to college. This is why arts education, whether it’s theater, dance, painting or whatever, is important. Really important. We know that if a young person learns that they can make something. That they can say something irrespective of the medium. It isn’t about training people to be artists. It’s about training people to communicate, and to have pride in what it is that they’ve made and to understand the structure of it. That’s why it’s so important to be teaching digitally and not the darkroom. I mean, many institutions teach inner city kids the old fashioned way—ICP at the Point has wonderful intentions, but the darkroom is just irrelevant to these kids. They need that kind of mentorship and nurturing with computers. Their time in the darkroom is not structured towards that. They should still be making images. They should still be making the same kind of documentary or self-inspired work. To make work about themselves or their place, their lives. their families. We’ve known this about photography as a learning tool for years. I think it was Jonathan Kozol, who said. Do you know who he is?

DJ – No.

CT – I think he’s still alive. He’s a famous 60s activist and educator. Who basically said that inner city kids that can manage Pacman, if you can teach them to do that, then you can teach them to do an awful lot of other things too. If you use that as a basis. You don’t necessarily have to teach them the old fashioned, ABCDEFG. If you can think creatively about how to teach, they’ll learn. And he was right.

DJ – As educators, I think we have all these ideas about what an education should be, and we stop thinking about what our job is. Teaching kids the darkroom enforces structures that aren’t conducive a modern education. We get stuck believing that we have to impart our beliefs, and we’re not actually looking or thinking about what our students need.

CT – That’s exactly right.

DJ – We’re trying to force them into our world instead of trying to meet them where they are.

CT – I wholeheartedly agree. 10, 15 years ago, it might have had some relevance in terms of craft or teaching them how to handle the medium. But now that same craft has to be handled in how to make an effective digital print. Or how to Photoshop an image. Or how to write an algorithm or make an app. You know, it just doesn’t make sense. We just don’t have time for it. It’s like teaching someone to make daguerreotypes. One of our students did make them, and he did very well. There’s this person with surfboards. She’s all over Facebook. I see one every day. I mean, who cares about people holding surfboards made as tintypes. It’s so irrelevant. Yeah, it’s pretty. I’m sure if I did surfing, I’d like to have one. But it’s not anything that adds to the dialog of our informed life. It certainly has no meaning to a kid struggling to figure out how he or she can communicate.

DJ – I’ve got one more question, how do you differentiate between this idea of…Well, what’s the difference between making art and communicating to you?

CT – Oh, that’s a very loaded question. That’s a difficult one. I don’t give a shit about art. I think context, history, and intention may determine whether it’s art. But just because an artist says it’s art, doesn’t make it art. Turning on Duchamp. What we have to learn is to be creative to try to say something. And to try to say it meaningfully and with some intention to, and I’m using inform in a very global way, to enlighten someone about something. And that may be out of taking something from my own personal experience, “This is what I saw. Maybe you can see something from what I saw.” If it becomes art, and my intention is to create art, fine, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be art. I have to find out what I can say with this medium. My intentions are to be original, expressive, and meaningful. History, context, other things will determine whether it’s art. That which is made as art, may well be just totally discarded because we know that it’s so self-conscious. A lot of art is made for commodity. Nothing wrong with it. But don’t kid yourself that it’s necessarily important and lasting. And we don’t know. We can’t know. There’s so much being made. So much possibility. The possibilities for everybody to be expressive and great. It doesn’t mean that they’re making art. What’s so important about making art at this point? We’ve got an awful lot of it out there. What’s important is being able to become more human and responsible. And if making images teaches us how to do it, then that’s a great thing.