Studying photography: Part 1 – why it didn’t work for me

Autumn leaf

It’s been two years now since I stopped studying with Open College of the Arts, and I miss it a lot less than I feared I might.  Anyone who’s known me for any length of time will know of my very mixed feelings towards higher level arts education, and I thought it might be timely to take a balanced look at the whole thing, now that I’ve been away from it for a while.  Here’s my attempt to explain what I feel I lost and gained from the process – I’m aware that it’s a very personal take on it.

To talk about the best and the worst of it in one go threatened to make this an unreadably long blog post, so I’ve divided it into two parts.  In this part, I want to explain why studying photography at higher education level didn’t work for me.  In part two, I want to add some balance by talking about the very real benefits that also came out of it.  First of all, the negatives:

The emphasis was too academic – despite the fact that this is a hands-on pursuit, I felt I was spending far too much time theorising about photography and discussing other photographers’ work.  Being a philosophy graduate, I enjoy a bit of theory and I like that kind of discussion, but it wasn’t what made me take up photography.  Quite the reverse – I wanted, for a change, to get out of my head and into my body.  I wanted to do something rather than talk about it.  Naively, I hadn’t understood that the act of taking photos would be turned into something quite so academic.

It was too concerned with the post-modern and the conceptual – the bias (certainly with the tutor I had for most of the time, and the course assessors) was towards post-modernist approaches to photography.  I find post-modernism empty and cynical.  My understanding of it is that it rejects everything and proposes nothing positive – its concerns are with tearing things down, without building something new up in its place.  I’m not a cynical person and I simply couldn’t fit myself into this model – and actually, I didn’t want to.  (For those of you not sure what post-modernism is exactly………..well, it’s not easy to explain and I’m not sure I’ve entirely got a handle on it myself yet. I do know enough to know that it’s not an approach that sits well with me.)

For me, much of the photography I was encouraged to look at, learn about, and aspire to, struck me as over-intellectualised and/or lacking in aesthetic satisfaction.  I often felt like the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes, but was told (by one particular tutor) that my opinions arose out of ignorance and a closed mind.  Perhaps there’s some truth there, but I felt that there wasn’t any room for me to voice my doubts, and I couldn’t help having those doubts.

The emphasis on the conceptual meant that ideas were regarded as more important than images – for me, photography is a visual art and I want it to provide some kind of visual satisfaction.  This needn’t be pleasurable or pretty, but I believe there should be something there in the image that makes you want to look at it, that makes it interesting in itself even without knowing anything of the idea behind it.  That attitude put me out of sync with many of the people I interacted with but no amount of wishing I felt differently was ever going to change something I felt so strongly about.

There was nowhere where students could go to talk among themselves – ie, the online equivalent of the student common room.  There is a forum on Flickr which is student run, but it’s closely monitored by OCA and some tutors actively participate in it.  This has its advantages, of course, but it’s a big disadvantage when at least one of the tutors in question had a tendency to steamroller over anyone who expressed an opinion not in line with his own.  There was some discussion, around the time that I left, about whether students should be ‘allowed’ a space of their own, and this may have happened by now – I don’t know.  As it was, open exchange of views and mutual support for many students was limited to occasional face to face contact, or behind the scenes emails, unless they felt confident enough to take the rough with the smooth on the forums – I know for a fact that many didn’t.  For myself, well I did participate in the forums for a long while, but eventually I became tired of always feeling on the defensive.

I rarely felt that I understood what was wanted – the course assessors seemed to be looking for something that eluded me.  It was made clear that I wasn’t producing the goods, but I was lost in terms of understanding what those might be and no-one seemed able to tell me.  It pressed a lot of buttons for me – growing up, my mother would make it obvious that I’d seriously displeased her, but she’d make me play guessing games to try and figure out what I’d done, refusing to tell me.  It took me right back to those frustrated, helpless, angry feelings of trying to please, and failing, that I had as a child.

I understand that some things can be intangible and hard to identify, and that it’s easier to know that something isn’t right than it is to identify whatever positive thing it’s lacking.  I accept that, and maybe it just wasn’t possible to make this easier for me.  However, what it encouraged in me was my need to please others at the expense of pleasing my self, and that’s a part of me that can get out of hand all too quickly.  When I found myself worrying about other people’s reactions even as I was pressing the shutter, and when I stopped doing the kind of photography I enjoyed because it didn’t seem ‘acceptable’, then I knew I had to think seriously about whether this was right for me.

It badly damaged my confidence – I had a tutor who was known for his ascerbic dismissal of students work and opinions.  He was active on the main forums where students interacted with each other, and although he was very knowledgeable and in many ways helpful, his attitude was – and these are his words – ‘me tutor, you student, I tell you’.  I had had run-ins with him – as had many students – during discussions on the forums, but he had always seemed happy with my work and came across as much more amiable in private than he did in public.

That was, until I produced some work that he really didn’t like at all.  I’m not disagreeing here with his criticisms of it – I’m aware that it wasn’t very good – but his sudden tearing apart of everything I’d done without giving me anything positive to hold onto was a tremendous shock.  I quote here the words with which he concluded his feedback: “Well, reading all that back, it is a pretty good hatchet job on your assignment”.  At the time, it felt like a hatchet job on my heart and soul.  I didn’t pick up a camera for several months after that, and it took years before I regained any real confidence in my own work.  I changed tutors, of course, and the next tutor was helpful and encouraging, but I lost something the day I read that feedback and it took a long, long time to get it back again.  I almost didn’t.

Autumn leaf with baby leaf

The conclusion I came to, in the end, was that the College and I were simply a bad fit.  Colleges are obliged to teach what’s current and to position themselves within the zeitgeist, and most of all to keep the funding bodies happy, and the fact that that didn’t happen to align with my own values and attitudes isn’t their fault.  I was in the wrong place.  I wish, though, that what talent I had could have been nurtured and encouraged, and that I could have been helped to find a path that suited me rather than feeling I had to walk down theirs.  This is what I want from education, and it’s what I had hoped for.

I was also very unfortunate to find myself in the firing line of an unusually arrogant and opinionated tutor.  I would like to point out that he did have many redeeming qualities – he worked hard, gave much more extensive feedback than many other tutors did, he was very knowledgeable about photography and art, and he did his best to be helpful and truly believed that he was.  Again, however, we were a very bad fit – I tend towards being over-sensitive and he had all the sensitivity of a brick. I don’t feel I gained anything worthwhile from the contact I had with him over several years, and for a time I was very damaged by it.  I’ve since met some great tutors with whom I feel I might have done much better.

I was never bothered about gaining a degree from my studies, as many of the other students were.  I already have that, and what I wanted was something that would stretch me and motivate me and help me grow in a natural direction for me.  It turned out that a degree course wasn’t the thing to do that.  The problem with  photography education – as I see it – is that it’s either focussed entirely on technical issues and compositional rules, or it’s heavily academic.  At the time, I couldn’t find any alternatives.  A better pathway for me, more in line with my beliefs and attitudes, might have been a contemplative photography course, but I wasn’t aware these existed till relatively recently.

Despite all of the above, I’m honestly not sorry to have done these courses, although I’m very pleased I’m not doing them any more – a sense of lightness and freedom has come back into my photography practice that I lost while I was involved with studying. However, it wasn’t all bad – in part two I’ll redress the balance and explain what I did get from the experience and how it continues to benefit me.

The two leaf images are from a lighting assignment completed in my early days studying with OCA.


200+ Women Landscape Photographers – a weekly selection from Sarah Merino’s list

This is a very personal selection which won’t reflect everyone’s tastes.  Everyone on the 200+ list is worth looking at and many of the photographers not featured here are masters of their craft.  I had to sift through them somehow, however, so I dismissed most of the more traditional approaches to photography because they don’t interest me greatly, although I did include a small number that I felt really stood out.  I also left out all the nature photographers because, although I love watching wildlife, I don’t particularly enjoy photographs of it.  On the whole, I was looking for something different and something with a very individual voice – images with which I felt I’d like to spend some time.  Over the next weeks I’ll link to a small number of photographers each time and hope you’ll enjoy following the links and having a look round.

Linda Bembridge – Bembridge covers a wide range of styles, from the more traditional to the experimental, and although I’ve just said above that I’m not keen on wildlife photography, I do really like her Falkland penguins!  There’s a lot of abstract work here, as well as more representational images.

 Susan Brown – again, quite a mixture here ranging from representational to long exposure images.  Brown has done a whole series on salt water pools, which I liked a lot, and in the Landscape gallery there are some images of beech trees in the fog that I found breathtakingly delicate and lovely.  Her Other gallery contains quite a bit of street photography – I particularly enjoyed the skateboarders.
Kathleen Clemons – Kathleen is known primarily as a flower photographer, although her range is not limited to that.  She’s also a Lensbaby aficionado, which makes her a little unusual.  Her flower images are exquisite.