Saturday, May 07, 2011

Signs of the Times

I found out this morning in a roundabout way the high school I graduated from will be hiring an art teacher for grades 4, 5, and 6 for the fall. The teacher will be employed full-time and will teach darkroom photography and printmaking to elementary classes.
Yes, you read that right.

Students in upper elementary grades will be learning darkroom photography and printmaking.

First of all, I don’t have to tell you the economic climate of the United States over the last couple of years hasn’t exactly been agreeable to many in the teaching profession. Education has experienced delays with contracts, budge cutbacks, and programs have been pared down or cut out all together. Teachers have been required to take furlough days and in many instances positions have been deleted totally.

Art and music have been hit especially hard in public school systems. Unfortunately, they always seem to be the first programs to go when there are money issues.

I doubt there are very few public schools today teaching darkroom photography and printmaking to any class let alone a class of young children, and of course, one of the main reasons Woodward Academy can afford this “extra” for students is Woodward is one of the top private schools in the Atlanta area.


What a terrific opportunity to teach what may be a dying art. Bob Smith, a local photographer in my neck of the woods states, “This is interesting …I guess it’s great to expose them to the way [photography] used to be done, but in ten years, they may have to buy the chemicals themselves to do the developing. I wonder what types of film will still be sold in ten years. You have to go to professional photography shops……just to buy old 120 film that went in every camera since World War II…and they have to wait on the manufacturer to produce the next allotment.”

Think about the implications for teaching history by having a darkroom photography and printmaking class. Even our youngest students are familiar with digital cameras. Many are very savvy with the Internet, camera phones and Photoshop. They know modern photography, but by teaching older methods students can learn about the methods of Mathew Brady whose Civil War images still get history students involved directly in the war.

Students can view this image….a street scene by Nicephore Niepce, one of the earliest photographic images from 1826. The method used for this print is called Heliogrgraphy, which means ‘sun writing’. The process took eight hours of exposure time…..notice the light is on BOTH sides of the street.

This image is an iconic one showing the damage from the San Francisco Earthquake in April, 1906 by Arnold Genthe. 

Young students can relate to this image since the age of these young boys is close to their own.  The title of the photo is “Breaker Boys”.   Lewis Hine used his photograph to change life for children all across the United States in 1910.   Breaker boys were employed in coal mines to separate the coal from slate.   Hine travelled the country taking images of child laborers.   Soonafter, a law was passed outlawing child labor.

The next image is the most famous of the four I’m featuring here.   Who hasn’t seen this haunting image of Florence Owens Thompson taken by Dorethea Lange in Oklahoma during the Great Depression in 1936?  It's called "Migrant Mother."

Photography is a powerful way to study history. Images of the past are signs of the particular times we are viewing. We can see how things looked, how people dressed, and how they wished to portray their present for future generations to see.

Historical images are great hooks to draw students in, and what better way to draw them in further than by teaching photography methods that seem to have gone by the wayside in many circles.

In today’s digital world anyone can snap an image and manipulate any way they wish and in doing so they can call themselves a photographer. Mr. Smith states, “I have a pro version of Photoshop CS4 now, and I can take a DSLR color photo and make and make it look like an old fine art black and white print from 60s. I can burn and dodge the photo just like Ansel Adams except it is digital and not like taking your hands to block out the light when the print is being exposed to the negative like Adams did.”

I have to agree.

Where is the knowledge….the craft, and does it suffer at the hands of technology?

Signs of the time, indeed.


Barbara said...

I like the idea of teaching darkroom photography and printmaking to elementary classes. This year my homeschooled son took photography and we studied the history of the art using National Geographic's "The Book of Photography: The History, The Technique, The Art, The Future." We both enjoyed learning about photography's beginnings, photography's contribution to learning about our world and situations, and the individual styles and interests of various photographers. Will we ever have a resurgence of pinhole cameras or darkrooms? I seriously doubt it since digital has become the norm, but learning history of anything adds to it's lustre.

cowgirl said...

Although I truly appreciate teaching children history through photography, I'm not sure that I would agree with dedicating a teacher and their salary to strictly photography and darkroom practices for 5th graders. I hope that this school has plenty of teachers covering standard subjects, and physical education, before using ever shrinking financial resources in this manner. I feel confident that the parents will let their feelings be known, either yea or nay.