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View from my room at the Palmer House, Chicago

View from my room at the Palmer House, Chicago

Last week I attended the 50th annual conference of the Society of Photographic Education. Attending the SPE conference was important because it freed up a part of me that was stuck.  My thinking was challenged by what I saw and heard. I was forced to reconsider my own approach to a career. It brought the clean light of reality to my thinking, and; after the initial shock, I found it invigorating.

The most important person I needed to see in Chicago was Olivia Parker. She was one of my heroines. Her process has changed completely since she began. She started with large format contact prints printed on AZO and split toned, then moving to Polaroid followed by a fully digital workspace. She’s happy.

In the mark of a great teacher, she showed work that gave a visual timeline. She wasn’t afraid to show the beginning, middle and end of each of her visual journeys. I was struck by the learning that occurred at each stage. As her talk continued, the strength of the images increased as the mechanics became more intuitive. It was a subtle and nuanced lecture that really reflected the artwork she makes. Her images invite the viewer to spend a little time in their presence. They aren’t precious, but lovely points of contemplation.

Amy Giese’s images, called skiagrams, are mural-sized images of the shadows in rooms. These images are made without the use of a camera, lens or pinhole. I think the primitive images and simple display of the work is refreshing. By recording, in essence, a negative light pattern of shadow, it upturns the whole idea of what a photograph is by distilling it down to its basic element. I’m an admirer of the work and the wit that occurs within these images.

David Emmitt Adams is a fine craftsman and has taken the next step in the march of historical processes. He is making tintypes on discarded film canisters and rusted cans. By using found and discarded objects as the platform for his images, it connects the future to the past in a elegant way.

The pace of change in academics and the market runs at different speeds. It’s like a clock with different gears moving at various speeds in order to give the correct time to everyone. To work properly, not everything runs at the same time. The same is true about art, academics, and commerce. They run at very different speeds, but function perfectly in concert. It’s work to overcome a natural desire to freeze time. In the story of the Transfiguration, the apostles John and Paul illustrate that the conflict between the divine (art) and human nature is nothing new. The small world of moments in our camera is in opposition to the fluid pace of life in front of the lens.

The system is flawed, cyclical, and at times out of touch with the world. It is perfect. As an educator of historical processes, I am constantly looking back at what was. And yet as an artist, I have to be moving forward. It is important to prepare people to adapt to change. A teacher is a leader — an enthusiastic student who passes on the information. We as teachers need to remember that we need to adapt to change too.

The new pragmatism of students learning the process for the first time brings up these kinds of thoughts. Instead of embracing the direction of their curiosity, my instinct is to resist. I can laugh at my own boundaries, and am grateful for the lesson given to me by the learner.

After a while, all things lean towards orthodoxy. This makes sense, for orthodoxy happens when patterns emerge. Like smartphone apps, shortcuts are created to make the mundane easier. Soon we get pulled into a way of thinking that overlooks new possibility and chance by the very tools designed to free our thinking. The statement “That’s not how we’ve done it,” turns into “That’s not how you’re supposed to do it.”

At the conference, the friction between orthodoxy and the new actually transformed into a creative energy.

What I took away from the conference is a need to remind people that the act of creation and learning is a joyful thing. I’m not implying only happy images are valid; but the most important ingredient in any creation is the joy of the creator. I think of childbirth. Not everything that surrounds that process feels good (the start is usually the best), but it is done in the spirit of joy. Even the pain is wrapped in joy. Such is life, and art imitates life.