A Geography Lesson

fort point 1, photograph

“If, however, teaching photography means bringing students to find their own individual photographic visions, I think it is impossible. We would be pretending to offer the students, in William Stafford’s phrase, ‘a wilderness with a map’.”

Brooks Jensen

Teaching photography, or art in general, is challenging and many, if not most, good artists are not good teachers (most people are not good teachers). Teaching art is particularly hard because there is this “personal vision” thing at which artists eventually aim their focus. It’s what makes it my art, and separates it from the art I made while still learning my craft. Many of us won’t feel successful until we’ve connected with it.

Personal vision is extremely elusive. Our initial experience with it tends to arise from a growing dissatisfaction with our work, so we are introduced to it by it’s absence. We often look to teachers for help, those who we believe have discovered their own personal vision. Sometimes we “adopt” their vision, sometimes we want to hear the steps they took to get there and sometimes we just want encouragement on our own journey.

There are several problems we face in getting help from teachers to discover our vision. At best, they have discovered their vision, not yours. Your vision is a product of all the unique experiences and qualities that define you and thus cannot be truly understood, much less taught, by another. And I bet you would be surprised how many of these teachers, if pressed,  would admit to not even understanding their own vision. It’s not clear that personal vision is something that, once developed, is retained – I think it evolves as you do, since it is an expression of your thoughts and emotions, which change over time. So there will be periods where you feel in synch with your vision and times when you don’t – it’s a moving target, one which needs to be continually reacquired.

I love the metaphor used by Stafford above – artistic vision is a wilderness and there is no map. It takes courage to wander into it without concrete guidance but there is no other way to embark on the journey.

Teaching art can serve an important purpose. There are definitely skills to learn, techniques and craft to develop. You can save enormous time by learning these things from others. And a good teacher will provide the support and environment that makes your travels through the wilderness less intimidating. They might even accompany you on the journey.

But only you can chart the right path through the wilderness…

9 responses to “A Geography Lesson

  1. Finding a safe place in the wilderness, a place to rest with a bit of sustenance occasionally, is one of the kindest things a good teacher can offer. And, while sitting around the fire of conversation, a few wise stories inspire the traveler.

    Say, what are those trees? And, how long have we been in this forest? Yes! Once we’ve been in the wilderness for awhile “seldom is there a way out of it”, because it is now home.

    • I think teachers and our fellow artists can provide much needed companionship in the wilderness. So much of artmaking is a solo activity, we need others lest the forest seem too vast.

  2. Provocative thinking. I think an interesting follow up would be to have some accomplished shooters articulate their vision, especially as they began to understand and master it.

    (I predict this is a difficult assignment!)

    • Bob,

      Yes, most difficult! Vision is so personal and words often so inadequate. I’d almost rather hear them describe the emotions and struggles that occurred along the way than to actually have them wrestle with the vision itself. And since it’s their vision, it won’t help me with mine…

  3. Great post! I, too, love the metaphor ‘a wilderness with a map’ because, of course, if there is a map, it is not a wilderness. Often we want that wildness but also long for the comfort and safety of a map. Ancient mapmakers drew a line at the edge of the known world and warned, “Beyond this point there be dragons.” Art seems to require stepping into Dragon Country.

    • Joyce

      The wilderness is not only uncharted, which makes it menacing enough, but there are also likely real dangers (dragons) out there. It takes courage to cross that line and face what you find. The courage of the artist…

  4. The best advice I received from a mentor of mine who pushed me out to be one of these “photography teachers” was that my job was nothing more than that of a coach. I was there to encourage, inspire, and motivate the students to find their own voice. Give them freedom to explore, experiment and play! To not worry about what others say or feel about their efforts. Yes, of course I can be a source of information but really I’m more a source of inspiration… hopefully… 🙂

    Great post Bob. Very timely for many that I’ve been having deep discussions with regarding this idea of finding our vision. Our general consensus is right in line with your thinking. It is a moving target colored and influenced by each passing days new learning and input.

    Keep up the great work here Bob. Very enjoyable reading. Thank you.

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