"Far away is not a place."
"The more ambiguous the photograph is, the better it is..."
"He not busy being born is busy dying."
"We can never be objective, for all that we have been, and all that we are, is with us every moment of our lives, shaping all of our attitudes and our vision. What we can be however, what we must be, is fair. And that idea of fairness boils down to one word—honesty, the one thing that we owe our subjects."
B. D. Colen
When I first developed this course, in 2001, I was struck by the fact that so few students had a real concept of still photography and its import. By the dawn of the 21st century, video was ubiquitous, the age of photo-centric magazines such as LIFE and LOOK was long over, and even popular music, which had always been a purely auditory experience, had become a visual one, with the transition immortalized by the song, "Video Killed the Radio Star." People born after about 1975 have come of age in a constantly moving world, and everywhere we turn we see moving images of that world. On top of that, the cell phone camera and internet have flooded the world with literally billions of photographs, the vast majority of them not worth the pixels that form them. And that raises two important questions: First, if everyone is constantly photographing, is anyone a photographer? Second, what role, if any, do still photography in general, and traditional documentary photography and photojournalism in particular, play in our perception of the constantly moving, endlessly photographed, world around us?
In Documentary Photography and Photo Journalism: Still Images of a World In Motion, we will explore both those questions, and consider various answers to them. You will be exposed to the work of a number of great documentary photographers and photojournalists, as well as to writing about the documentary tradition. Among other things, over the course of the semester we will watch five documentary films: Two about outstanding conflict photographers, one about one of the greatest "street" and fashion photographers, one about one of the outstanding photographers who documented the American lives during the Great Depression, and took one of the most famous American photographs of all time; and one about a unique, challenging photographic assignment. Further, you will work throughout the term on a photo documentary project of your own, attempting to reduce a tiny area of the moving world to a set of still images that convey what the viewer needs to know about what you saw—without hearing the sounds, smelling the odors, experiencing what was happening outside the viewfinder, and without seeing the motion. You will also write a paper about the subject of your photographic documentary.
Course Meeting Times
The class will meet for three hours, one day per week, with classes comprised of discussions of issues, ideas, and readings, and group critique and discussion of each of your photographic assignments.
There are no official prerequisites for this course. Please be forewarned that this is not an "introduction to photography" class, though we will spend a bit of time during the first few weeks going over some basic photographic / camera use concepts. You must have an understanding of the following:
- Shutter speeds
- The relationship between f-stops and shutter speeds
- Depth of field, and its relationship to focal length and f-stops
- The uses for different lenses and their angles of view
- Light sensitivity of digital sensors and film
- Sensor noise and image quality
Enrollment will be limited to a maximum of 18 students to allow for sufficient review / criticism, in class, of your individual work. You will be expected to have your own digital photographic equipment—and I strongly suggest that you have either a DSLR, or an interchangeable lens, mirrorless camera system. While you are not required to have highly sophisticated photo equipment, you must demonstrate at least basic proficiency with the equipment you already have. And remember, the more limited your equipment, the more limited your project possibilities. Which is why I strongly recommend you have something more sophisticated than a point-and-shoot camera. Which leads to the inevitable question…
What Camera Do I Recommend?
Every semester one or more student asks me what camera or camera system I recommend. And every time I respond with the same answer:
The camera you should use is the camera that will allow you to realize your photographic vision. Period. For some of you that camera will be an elephantine, top-of-the-line, Nikon or Canon DSLR. For some it will be a full-frame mirrorless camera, perhaps a Sony; for others it may be a 4 / 3 mirrorless such as one of the Olympus OMDs, while for others it may be a either a full-size or mirrorless APX or APC sensor camera, perhaps a Canon or Nikon, or a Fuji. Some may prefer to work with film. And for some that 'perfect' camera may be a phone camera. Which is to say I can't tell you what will work for you. I can tell you that over the years I have used Leica, Nikon, and Canon film cameras, and for when I made the transition to digital I went with Olympus 4 / 3 cameras. Now I shoot with Fuji interchangeable lens X cameras, with my iPhone, and shoot 120 film with a Bronica SQ and a Mamyia C330s—all of which work for me. However, whatever choice you make, I do advise that you select an interchangeable lens camera that performs well in low light, and, if you can, that you invest in the at least one lens with a maximum f-stop of f / 2, if not 1.8 or 1.4.
You are all expected to have Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom, or similar image processing software, and be able to use it. However, there are major limitations on what you may do with that software.
Your image processing software should be used as a photo journalist would have used a traditional darkroom—to correct exposure, contrast, and white balance, to sharpen images (which is equivalent to focusing the enlarger), and to crop images when necessary. Additionally, you may convert color images to black and white. You also may use color film emulation plugins.
You may not: Use selective color, alter color so that it is different from what you saw when you shot, remove pesky objects or people from your images, add pesky objects or people to your images, or radically alter contrast or lighting. In other words, you can use Photoshop to correct your images, not substantially alter them.
That said, you may use commercial emulations of traditional film stocks—color or black and white—that help you achieve your vision.