Alec Soth's Archived Blog

September 17, 2007

Teenage Lust

Filed under: aesthetics,artists — alecsothblog @ 4:33 am

This weekend I went to the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin to see a show that included the work of Larry Clark. After recent discussions on this blog (here and here) it was interesting to see Clark’s pictures from Teenage Lust. He shows a girl who is tripping on acid being raped, male hustlers, a brother with an erection tying up his sister in bed. Clark was in his thirties and early forties when he produced this work. In several pictures we see him naked with the teens. It is disturbing stuff. But seeing it in the safe confines of a museum, I somehow find all of this ‘acceptable.’ Again, it comes down to context. If I saw Teenage Lust in the waiting room of my kid’s doctor, yeah, I’d have a big problem. I’d also be troubled if Clark’s pictures were turned into ads. Remember those banned Calvin Klein spots from the 90’s. (Watch them here). Yeesh.

But should context be a safe-haven? Is it fair to disparage Jock Sturges because his books are sold in Barnes & Noble instead of Printed Matter? Does Clark use the prestige of high art to protect his own Neverland Ranch?

  • Larry Clark has an exhibition of new work here
  • 5b4 has a great review of Clark’s new book here

September 15, 2007

Documenta, children, sexuality, Barnes & Noble

Filed under: aesthetics,artists,exhibitions (not mine) — alecsothblog @ 12:40 am

Yesterday I went to Documenta. Along with feeling under the weather, I am getting to be too much of a curmudgeon to walk though a half dozen museums of Scotch tape, toothpicks and wall text. But there was the occasional gem. I’m always a fan of Kerry James Marshall. He took the prize for best painter:

In the sculpture catagory, I liked Lukas Duwenhögger’s ‘Celestial Teapot:’

And in photography I was happy to discover the vintage photograms of Bela Kolárová:


more by Kolárová here and here

But the most thrilling experience was watching ‘Who is Listening 1,’ a video by the Taiwanese artist Tseng Yu-Chin.

This video powerfully addressed an issue that has been on my mind. As mentioned yesterday, I recently spent time with the photographer Jock Sturges. Jock is famous for photographing naked children. In 1990, the FBI raided Jock’s studio. After a year, Sturges successfully defended himself on child pornography charges.

Jock and I had a long talk about his work and the way it is received. He convinced me of his good intentions. But I still struggle with how his work functions in the world. For years it seemed like the only photo books the local bookstores carried were crisp new books by Anne Geddes and pawed-over books by Jock Sturges. Why are these books so popular and who is the intended audience?

Sturges agrees that it is problematic. “That dichotomy between the public consumption of the work and my intent and practice in making it is an uneasy one for me, on occasion,” Sturges said in an interview.

The thing that is so fantastic about Tseng Yu-Chin’s video is that it powerfully challenges our ideas of age and sexuality. In the video, the camera is focused on the sweet face of a young boy or girl. Music is playing and a gentle wind blows the child’s hair. All of the sudden, a stream of yogurt is shot on the child’s face and he/she reacts with surprise and pleasure. The same act is then repeated with numerous children.

When I first started watching the video, I was totally entertained (a real relief from Documenta). The children are cute and their reaction is hysterical. In the audience I saw young children barely containing themselves as they waited for the next yogurt blast. I also saw an elderly woman in a wheelchair with an ear to ear grin. But the more I watched, the more I became uncomfortable. “Does this suggest what I think it suggests?” I looked around at the audience. Others looked uncomfortable too.

Along with being a stunning piece of work, the video functions as a kind of Rorschach test. Will you view this like an innocent child or like a suspicious adult?

Poking around online for more information, I came across a text by Yu-Chin that he uses as a statement for the work:

I liked walking in large strides when I was young, freely moving my hands, feeling the air piercing through the gaps between my fingers. It’s comfortable.

But it was ruined by a woman. A stranger. A nameless woman. That one afternoon, when I still walked with my hands moving freely, I cheerfully crossed the street with my mother I lifted my head, without realizing that a woman was coming towards us from the other side. My hand coincidentally collided with her private part. Of course, it was through the cover of fabrics. Honestly, I had yet to realize the significance of sex. I was going to simply apologize. However, I was treated as someone blinded by sexual desire. The woman stared at me with resentment. Full of moral judgment and anger, her lips were pressed so tightly as if she is grinding her teeth behind them. As if I had been slapped mercilessly, my ears rung with endless chatter, and my head filled with cold murmurs, as if the world had frozen over to look at me and my embarrassment, pointing at me with accusation, buzzing over my behavior. And my mother’s figure trembled far ahead. I ran over to hold her hand. Her hand was warm, yet cold at the same time. I didn’t know what to feel. My mother was a woman, too.

I did not know what the stranger was thinking, nor did I know what burden she had placed upon me. At that moment, I felt only the gliding air between my fingers, and not the part of her body that she was taught to believe to be a controversy. I remembered the air becoming suffocating, and those eyes that pierced the stifling space. The zipper on those jeans feels cold, and warm, at the same time. It takes a variety of manners to remind you, that your body had once remained in the naiveté.

It might be that Yu-Chin and Jock Sturges have very similar motives. But context matters. Documenta isn’t the same as Barnes and Noble. Or is it?

    • Watch a clip of Who is Listening 1 here
    • Watch other clips by Yu-Chin here and here
    • Read articles on Tseng Yu-Chin here and here

September 14, 2007

Friday Poem

Filed under: poetry — alecsothblog @ 1:31 am

I’m currently in Germany working on a book. Next door to Steid’s press he has several apartments (aka The Halftone Hotel) for visiting artists.

Today in my room I read an essay by C.K. Williams called ‘A Letter to a Workshop‘. Williams says that poets should grant themselves “the right to vacillate, to wobble, to shillyshally, be indecisive in one’s labors, and still not suffer from a sense of being irresponsible, indolent, or weak.”

“Another, related, right,” he says, “is to be wrong, about anything and everything, and to know that even when your line of reflection or imagining might be viewed as absurdly illogical, you should be able to go on to its however provisional conclusion.”

Staying in the adjoining room is Jock Sturges (info, images). Only two weeks ago I had a lengthy discussion with a friend about my problems with Sturges’ work. After a couple days sharing meals (and a bathroom) with Jock, I’m not sure what to think anymore. But I paid close attention when Williams discussed another right:

We should be able to regard our inner existence, the part anyway that’s raw material for poetry, as a laboratory, in which mental and emotional phenomena are valued according to their potential usefulness, and considered harmless unless they demand to be concretized in malignant actions. (It should probably be kept in mind that the ultimate purpose of this sort of reflection isn’t action, but self-knowledge. Action—creation—comes later.)

From this follows the right of the mind to be able to remark in itself and not repress, or at least not too quickly, anything that comes to it, even such ostensibly inadmissible emotions as, to mention just a few, lust, greed, envy, anger, even rancor, even genres of otherwise unutterable prejudice. We should be able to entertain anything the mind casts up as potentially useful for a poem, while at the same time forgiving ourselves for such after all private matters, and this should be a forgiveness that arrives in a short enough time so that any shame or guilt arising from such scary glimpses within will be productive rather than debilitating for the germination of poems. We have, for poetry, to have as accurate an awareness as we can of the quality of our ethical consciousness, but we also need a firm sense of the difference between sins of the heart and sins of the hand: the mind has a life of its own which cares little for the parameters culture and society propose for it, and it is often this inner awareness which is most potentially interesting as aspects of a poem.

Should photographers be as free as poets? Or is photography itself a “sin of the hand.” I’m not sure. But I’m pretty sure Jock would appreciate this poem:

On the Metro
by C. K. Williams

On the metro, I have to ask a young woman to move the packages beside her to make room for me;
she’s reading, her foot propped on the seat in front of her, and barely looks up as she pulls them to her.
I sit, take out my own book—Cioran, The Temptation to Exist—and notice her glancing up from hers
to take in the title of mine, and then, as Gombrowicz puts it, she “affirms herself physically,” that is,
becomes present in a way she hadn’t been before: though she hasn’t moved, she’s allowed herself
to come more sharply into focus, be more accessible to my sensual perception, so I can’t help but remark
her strong figure and very tan skin—(how literally golden young women can look at the end of summer.)
She leans back now, and as the train rocks and her arm brushes mine she doesn’t pull it away;
she seems to be allowing our surfaces to unite: the fine hairs on both our forearms, sensitive, alive,
achingly alive, bring news of someone touched, someone sensed, and thus acknowledged, known.

I understand that in no way is she offering more than this, and in truth I have no desire for more,
but it’s still enough for me to be taken by a surge, first of warmth then of something like its opposite:
a memory—a girl I’d mooned for from afar, across the table from me in the library in school now,
our feet I thought touching, touching even again, and then, with all I craved that touch to mean,
my having to realize it wasn’t her flesh my flesh for that gleaming time had pressed, but a table leg.
The young woman today removes her arm now, stands, swaying against the lurch of the slowing train,
and crossing before me brushes my knee and does that thing again, asserts her bodily being again,
(Gombrowicz again), then quickly moves to the door of the car and descends, not once looking back,
(to my relief not looking back), and I allow myself the thought that though I must be to her again
as senseless as that table of my youth, as wooden, as unfeeling, perhaps there was a moment I was not.

September 11, 2007

Richard Barnes

Filed under: artists,exhibitions (not mine),the sentence — alecsothblog @ 7:54 am

One of the best parts of my teaching gig at SFAI was bringing in visiting artists. Along with valuing what they could add to the class, this provided me with an excuse to hang out with some cool Bay Area artists.

The first person I invited, Richard Barnes, recently left San Francisco for the East Coast but was in town for a group exhibition at the Yurba Buena Center for the Arts. The show, Dark Matters, has a lot of fantastic work. But for me the highlight was seeing Barnes’ pictures in person. These sumptuous images of starling migrations in Rome made a deep impression when I first saw them in the New York Times Magazine (pdf).


Mumur 1, Nov. 15, 2005 by Richard Barnes

The Times has a nice interactive presentation of these pictures here.

Not long ago Richard Barnes also did a series on bird nests:


from Grid of Nests, 2000, by Richard Barnes

But these bird photos are just the tip of Barnes’ rich and eclectic career. One of the reasons I invited Richard to the class was because of his untraditional career path. After receiving a B.A from Berkeley, he has supported himself as a working photographer. This has principally been in the field of architectural photography, but along the way he has received numerous commissions. Much of this commissioned work deals with the architecture of preservation:


from Animal Logic by Richard Barnes


from Animal Logic by Richard Barnes

For all his great work with birds and museums, Barnes is best known for his pictures of a small house. Nearly ten years ago, the New York Times commissioned Barnes to photograph the cabin of Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber. By mixing clinical minimalism with such loaded subject matter, Barnes created a frightening and iconic image that only gets more meaningful with time:


Unabomber Cabin (Sacramento), 1998, by Richard Barnes

As regular readers know, I have a fascination with ‘the sentence’ – the shorthand summation everyone uses to describe a particular person. Some are easy (“He’s the guy that photographs Weimaraners). But Barnes is a tricky case. I doubt people would remember ‘He’s an architectural photographer who’s done fine art projects on birds, museums and the Unabomber.’ Whatever the phrase is, Barnes was able to sum up his achievements with a remarkably elegant sentence: “My work is all about containment.” He went on to say that he’d only made this connection in the last few years.

For me this was the ultimate lesson that Barnes brought to the class. While it may not always be great marketing, artists should be free to explore whatever quickens their pulse. Over the long haul they will inevitable find a thread that unifies their vision. Finding this revelatory thread (and not the stupid ‘sentence’) seems to be one of the most meaningful experiences to come from a life making art.

  • An exhibition of Richard Barnes’ work will open on this Saturday, September 15th, at the Hosfelt Gallery in New York.

September 7, 2007

for Linda

Filed under: photographs (mine),psa — alecsothblog @ 11:13 pm


Fontainebleau, France, 2007 by Alec Soth, 2007

I’m leaving for Germany and doubt I’ll be able to post much over the next week. While I’m gone, I want to share with you something that is very close to my heart.

While my mother-in-law, Linda Francis Cartee, was battling cancer, she participated with an organization called Pathways. Pathways is a non-profit organization that provides programs designed to support a creative healing response for people with life-threatening illness. Linda’s experience with Pathways changed her and everyone she touched. My book, Sleeping by the Mississippi, was dedicated to Linda and could never have been made without her inspiration.

Last year I donated over 25 prints to charitable auctions. This year I’ve pooled all of my prints for the Linda Francis Cartee Memorial Fund at Pathways.

For more information, go here.

And if you live in Minnesota, you’ll want to go to this event.

Friday Poem

Filed under: education,poetry — alecsothblog @ 9:11 am

The Correspondence-School Instructor Says Goodbye to His Poetry Students
by Galway Kinnell

Goodbye, lady in Bangor, who sent me
snapshots of yourself, after definitely hinting
you were beautiful; goodbye,
Miami Beach urologist, who enclosed plain
brown envelopes for the return of your very
“Clinical Sonnets”; goodbye, manufacturer
of brassieres on the Coast, whose eclogues
give the fullest treatment in literature yet
to the sagging breast motif; goodbye, you in San Quentin,
who wrote, “Being German my hero is Hitler,”
instead of “Sincerely yours,” at the end of long,
neat-scripted letters extolling the Pre-Raphaelites:

I swear to you, it was just my way
of cheering myself up, as I licked
the stamped, self-addressed envelopes,
the game I had of trying to guess
which one of you, this time,
had poisoned his glue. I did care.
I did read each poem entire.
I did say everything I thought
in the mildest words I knew. And now,
in this poem, or chopped prose, no better,
I realize, than those troubled lines
I kept sending back to you,
I have to say I am relieved it is over:
at the end I could feel only pity
for that urge toward more life
your poems kept smothering in words, the smell
of which, days later, tingled in your nostrils
as new, God-given impulses
to write.

Goodbye,
you who are, for me, the postmarks again
of imaginary towns—Xenia, Burnt Cabins, Hornell—
their solitude given away in poems, only their loneliness kept.

September 6, 2007

Schjeldahl on Teaching

Filed under: education — alecsothblog @ 9:35 pm

I had a lot of fun with Schjeldahl Week last January. Today a reader brought to my attention Peter Schjeldahl’s lecture, Why Artists Make the Worst Students. At first he sounds a bit cynical:

A college education is, and should be, people wanting typical careers in the structure of the world. Education must not distort itself in service to the tiny minority of narcissistic and ungrateful misfits who are, or might be, artists.

But Schjeldahl ends sweetly:

A lot of education is like teaching marching; I try to make it more like dancing. Education is this funny thing. You deal for several years with organized information, and then you go out into the world and you never see any of that ever again. There’s no more organized information. I’m trying to establish within my seminars disorganized information, which students can start practicing their moves on.

Sounds like a great class. Read the whole lecture here.

Quiz: Name the senior

Filed under: artists,education,quizes & assignments — alecsothblog @ 3:11 pm

Back to School week continues with a pop quiz. Name this senior:

Charles H. Traub’s Do’s and Don’ts of Graduate Studies

Filed under: artists,education — alecsothblog @ 6:22 am


by Charles H. Traub from the ‘The Chicago Years’ (1970-1977)

The Do’s and Don’ts of Graduate Studies: Maxims from the Chair
from the book The Education of a Photographer
by Charles H Traub, Chair of photography at SVA

The Do’s

  • Do something old in a new way
  • Do something new in an old way
  • Do something new in a new way, Whatever works . . . works
  • Do it sharp, if you can’t, call it art
  • Do it in the computer—if it can be done there
  • Do fifty of them—you will definitely get a show
  • Do it big, if you cant do it big, do it red
  • If all else fails turn it upside down, if it looks good it might work
  • Do Bend your knees
  • If you don’t know what to do, look up or down—but continue looking
  • Do celebrities—if you do a lot of them, you’ll get a book
  • Connect with others—network
  • Edit it yourself
  • Design it yourself
  • Publish it yourself
  • Edit, When in doubt shoot more
  • Edit again
  • Read Darwin, Marx, Joyce, Freud, Einstein, Benjamin, McLuhan, and Barth
  • See Citizen Kane ten times
  • Look at everything—stare
  • Construct your images from the edge inward
  • If it’s the “real world,” do it in color
  • If it can be done digitally—do it
  • Be self centered, self involved, and generally entitled and always pushing—and damned to hell for doing it
  • Break all rules, except the chairman’s


by Charles H. Traub from ‘Indecent Exposure’ (1980’s)

The Don’ts

  • Don’t do it about yourself—or your friend—or your family
  • Don’t dare photograph yourself nude
  • Don’t look at old family albums
  • Don’t hand color it
  • Don’t write on it
  • Don’t use alternative process—if it ain’t straight do it in the computer
  • Don’t gild the lily—AKA less is more
  • Don’t go to video when you don’t know what else to do
  • Don’t photograph indigent people, particularly in foreign lands
  • Don’t whine, just produce


by Charles H. Traub from ‘About’ (2003-2006)

The Truisms

  • Good work sooner or later gets recognized
  • There are a lot of good photographers who need it
  • before they are dead
  • If you walk the walk, sooner or later you’ll learn to talk the talk
  • If you talk the talk too much, sooner or later you are probably not
  • walking the walk (don’t bullshit)
  • Photographers are the only creative people that don’t pay attention to their predecessors work—if you imitate something good, you are more likely to succeed
  • Whoever originated the idea will surely be forgotten until he or she’s dead—corollary: steal someone else’s idea before they die
  • If you have to imitate, at least imitate something good
  • Know the difference
  • Critics never know what they really like
  • Critics are the first to recognize the importance of that which is already known in the community at large
  • The best critics are the ones who like your work
  • Theoreticians don’t like to look—they’re generally too busy writing about themselves
  • Given enough time, theoreticians will contradict and reverse themselves
  • Practice does not follow theory
  • Theory follows practice
  • All artists think they’re self taught
  • All artists lie, particularly about their dates and who taught them
  • No artist has ever seen the work of another artist (the exception being the post-modernists who’ve adapted appropriation as another means of reinventing the history)
  • The curator or the director is the one in black
  • The artist is the messy one in black
  • The owner is the one with the Prada bag
  • The gallery director is the one who recently uncovered the work of a forgotten person from his or her widower
  • Every galleriest has to discover someone
  • Every curator has to re-discover someone
  • The best of them is the one who shows your work
  • Every generation re-discovers the art of photography
  • Photography history gets reinvented every ten years
  • New galleries discover old photographers
  • Galleries need to fill their walls—corollary: thus new talents will always be found
  • Galleriests say hanging pictures is an art
  • There are no collectors, only people with money
  • Anyone who buys your work is a collector—your parents don’t count
  • All photographers are voyeurs
  • Admit it and get on with looking
  • Everyone, is narcissistic, anyone can be photographed
  • Photography is about looking
  • Learning how to look takes practice
  • All photography, in the right context at the right time is valuable
  • It is always a historical document
  • Sooner or later someone will say it is art
  • Any photographer can call himself an artist,
  • But not every artist can call himself a photographer
  • Compulsivness Helps
  • Neatness helps too
  • Hard work helps the most
  • The style is felt—fashion is fad
  • Remember, its usually about who, what, where, when, why, and how
  • It is who you know
  • Many a good idea is found in a garbage can
  • But darkrooms are dark. . . and dank, forgidaboudit
  • The best exposure is the one that works
  • Expose for the shadows, and develop for the highlights
  • Or better yet, shoot digitally.
  • Cameras don’t think, they don’t have memories
  • But digital cameras have something called memory
  • Learn to see as the camera sees, don’t try to make it see as the human eye sees
  • Remember digital point and shoots are faster than Leicas
  • Though the computer can correct anything, a bad image is a bad image
  • If all else fails, you can remember, again, to either do it large or red
  • Or, tear it up and tape it together
  • It always looks better on the wall framed
  • If they don’t sell, raise your price
  • Self-importance rises with the prices of your images on the wall
  • The work of a dead artist is always more valuable than the work of a live one
  • You can always pretend to kill yourself and start all over.

September 4, 2007

Can/should art be taught?

Filed under: education — alecsothblog @ 9:28 pm

I recently dipped my toes into the art education industry. After several waves of exhilaration and despair, I’m happy to find myself back on the relative terra firma of this blog. But I’m struggling to bring any coherence to my impressions. With only two weeks spent at the San Francisco Art Institute, I’m not qualified to offer much on the topic of arts education. But something is nagging at me. Something seems wrong.

In a recent article in Art in America entitled ‘Art schools: A Group Crit,’ my unease is validated by a couple of educators with a lot more experience than me:

Cocteau said that poetry is a machine for the manufacture of love and that all of its other properties were lost on him. The acknowledgment of art’s powers of intimacy is too dicey for the business of college.

Art occurs in a state of grace. This can be patiently explained and somehow understood–there are enough artists to verify it–but then you are asked to teach. This can be exhausting. So it is more convenient to have an educational methodology. However, the result of this compromise is a lowering of expectations.
Archie Rand

Dave Hickey made the boldest comments. I don’t agree with everything he says, but his comments are worth quoting in full:

1. In the present moment, artists are better off training themselves at home and acquiring the benefit of a good liberal arts or art historical education. This, because the model for graduate art education, established in the early ’70s by John Baldessari and others (myself included), is 40 years old and virtually obsolete.

2. Art schools are unhappy, ugly places. They tend to inculcate philistine, institutional habits of mind and to teach young artists more about teaching than about art. Since teaching art has been destructive to the practice of every artist I know who teaches, I try never to forget that the few good, serious teachers of art pay a price that’s way too high for the privilege of doing it.

3. Teaching art, in my experience, is a genuine privilege that comes with its own oath to “do no harm.” It also breaks your heart.

4. Art is a cosmopolitan practice best taught in cities near the water. Teaching art in a provincial cultural environment that does not celebrate and embrace change is totally self-defeating. It transforms art into a compensatory discourse that can help a stranded student maintain his or her sanity for few years in the boonies. It cannot, however, help people who teach under these conditions maintain their sanity. These people are doomed….

5. Teachers of art practice have one overriding obligation to their students: to be intimately familiar with the contemporary standards of art practice, discourse, trade and exhibition against which their students’ work will be measured–so their students will know the unspoken rules they are choosing to break or not to break. The art market itself should be dealt with evenhandedly and explained in detail. It is a fact and an option from which students should not be cloistered. Demonizing the art marketplace does more damage to students than exposing them to collectors and dealers who are irrevocably a part of the art world.

6. Art school must be free or cheap. It is virtually impossible for a young artist to establish a mature, courageous practice with a six-figure educational debt.

7. Art students should not be placed under the authority of older practicing artists whose work they are mandated to render obsolete. This guarantees bad advice and destructive criticism.

8. Any teacher of art who conceives his or her job to be “teaching young artists to think critically” should be fired immediately for intellectual dishonesty.

9. All group crits with faculty and students in attendance should be abolished immediately. These crucibles privilege the verbal over the visual and allow faculty members to poison and manipulate peer relations among their students.

10. Nurturing attention paid to an art student should never be confused with attention paid to nurturing art.

11. Unfinished work should be presumed not to exist.

12. Art in the context of an art school always looks bad, especially when it’s very good.

13. Regular supervision and oversight of young artists’ practice should be suppressed. My rule: “If you’re not sick, don’t call the doctor.”

14. If art students want to study Continental theory, they should learn German and French and study it in a philosophy department. Because (1) art schools are incapable of distinguishing properly between theory and practice; (2) art school classes in these subjects are little more than uncritical “slow pitch” indoctrinations taught by advocates rather than scholarly adepts; (3) all of the American translations of this work are poisoned by the moment of their making; (4) this entire discourse is now “historical”–a dated, conservative, academic field of study and no longer live talk.

15. Only saints can nurture real talent. I am a writer, not even an artist, and even I can’t avoid feeling a twinge of resentment when a pimple-faced twerp with a skateboard under his arm shows me a mature and persuasive work of art. I can see, much more clearly than the twerp, the road opening before him, the obstacles falling away, and it’s all I can do not to stick out my foot and trip him. If I were an artist, with a stake in the game, I would probably trip him, and tell myself that it’s for his own good. It wouldn’t be. Better to buy the damned art and take your profit on the back end.

The longest ‘Art Schools Group Crit’ was made by Robert Storr. But Storr’s solution for creating a good program seems quite simple: “You can’t go wrong hiring John Baldessari.”

Baldessari’s secret to teaching also seems pretty simple. In the current issue of Modern Painters, he says to Michael Craig-Martin, “You can’t teach art; that’s my premise.”

Craig-Martin, formerly of Goldsmith’s College in London, agrees:

I sometimes said to students, “I could tell you everything I know, everything I could think of saying to you in a day or two. But it wouldn’t make any difference, because you’d understand all the words, you’d write it all down, it would all make sense, and it would be absolutely useless to you. The thing you have to do is you have to act it out.

Bill Jay said something similar while reflecting on his twenty-five years of teaching (pdf):

In my own experience, the only learning which has been meaningful has been self-motivated, self-taught, self-appropriated, self-discovered. As the old saying goes, “When the student is ready, the master will appear.”

How can the needs of the student be better served? I wish I knew. All I do know is that the biggest single factor inhibiting education is the educational system. The problem is that as soon as alternatives are suggested, these alternatives become ossified into a different, but equally rigid, system – and I am well aware that criticism alone is not very constructive. Ideally, I would eliminate all examinations, the credit system, grades, and the declaration of majors. I would even dispense with degrees.

My recent teaching experience had wonderful moments. Some encounters with students were so good that I was ready to quit my day job. But this exhilaration was more than matched by some serious angst. It is dangerous, and for me devastating, to share my greatest passion in an atmosphere of wasteful apathy. Like a small drop of fixer spilled into the developer bath, this apathy threatens to spoil the whole creative process.

At the end of the two weeks I found myself asking the same questions that Robert Adams asked in his essay on teaching: Can Photography Be taught? Ought it to be taught? If so, am I the one to teach it?:

Can Photography Be taught? If this means the history and techniques of the medium, I think it can. The latter, particularly, are straightforward. 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.” We can give beginners directions about how to use a compass, we can tell them stories about our exploration of different but possibly analogous geographies, and we can bless them with our caring, but we cannot know the unknown and thus make sure a path to real discovery.

Ought photography to be taught? If at the beginning of my own photography I had taken a course in the mechanics, it would have saved time. Learning the history of the medium might also have been done more systematically in a class, but it was fun and easy to do on my own. As for the studio courses in “seeing” – which usually place student work up for evaluation by both classmates and teachers – I was never tempted to take one, and so am not attracted to teaching one. Arrogantly I believed right from the start that I could see. That was the compulsion, to make a record of what I saw. And so listening to most other people speak didn’t seem helpful. Even now I don’t like to discuss work that isn’t finished, because until it is revised over the span of a year or several years there are crucial parts that are present only in my mind’s eye, pieces intended but not yet realized. If I were forced to pay attention, as one would be in a class, to a dozen different understandings and assessments of what I was putting together it would amount to an intolerable distraction, however well mean. Architect Luis Barragan was right, I think: “Art is made by the alone for the alone.”

Am I one to teach photography? When I consider the possibility I can’t help remembering a question put to me by an affectionate and funny uncle when I told him I might become a minister – “Do you have to?” Experience later as an English teacher brought up the same issue. Teachers must, I discovered, have a gift to teach and the compulsion to use it. And faith. Anything less won’t carry you through.

When I ask art students what they want to do after graduation, 9 out of 10 respond with some variation of “teach, I guess.” Forgetting that there will never be enough teaching positions to support all of these graduates, I’m skeptical. Along with teaching creative thinking, art schools should encourage creative ways of making a living. If students are interested in art education, they should approach it creatively and critically. It is certainly worthwhile to ask a variation of Adams’ three questions:

Can art be taught? Should art be taught? Who should teach it?

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