Seeing Through Photographs Course at MoMA

March 30, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Seeing Through Photograph is a course offered by New York City's MoMA.  I contributed as a mentor for 5 years being invited after I completed this exciting course.

Here is what I wrote after writing my final exam (see bottom).
The course was a very good learning experience including various art forms using either a camera or existing photos.  It went well beyond the technical elements of photography and was also an excellent source for some valuable ideas.

The course consisted of six modules.  Judging by the peer review at the conclusion of the course, the portrait, documentary, and narratives modules were the most popular.  Photographers and artists make choices on a daily basis and these were addressed extensively, defining the difference between taking pictures and making photographs.    

Approaches by some contemporary artists, challenging photography's objectivity in re-contextualize images was most fascinating.   Thought-provoking was the work of Walis Raad, using photos of engines, following car bombs in civil war Lebanon and the Unbranded series of Hank Willis Thomas.  These artists challenge how viewers often have a particular perception looking at photographs or scenes, particularly when confronted with less familiar scenes.  

Yet another learning point was the use of installations and the chronicling events.  Size and placement of photographs, conscience use of colour or black and white influence the viewer.  Choices made by photographers, photo editors or museum curators in selecting, sequencing, cropping, and formatting photos can play an important role in constructing narratives and challenging generally accepted history and stories.  

Working as a photojournalist with related photography of events and portraits, the module about constructing narratives was particularly interesting.  This module also addressed concepts of challenging history and stereotyping.  It resonated most and provided new insights into the way I understand photography.  

That module also drew on elements seen in the portrait module and the one 'interpreting images'.  Choices made using single photos or the need for a series are daily tasks in a news editing room. 

The module also augmented my fascination with film stills photography and the use of photography as prime source material in the study of history.  In the former, we learned from Cindy Sherman's work challenging various stereotypes.  Her use of 'film stills' went beyond that particular branch of photography and the documentary genre.   Sherman tricked the viewer by using a particular format, scale, and elements of pathos to challenge stereotypes.  Now often copied, she was a pioneer.

 

Final work

 'Two Friends' by Stan Douglas made in 1975 (MoMA collection) was the subject of my final exam.   Unfamiliar with the photographer or the photo, it brought favourite elements of the course together.   The photo provokes and questions the viewer about social and political situations, yet leaving room for various interpretations.

In the same vein as Sherman's work, clearly staged with actors, the photo succeeds in 'documenting' an event that is familiar to most viewers  The main characters' clothing colour, as well as that of the presence of 'extras', created a tension and additional interest.  

Douglas also made choices about the use of space between the characters and the camera, similar to that of a movie director staging a scene.   Stan Douglas, through this photograph, set out to address a cause and used the scene to emphasize, possibly even exaggerate it, borderline a caricature, to provoke the viewer.  

The expression of the couple in the photo reminded me of the work of the American painter Edward Hopper.  Hopper often depicted people sitting in a form of reflection and solitude. 

As ever so often, what looks like a simple photo at first, possibly a 'snapshot' at a dance, was more than a mere recording of a situation.   In that, the photo is similar to recordings in centuries past, by painters and graphic artists. 


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