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Photographic Workshops: A Changing Educational Practice - The Modern Workshop, Beginnings of modernist workshop: late 1930s to early 1950s

photography white

CHRISTOPHER BURNETT
Visual Studies Workshop

Photography can be learned in a weekend.

It can take a lifetime to learn photography.

For decades, workshops have spanned these poles of photographic education and all levels of engagement in between. The versatility of workshops accompanies a range of educational needs and options according to which the format adjusts and adapts itself. A workshop can mean anything from an afternoon encounter of a group of camera buffs to the committed union of dedicated artists lasting a few months. The numbers involved may vary from a few to a baker’s dozen. The settings could be a photographer’s living room, an ordinary classroom or darkroom, or the great outdoors within a national park or a tropical resort. The idea that a workshop idea encompasses so many experiences, and yet names such a distinctive means of learning and teaching, indicates that we have encountered a cultural practice.

Workshops, in the sense commonly used today, emerged as an educational practice in 1930s America with the progressive education movement set in motion before World War I. Cultural practices are not invented but emerge in the wake of social discussions, efforts, explorations, conflicts, negotiations, and the eventual formation of institutional programs. The labels arise from and help consolidate the customs. An early deliberate use of the term “workshop” as a special educational variety appeared in the summer of 1937 when teachers from public and private high schools gathered on the campus of Sarah Lawrence University. The principles that the group applied to themselves called for a kind of “recess” for teachers: there would be no grades, no credits, no required class attendance, and written examinations. Yet, even with an informal atmosphere, each teacher/student was strictly responsible to come to the workshop with a definite project in mind. The sessions unfolded around the interactions of the group as members helped each other with their projects. Other requirements were that they report to their school officials back home and document their results for the future. By the early 1950s, this “unshackled” way of learning had branched out to so many lines of endeavor that educator Earl Kelly considered it necessary to bring the workshop idea back to its original basis. He did so by defining workshops according to these essential components: (1) a planning session where all are involved at the beginning, (2) work sessions with considerable time for all to work together on their individual problems, and (3) a summarizing and evaluating session at the close. The combination of individual responsibility with group dynamics; the intensity of involvement with open, responsive forums; and improvisation tempered by accountability are the classic hallmarks of workshop practice.

The particular potency of the workshop model for photography comes out of this tradition of experimentation and its various combinations of educational values. Workshops have figured as a primary vehicle of photographic education because they combine progressive high-mindedness with a workable pragmatism, freedom combined with purpose; intensity with ongoing involvement on many levels of commitment. Perhaps it would be not too fanciful to say that these features are in accordance with the very status of photography itself as a cultural practice.

The Modern Workshop

Beginnings of modernist workshop: late 1930s to early 1950s

The first glimmerings of this modern workshop was in the newly reorganized Photo League of 1936 with the work and teaching of Sid Grossman and Aaron Siskind. Though they did not apply the term, their classes of advanced students in the production of documentary photo-series called Feature Group Projects had many of the earmarks of modern workshops influenced by both the Bauhaus and progressive social movements. These classes were occurring at the same time as the progressive education workshops for teachers on campuses. The Photo League classes had the critical feature of the individual project plan around which group interaction flexibly organized itself. Significantly, the pedagogy expounded by Siskind in the June-July 1940 issue of Photo Notes emphasized his progressive view of education as a laboratory. This work laid the foundation for his teaching credo emphasizing commitment and regular practical production. As Carl Chiarenza put it, “It is what inspired his formation of the so-called ‘student independent’ projects: work produced by students on their own initiative away from school. He taught by example, by being a working, committed artist.” Siskind brought about the workshop ideal of practice and set it in motion.

Another very influential educational setting, Black Mountain College in North Carolina, had already activated the wheels of progressive education in the arts. Founded in 1933 by John Andrew Rice, Black Mountain College made a living laboratory of the movement’s central tenets that education involved situation, self-defined problems and projects, cooperation, and a flexible curriculum fused with experience (as John Dewey understood it). At Black Mountain College the process of growth and change was more important than the assimilation of a body of information in a classroom. Teachers were guides, not dispensers of a syllabus and grades. As for art, the community understood it as a generative force in life that stood at the center of the curriculum.

Photography eventually worked itself into the fabric of Black Mountain College in the 1940s and its Summer Institute hosted groundbreaking events in photographic education along the lines of workshop practice. Beaumont Newhall spent three summers there teaching and finishing his History of Photography in 1948. In the summer of 1951, photography erupted into full bloom with successful seminars organized by Hazel-Frieda Larson, with Arthur Siegal, Harry Callahan, and Aaron Siskind from the Institute of Design in Chicago. Photography was treated as a modern art form at Black Mountain College as opposed to an ordinary documentary or commercial medium. These seminal photographic educators interwove teaching with the development of their own work. Even as temporary summer visitors, they enjoined the college’s way of thinking that education was a lifetime commitment and was never complete.

Even earlier, in 1940, Ansel Adams had begun his annual one-week workshop of landscape photography in Yosemite National Park. Though occurring across the gap of a continent and within a very different educational milieu, it shared many similar motives with Black Mountain College in using flexible, intensive educational meetings to combine high-minded vision with straight photographic practice. Between the Photo League feature group production units, the Black Mountain College photographic seminars, and Adams’ Yosemite Workshop, the stage was set for the modern photographic workshop to bloom.

The Aperture “School”: late 1950s to the early 1960s

A special issue of Aperture in 1961 expressed this bloom with lucid accounts of the seminal workshops of Minor White, Ruth Bernhard, Ansel Adams, Nathan Lyons, and Henry Holmes Smith. White, editor of the journal, introduced the issue with an overview of workshop at that opportune moment in history. White noted that the word workshop had been used loosely in the field of photography due mostly to the “healthy independence and lamentable isolation” of workshop leaders. Despite this, he found two broad classifications of workshops: the “blitz” and the “intermittent.” The former takes advantage of the “effect of concentration [and fatigue] … as short as a weekend or as long as a fortnight.” The latter are held evenings and/or weekends on a weekly schedule. In either kind, these workshops are a “personal matter” subject to individual variation. Each practitioner represents a type: Bernhard “represents those who eat sparingly in order to live fully in their own world of the camera”; Adams the nationally known photographer; Lyons, assistant director of George Eastman House, who supported his photography by work in an allied field; and Smith who performs in both classroom and workshop photography. White claimed that despite these variations, their workshops held in common the “indignations of the leader.” For them, workshops were a form of protest against schools, training, advertising, propaganda, magazines, pictorialism, and all those, who were, in White’s words, “deadset in promotion of visual blindness.” Against this, the workshop leaders offered some form of “seeing” or “vision.” Furthermore, their protest and promulgation of “seeing” was not meant to be esoteric, but “plain.” Their workshops were “makeshift” and unornamented, but offered an educational experience beyond description that each of these pioneers in photographic education would nevertheless go on to describe.

Bernhard emphasized the importance of a free exchange of ideas and work among all participants. As a “workshop leader,” she did not consider herself so much a teacher, but, rather, a catalyst. Her workshops, purposely designed with “no system” incorporated a range of topics and disciplines such as philosophy, poetry, and music. White surveyed the several workshops he held across the country at places such as Portland, Oregon; Idyllwild, California; Denver, Colorado; and Rochester, New York. Though the workshops differed in format, they held in common the infusion of White’s quasi-religious and therapeutic ambitions. Bound in prosaic worlds of “not seeing,” the object was to free the individual to see and acquire, in the process, an “intensified consciousness.” Clearly more grounded, Adams was concerned that he do nothing through habit or authority to destroy the informal character so necessary to the independent spirit of his annual Yosemite workshop. Nevertheless, he espoused a number of principles he hoped would lead to greater powers of visualization and creative excitement. For Lyons, the excitement was found in the tension between knowing and seeing. Projects or assignments were used simply as points of departure to encounter “the unfamiliar view” that tested boundaries and generated significant expression. Lyons’ workshops were successful if they showed signs of challenging established visual and cognitive surroundings. Finally, Henry Holmes Smith used his article to announce his Conference and Workshop on Photography Instruction at Indiana University planned for the summer of 1962. Like the journal Aperture itself, the conference would aim to direct attention to problems of photographic education “on the highest level.” Smith referred, along with the other educators, the implicit view that workshops held the key for enlightened considerations of photographic education in general. The workshop had become a concentrated vehicle of meta-education: learning how to teach; learning how to learn.

This meta-disciplinary or discursive function of the workshop reappears a few years later in Aperture with White’s telling editorial “Transactional Photography.” Here, the workshop becomes as integral to creative photography as the camera and as necessary to the broad process of “camerawork” as the vision behind it. As an educational apparatus, the workshop is not a means to an end but a destination itself where the photographer completes a process of visualization set in motion by the camera and darkroom. The workshop in effect took the place of the gallery and augmented display with the photographer’s presence and the opportunity for the “transaction” with others. Tellingly, White grappled with the presence of language in this eminently visual process. He encouraged other means of communication in the workshop mix: gestures, “sketching responses,” “inarticulate animal sounds, or eloquent silence.” White ultimately struggled editorially with his own reliance on words, which could only hint at “the rarefied air of transaction photography.”

The burden of language was not White’s alone but shared by the other workshop leaders. Language’s tricky relationship to the exalted status of sight figures as a paradoxical crease in their modernist discourse on workshops. Lyons saw pictures functioning linguistically in a sense (visual objects could serve as nouns or adverbs), but restricted conversational speech as a tool to be used only with “extreme caution.” Their belief that projects should speak for themselves was caught up in a split orality that, on one hand, relied on the presence of speech and, yet, disavowed the mediation of words and the tongue in a bid for the directness of the eye and transcendent visual signs. The disturbance of language as mediation points to other contradictions in their formation of the workshop that is shot through with idealism and yet grounded in practice. White titled the issue “The Workshop Idea in Photography,” and yet “practice” would stand out as much as "idea"—it was the ultimate value that they courted. These practical idealists wished to climb down from their high horse, and yet they would become the lofty maestros of workshops as a retreat for romantic visionaries. Out of this mixed soil of idealism and pragmatism, contradictory language and vision, the modern workshop would not only bloom but boom.

The modern workshop comes of age: late 1960s to the early 1980s

The special issue of Aperture closed with announcements of workshops by these forward-looking practitioners, and along with other offerings at the time (surveyed in two special issues of Popular Photography in 1961), they would herald the scores of workshops established in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Photographic education itself was taking off and finding more secure footings within art schools, colleges, and universities, and yet, as demonstrated by the Indiana Conference in 1962, workshops were not just a sideshow but often held center stage as models of value and educational practice. The burgeoning interest in photography as an art form coupled with a population of Baby Boomers signaled that workshops were ready to rock ‘n’ roll.

Most influential workshops on photographic education—many disbanded, some still in operation—grew out the “makeshift” efforts of the Aperture visionaries. Adams’ Yosemite Workshop eventually became part of the Friends of Photography program (1967–2001). Lyons founded the Visual Studies Workshop (1969–present). White moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and continued his workshop activity, until his death in 1976, at many locales such as the Hotchkiss Workshop in Creative Photography in Connecticut (1970).

These more institutionalized workshops influenced another generation to spawn their own workshop enterprises. Peter Schlessinger founded Apeiron Workshops (1971–1981) in upstate New York implicitly under the influence of White. Carl Chiarenza, Warren Hill, and Don Perrin started the Imageworks Center and School in Boston (1971–1973). The Center of the Eye was founded by Cherie Hiser in Aspen Colorado (1969) and later connected to the Aspen Center for Contemporary Art and Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass, Colorado. Fred Picker operated his Zone VI workshops in Putney, Vermont (1970–2002) in much the same spirit and aesthetic as Adams’ annual Yosemite Workshop. Magazine photographer, David Lyman, started Maine Photographic Workshops (1973–present) in Rockport, Maine, with a keen business model attracting clientele as diverse as artists, journalists, and amateurs of many professions who desired to mix photographic study with a vacation.

Important workshops popped up on the international stage based on the American model. In 1969 Lucian Clegue set up Rencontres d’Arles, an arts festival in the south of France including photography workshops. Earlier in Mexico, El Taller de Gráfica Popular (Popular Graphics Arts Workshop) involved photographers such as Lola Álvarez Bravo and Mariana Yampolsky. And, Paul Hill opened the Photographers’ Place in Derbyshire, England, in 1976.

Back in the United States, many other institutions offering workshops included: The School at The International Center of Photography, New York; the Center of Photography at Woodstock, New York, the Penland School of Crafts, Penland, North Carolina; the Art Institute of Boston; Lightworks at Film in the Cities, St. Paul, Minnesota; Silvermine Guild Arts Center, New Canaan, Connecticut; Santa Fe Photographic Workshops; Summer Museum School, School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Ghost Ranch, New Mexico.

Some short-lived but influential workshops are Roy DeCarava’s Kamoinge Workshop (1963); the Photo-Film Workshop at the Public Theater (1969); Real Great Society’s Media Workshop; and Woodstock, New York (1970).

By the early eighties, the number and range of workshops had risen to the point where A. D. Coleman would survey them as “the workshop circuit.” And if the term workshop seemed loose to White in 1961, it was even more so for Coleman writing in 1982: “The time space it encompasses apparently runs anywhere for half a day to two weeks; the number of participants can range from 5 to 20 or more, and the nature of the encounter can be almost anything.” But it wasn’t the vagueness of the practice that bothered Coleman so much as the posturing. Authentic master-apprentice relationships and informal synergies of participants had fallen to opportunities for “workshop junkies and dabblers” to pad their resumes with the names of luminaries. In 1982 Apeiron Workshops closed its doors, and Coleman quotes Schlessinger, “I think something called workshops became big business in the mid-1970s and mostly garbage shortly thereafter. Any gathering in the presence of a star photographer was suddenly a ‘workshop.’” Coleman does acknowledge the continuing value of workshops, but his article seems to mark a turning point and the end of an era for the modernist workshop.

How much the workshop environment has changed since then becomes even more pronounced with the publication in 1999 of Mark Goodman’s book, A Kind of History . His photographs and narrative poignantly describe the experience of Apeiron Workshops and nearby Millerton, New York. His “perpetual” residency for years in the 1970s goes well beyond White’s categories of “blitz” and “intermittent” to total immersion in a kind of visual subculture. But more than a “workshop junkie,” Goodman carried with him the innate sensibilities of an anthropologist and committed photographer who could use his workshop experience to reveal the multi-dimensional life of a small town over years of involvement. His attachments to photography and the people of Millerton amount to a tale of two cultures involving the tension of proximity and distance and mixed allegiances as he moved back and forth between Millerton and Apeiron at Silver Mountain. His work reflects back on Apeiron and the capacity of workshops to form, complete, and project an extended body of work beyond the internal “transactions” of an artists’ enclave. He embraced the several levels of workshop involvement from short-term intensity, intermittent study, to persistent residency. He demonstrated the purpose of workshops to integrate learning and life growth.

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over 6 years ago

interesting article, but I don't see any references cited. Where can I find theese?

would be interested in more like this!

Thank You.