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Origins of the Workshop

photography education photographic bauhaus

Photography would find a particular affinity with workshops as an informal, unshackled way of learning because the medium was never quite shackled from the start. From the time of its invention, the instruction of photography ran in side currents apart from the mainstream of 19th century art education. Photography was only slowly and reluctantly adopted by the academies, schools, and universities of Europe and the Americas. More common were impromptu forms of training demonstrations and ad hoc apprenticeships through which painters-turned-photographers and aspiring tradesmen learned their photographic techniques and practices. Shortly after the announcement of the Daguerreotype process by the French Academy of Science, François Gouraud came to America and exhibited Daguerre’s pictures along with public demonstrations about the invention in New York, Boston, and Providence. He also took a small number of pupils to learn photography including Samuel F. B. Morse in New York and Edward Everett Hale, Albert Sands Southworth, and Josiah Johnson Hawes. These initial “demonstrations” were not workshops in the modern sense, but they shared similar aspects in their brevity, small numbers, and impromptu quality. They also held in common the workshop sense that the practical know-how of photography could be eagerly acquired and “passed on” to other receptive practitioners who would further develop and relay knowledge of the craft.

Along with these ad hoc meetings and relays, official institutions established more formal conduits for learning photography. The Royal Photographic Society played an important educational role from its founding in 1853. Camera clubs, such as the Camera Club of New York since 1884, provided organized contexts for meetings that provided a sense of community as well as education. Out of these institutions grew dedicated schools such as the Clarence H. White School of Photography (1914–1942). Despite these developments, the place of photography in colleges and universities was as sporadic as it was scattered. Photography popped up haphazardly in any number of departments depending on the particular leanings of certain disciplines and their faculty. For example, the medium gained an early foothold within Sociology at Harvard University. To this day, the Kansas State University Geology Department still hosts the darkrooms where photographic practice first took hold on campus. One might have to be a sociologist or geologist to learn photography in these academic settings. Apart from the hodgepodge of these campus offerings and the insular nature of camera clubs and photography schools, serious photographers and artists would seek alternative forms of education.

The founding of the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, in 1919 would provide more consistent and purposeful paradigms of photographic education. Though the school was built around teaching architecture and the disciplines of painting, sculpture, textiles, graphic design, and others, photography was central to its curriculum. A full treatment of Bauhaus pedagogy and its importance to photography lies outside the scope of this essay, but I should note the central tension at the school between art and industry and visual concepts and practicality. The Bauhaus workshop became a significant site for playing out these tensions. This usage of the term workshop goes back to the Arts and Craft movement in England and Charles R. Ashbee’s founding of the Guild and School of Handicraft in London’s East End, in which training took place, not in the studio or atelier, but in workshops. At the Bauhaus, production operated alongside education as areas of practical training as well as embedded cottage industries. The textile workshop, for example, sold its wares to the public. Significant to the divided union of formal education and practical production was the pairing of the “Master of Form” with the “Master of the Workshop.” This division and subsequent coupling of roles augured the later union of artistic vision and practice in the modern photographic workshop as it took root in the United States along with other pedagogical influences of the Bauhaus.

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