My plastic bin is full of image-making tools: classic medium format machines, plastic toy cameras, multi-element glass lenses, and several homemade pinhole cameras. I’ve packed up my Show n’ Tell box—even sketching a loose syllabus on my iPhone—to demonstrate the fundamentals of photography to a handful of fifth and sixth graders.
I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed because describing All of the Everything of Photography is time-consuming, daunting, and a slightly difficult. To a beginner, the technical operation of a camera—aperture, shutter speed, film speed—can be immensely overwhelming. I can recall a similar gut-feeling when I first began pursuing the art form in college, on a serious level beyond that of just tinkering. The manual operation of my camera seemed too difficult to grasp, metaphorically speaking, and the correlation of controls just didn’t make sense to me at first.
There is only you and your camera. The limitations in your photography are in yourself, for what we see is what we are. ~ Ernst Haas
As a kid, I was always interested in visual arts and I knew that I wanted to be an artist, at least in the broadest sense of the word; however, I never really knew what that was going to look like, from a professional point of view. My grand plan of pursuing a career in Architecture was thwarted (by self-sabotage), but I still moved forward with a formal education in Art which evolved as I explored new creative territories.
My original intent was to focus on Graphic Design, and I attended exactly one class on the subject matter before crossing that off of my list of potential careers. I never lacked the interest in the art form, although I never felt a passion for graphic design. From there, I hopped through a fundamental course list of painting, drawing, printmaking, and sculpture over the years of completing my BA in Arts. While I was interested, in varying degrees, with other art forms, I just couldn’t get really excited about any of my choices for what I wanted to be when I grew up.
There was one year—it must have been that of my Junior—where the task of declaring a focus of creative study was looming on my mental horizon. To this day, I can still recall the specific Easter break when I decided which path to follow. It was a gloomy Spring Break in State College, PA, and—for some reason that I cannot remember—I was not able to go home for the break between classes. The campus was barren, devoid of people, dreary, and wet with rain. But I had received a package from my parents. Among the contents, I found a few rolls of 35mm film that my father (see My Mamiya Man) had included, with encouragement to get back into photography. Without any other obligations for the break, I loaded a fresh roll of film in my classic camera—one that he bought for me when I was eight years old—and walked around the college campus.
That’s when I knew that I wanted to pursue Photography as my creative discipline within my degree. Despite owning my camera, I can’t say that I ever learned to operate it properly; I mean that in the sense of beyond selecting a proper exposure. But there is so much more to photography than pushing a button, and letting the camera decide what is or is not acceptable. Over the next two years, between numerous classes, I learned the art form of photography, and all that is involved in creating terrific images.
While I’d love to say that I know everything about photography, that would be a gross assessment of my knowledge and skill. In fact, I’d say that there is more to the art form than I will ever know. I picked up my first camera at eight years of age, yet I am still finding new things to learn, to study, to explore, and to share. Which brings the focus of today’s narrative—photography pun, fully intended—back to the task at hand.
To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them. ~ Elliott Erwitt
The most wonderful thing about kids—big generalization stated here about the youth of America—is their innate curiosity and desire to learn more about the world that they live within. Most adults that I know could learn something from the average fifth or sixth grader, even if it’s a different way of viewing the world.
We, as grown-ups—big generalization stated here about the adults of America—have a tendency to check-out of life, once we think that we’ve figured it all out, and deemed ourselves Officially Full of All the Knowledge that I’ll Ever Need. Kids are the opposite, when they aren’t declaring that they Know Everything About Everything Already, and that’s why I’m toting my huge plastic bin full of cameras, across the church parking lot, into the classroom for this lesson.
While I am passionate about photography, and all things related to the subject matter, I would not classify myself as the World’s Best and Most Articulate Teacher of Children, or of anyone, for that matter. Although, I don’t think that teachers need to be 100% fully awesome, but rather 100% willing to share the knowledge that they have gained within their lifetime, however short or long in duration—and that’s why I’m here tonight.
I teach them the origins of photography, as well as the parts of a camera. This process takes more time than I previously imagined. The language of light, aperture, and shutter speed are foreign concepts for the iPhone-toting-generation. I disassemble a medium format camera, show them the inside operating components of shutter curtains and reflective mirrors. I demonstrate the components of a lens, operate the aperture, and compare it to the human eye. If they don’t remember anything else, they should retain the eyeball analogy.
A funny thing happens when I’m immersed in the demonstrations; I experience a strong nostalgic feeling for the world of manual and mechanical cameras. I long for an opportunity to re-learn the classic cameras that now reside on my bookshelf, collecting thick layers of dust, far from the world of creative image-making. I wish that I could load a roll of film and shoot with these amazing cameras, but what is stopping me? Maybe the expense of film and processing, maybe a fear that I will have forgotten how to Think Photography for myself, without the aid of a wiz-bang, on-board computer processor? I am so spoiled by my fancy, I’ll-figure-everything-out-for-you-digital-camera camera: too spoiled.
Around the table, a variety of cameras is passed from kid to kid. A thick layer of thumbprints and smudges begins to accumulate on my fisheye lens, and I’m totally fine with their curiosity. They fidget and fumble with the controls, some observing machines and tools previously unknown to them, and I love how everyone is intrigued—and simultaneously perplexed—including the adults, from time to time. Plastic toy cameras, novelty 360° cameras, homemade pinhole cameras including my deer skull, medium format workhorse cameras, and vintage large format 4×5 cameras make the circuit, around the table, across a dozen pair of hands.
The hour timeframe seems to speed by, and we haven’t even discussed the world of digital photography—of which they are probably more familiar with. No worries, I have agreed to teach two weeks. Next Wednesday will be a functional demonstration of studio photography, and the actual art of producing an image, from start to finish. That should be interesting, no doubt. That future experience in my life as a teacher will also give me an opportunity to conclude the Autobiography of a Shutterbug narrative, as well.