Saturday, August 2, 2008

An Interview With Alyson Belcher

Photography has always been an important topic of study in the art schools here in San Francisco. Both the Art Institute and The Academy of Art University are known for their photography programs. Much has changed in photography since Ansel Adams and Minor White created the fine art photography program at San Francisco Art Institute.

Recently I asked Alyson Belcher, who is on the faculty of the photography department of The Academy of Art University, for her thoughts on the current trends in art education and specifically about the shifts in the teaching of photography at the university level.

"Art education in general is becoming more interdisciplinary. Students are encouraged to cross boundaries, to work with many different mediums. We are also seeing critical theory playing more of a role in art education. At some schools, I've noticed that studio art faculty members are actually art critics. Every school has its own approach. With regard to teaching photography some are more geared toward art and some are more commercial. A lot of schools these days focus more on art and critical theory, especially at liberal arts universities. Private art schools may give students a more technical foundation and are more likely to prepare students for a career as a commercial photographer."

Contrary to an often popular belief, art school has never been an easy way to a degree. Alyson points out that a good education in art requires sharpened skills in the basics.

"I have a lot of students at the Academy who are extremely bright, but they may not excel in a traditional academic environment. Sure, there are always students who opt for art school because they think it's easier than going to a liberal arts university. But I find that those students who are not motivated to learn and grow don't stay in the program beyond the first year. I love it when I get students who come to art school because they think they won't have to do math. After one year in the photography program, they find out how important math is. Or students who think that they will never have to write--they want to let their pictures do the talking. While their photographs do need to clearly communicate, it's also important for the students to learn to articulate their ideas in writing. Grants, business proposals, artist's statements--these are all things they will have to write when they get out of school. Overall, I am very impressed with my students at the Academy. I'm not just saying that because I teach there. Once they realize the high expectations we have, they either step up to the plate or drop out. More often than not, they rise to the challenge. Of course there are always a few who do just what they need to do to get by."

The mastering of technology is something no one can escape in this digital age. It has been integrated into almost every aspect of our lives, not only our work and leisure, but also our creative pursuits, our art. Today's students begin their education with a high level of competence in the arena of computing and digital technology. These are tools they expect to have access to and use.

"One challenge in photographic education is how to incorporate digital. Should it be taught alongside film or should it replace film? Some educators are teaching introductory classes that focus more on what photography is and can do, regardless of whether it's film or digital. They are looking at how cameras work and what kind of creative approaches can be explored--many of these things are the same for film and digital cameras. In addition to providing a technical foundations for camera use, they are discussing things like the properties of light and optical culture. Both Robert Hirsch and Angela Faris Belt have recently published new introductory books that take this new approach to teaching the basics of photography. Hirsch's book is titled, "Light and Lens," and Faris Belt's book is "The Elements of Photography.

"We are seeing more and more students who are creating narrative work using digital montage techniques, both in the fine art and commercial realms. Students often shoot locations and models separately now, and combine the two in Photoshop. The work has a very futuristic, surreal quality."

One could say all of this helps make the case for the "film is dead" camp, but Alyson doesn't believe so.

"We have an increasing number of students who are interested in alternative processes and mixed media. I think we have made a good case for keeping film around. Students want black and white darkroom classes. I have many students who are very committed to film. But within the next year we are going to change the intro class to include digital and film and it won't have a darkroom component. Students will be able to take a darkroom class after they have completed their basic courses. After that they can decide which direction to pursue with their work. "

Photo: Alyson Belcher making pin-hole Polaroids, Racoon Hollow, Gloden Gate Park. ©2008 David W. Sumner


Nancy Ewart said...

You mean, I can't escape math! Nonono, say it isn't so.

Great interview, BTW. I always appreciate your essays on photography and learn a lot.

fabusdr said...

I like a lot Alyson Belcher photos and this is a really good interview, thank you for sharing!
She recently wrote a nice article about her work that has been published on Camera Obscura blog/magazine, if you want to have a look it is here:
Alyson Belcher article
All the best