Foundation Photography 2011

by New Idiom

Each Fall semester, Foundation students take Graduate Intro to Photography. In 2011, the course was co-taught by 2005 grad Eric Holubow and ID veteran John Grimes. There is a strong emphasis on dealing objectively with how the eye and brain will naturally process an image, and on the Gestalt principles of how humans interpret relationships between objects in an image.

Holubow says of the class, “I think the primary intentions of the class are to teach students how to see—to train them to evaluate how 2D imagery can be used to effectively communicate to a viewer, and similarly understand ways in which the primary message is being distorted and lost through visual ‘noise.’ Of secondary importance is to teach students to effectively create these images themselves.”

This emphasis on “seeing” an image does seem to have successfully impacted the Foundation students.

Katie Kowaloff said, “The class taught me to see in a different way–to take photos by looking with the camera instead of through it. And to be deliberate about the way in which I compose a scene.”

“The ideas we learned in class about color strategy, specifically, helped improve my eye a lot,” said John Trotti, “because it added a different dimension to composing the image, like all my life I had existed in 2D and suddenly found I could move along the z-axis.”

Rough road
These insights were hard-earned. The Foundies were dealt weekly critiques by Hobulow that included blunt appraisals of photo subjects and zealous detailing of Photoshop techniques. Both Hobulow and Grimes were quick to point out the distance between student photos and what they considered to be professional-level work. And when both instructors commented on a photo, the criticism was sometimes conflicting.

Maggee Bond said, “At certain points during the semester I lost all confidence in my ability to take a decent photo. Now, I see things differently. I don’t feel like I ‘snap’ pictures anymore—I see the frame and the composition. It’s much more intentional.”

By the end of the course, to the amusement of his classmates, Roy Luo became a resource for predicting which photos would be favored by which instructors. His photo for this piece is one that both Grimes and Holubow liked.

Photography as a learning modality
Early in the course, Grimes announced, “If you can’t lie, you can’t communicate. Photographs would be of absolutely no interest if they were totally factual.” As the Foundies pondered this enigma, each week, their assignments pushed them to experience Chicago through a viewfinder.

“The most important thing that this class offers in my opinion is not that you become a great photographer in one semester,” said Woljciech Tusz, “but that it profoundly changes how you look at the physical world. You begin to see little details that often are the essence of a particular thing. It makes you realize how much you have been missing and encourages you to seek that level of detail in everyday life.”

“Take a camera around with you and get out of your comfort zone,” Katie said. “It’s an awesome way to see the city and have crazy, weird conversations with people you would otherwise never meet.”

On photographing strangers
For many Foundies, “outside the comfort zone” involved getting well-composed, well-executed shots of unsuspecting Chicagoans. The street theater, gesture, and environmental portrait assignments yielded results ranging from awkward or hilarious to rewarding, on the best days. Some learned to value the disapproving scowls they sometimes captured as the stuff of interesting photos.

Darren Peterson said, “At first I got dirty looks or got yelled at. Later I still did, I just didn’t mind as much.”

Sarah Ekblad said, “If you have a large lens or a tripod, they assume that you must be a professional photographer. This resulted in people ducking out of the way of my shots (when actually, I was trying to photograph them). Other people were excited to interact with a camera. For instance, one guy voluntarily crawled under his buddy’s legs because he thought I should photograph this ridiculous pose. I also had the ‘pleasure’ of being mooned by a group of teenage boys who happily jumped into my shot just to show me their backside. I guess everyone has their own definition of good photography.”

Tips for the uninitiated
After the course, some of the Foundation students had some new insights they were willing to share.

Wei Sun quotes Grimes: “Look at the camera. Do not look through the camera.”

Parry Koriath says, “Use manual mode! Experiment and learn what ISO, shutter speed, and aperture is. Learn how these three things are related to each other. This knowledge alone can take you far in basic photography.”

And John Trotti recommended the Cambridge in Colour tutorial website, a resource for vocabulary and informational diagrams.