I am currently half way through an eight week course entitled 'Critical and Analytic Theory' at The Photographers' Gallery. On Monday evenings I leave my laptop in school, make sure I've got the relevant photocopy of this week's key text stuffed into my pocket (with my glasses so that I can see the Powerpoint slides) and head up to Ramillies Street filled with eager anticipation. Here is the course of lectures, delivered by the engaging and knowledgeable Teemu Hupli:
Week 1: Walter Benjamin: Short History and The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
Week 2: Roland Barthes 1: The Photographic Message and The Rhetoric of the Image (both are useful to read)
Week 3: Roland Barthes 2: Camera Lucida
Week 4: John Berger: Ways of Seeing, Chapter 3 (and Ch 1 for those who want to read more)
Week 5: Abigail Solomon-Godeau: Inside Out
Week 6: Allan Sekula: The Body and the Archive
Week 7: Ariella Azoulay: The Civil Contract of Photography (Chapter 2 only)
Week 8: Peter Osborne: Infinite Exchange
Teemu has been an excellent guide thus far. We are about 25 students of varying ages, backgrounds and levels of expertise in photography. At least a couple of people have done Masters degree study. There is at least one professional photojournalist in the group. There are also people who appear to be interested amateurs and some who have never heard of Benjamin, Barthes or Berger. The lectures last about 90 minutes. Teemu, aware of his audience, is very good at pitching things so that they are challenging but accessible. We stop fairly frequently to discuss ideas or seek clarification. Often, there is just enough time at the end to enter into group discussion, like last week's exchanges about Ways of Seeing. In fact, that would be a much better title for the course in my opinion. Each writer selected is discussed in terms of their specific contribution to the history of photography theory but each lecture is careful to identify how one concept builds on another or where there are contradictions or changes of direction in the writer's own thoughts. Consequently, we are presented with a plurality of approaches to looking at photographs, a number of ways of seeing.
I have been very lucky that my school has helped to fund my attendance (under the generous banner of Continuing Professional Development) but at £18 per lecture it's really very good value. Some of these texts were familiar to me before the course began but I hadn't read them for quite a while. I have thoroughly enjoyed dusting them off. Some of the texts are new to me and I'm sure will give me much pause for thought.
Chris and I are almost at the end of creating our set of resources to support the Threshold Concepts. We're just about to publish number 10, the final instalment. Lots of the ideas I've encountered in my re-reading of these great texts have found their ways into the TCs. I imagine, as I encounter more, I will want to add new observations to what's already there. I have certainly been weaving summarised versions of photography theory into my A level lessons, alongside more explicit reference to the Threshold Concepts. Feedback so far suggests that students are enjoying the chance to get to grips with big ideas.
It's been such a pleasure to go back to school, to be taught again. This is the third iteration of the course and its popularity suggests that it may well be running again next year. I can think of worse ways to spend a Monday evening.
Jon Nicholls, Thomas Tallis School