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Saw this and thought of you…

How do tutors decide what photographers to recommend to students?


Stephen Shore

Sometimes I’ll be in a gallery and think ‘This would really be helpful for –student– and her project aboutCornish ice-cream-’. And I’ll make a note on my phone to remind me to email them the link later, or do it there and then. Or I’ll be looking at the submission when immediate associations with other works come flooding to mind; often with various and conflicting directions. I make a note of all of them and distill it down to what I think will be the most helpful. And sometimes, I’ll be filling in a tutor report and get stuck at the ‘suggested reading’ section thinking this project isn’t making any new or relevant connections for me I’d better do some research. With the project fresh in my mind I’ll look to my bookshelves, hoping for related inspiration.

In any case, whether it comes to me out of the blue or if I go looking for it, what I will be looking for is something that I hope will push the student in a new direction or encourage them to consider a different way of working. I might wish for them to see how another artist has visualized and expressed a similar theme, visual style, narrative sensibility or conceptual approach that the student in question is grappling with. I intend to stimulate and often, affirm.
Sometimes what I suggest might appear to be very far from what the student’s work is actually about but there will have been something about it – perhaps the way the photographer used a recurring object as metaphor, or the way they used light to emphasize darkness – that resonates with me and relates to the student’s work. It may or may not resonate with the student. I will make the connection point clear in the report and hope the student will take the opportunity to ponder it in their learning log.

Diane Arbus

Importantly, when I give a suggestion, I’m not trying to steer or force the student down a one-way street but to add to an evolving and ongoing dialogue: the dialogue that the threads of the work have pulled on in me. I then want to engage the student in a conversation (with themselves) about it. The suggestions are offerings of an interpretation; a potential way forward. They are an invitation to delve further into a way of seeing or to consider it and find it wanting, in favour of a different direction. When we offer advice, as tutors, we are not trying to make your work for you. It is important for you to develop your own voice. A good tutor will not try to make ‘mini-me’s’ but to encourage your own voice into louder and clearer expression. The challenge that faces us is to feedback on how we think YOU could do it, not what WE would do.
Of course different levels require different approaches. At level 1 I will provide a broad selection of important artists to research to help foster a strong foundation of knowledge of the medium. An understanding and awareness of the history of photography and its developments should stand the student in good stead for later, narrower and more specifically related research. If you are aware of major movements and individuals within photography’s history you are better placed to hone in on the areas that particularly interest you later on in your studies.


Robert Frank

Finally, sometimes the artists I choose to pass on might be ones that I am currently particularly enjoying and want to share with you, for appreciation sake alone. It might be useful as a direct reference further down the line and it might not be. But that is the joy (and frustration) of learning. 🙂
Happy viewing!

Posted by author: Sharon
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5 thoughts on “Saw this and thought of you…

  • I think one of the useful things about the OCA structure is having different tutors and the fact they bring in different views, experiences and recommendations about who to explore to the table. I don’t know if you get this in a B&M institution or not.

    • Hi Pete – yes I agree it’s a great thing. I think one does experience this at B&M places too but in a different way. In my experience I could sign up for tutorials from whomever I chose which was great. But then I was often confused or conflicted if I went to a few tutors regarding the same work. However this is part of filtering feedback and making the work your own.
      One this is for sure – I never had someone sit down with my work and write approx. 1000 words about it and send it directly to me!

  • One of the frustrations about the explosion of social media channels and digital comms generally is that not everyone inhabits the same virtual place so this is an impossible dream of mine but I wish that more students and tutors actively used Pinterest. It is a brilliant research and planning tool and it is easy to set up communal boards to which tutors could pin images for their students. If you are on there Sharon, feel free to recommend artists for me to research for Gesture & Meaning, which I am just about to start : )

  • Great post Sharon – shares my experiences almost exactly. I have a habit of standing and staring at my (ever expanding) bookcases of photography books waiting for some kind of photographic lightbulb moment to occur.
    I am also guilty of having my ‘favourite photographers of the moment’ who I will share and share until the next artist comes along to replace them. One of the pleasures of OCA is that there is a constant sharing back and forth of ideas/sources between student and tutor and it is not a one-way street.

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