The Art of the Assignment
An unspoken charge given to arts educators is that we inspire in our students an enthusiasm and interest in our craft, provoking and stoking their capacity for creative problem-solving and critical thought. We use many ends to achieve this, but one constant that besets anyone and everyone occupying space on the lonely side of the podium is to come up with The Perfect Assignment. One that has the potential to wholly engage, perplex and consume students, driving them to solutions that surprise both themselves and us. If we are so fortunate as to have accomplished this, we then feel compelled to keep looking and finding that perfection again and again, so that each assignment we task our students with meets that impossible bar of extracting that level of commitment from them that allows us the temporary sense that we have done our job well.
We made an informal ask on our social media channels for photo educators to send us two things: the best assignment they’ve ever been given, and the best assignment that they have ever gave. A primary source of inspiration for this was derived from a gem of publication put out in PDF form by the Pratt Institute Department of Art and Design education, from which they took as their point of departure the Paper Monument publication Draw It With Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment. Our community of photo educators rallied to the call, and below is a curation of their responses.
Submission by: Bridget Conn | Artist, Educator, Photo Nerd
The best assignment I received as an undergrad was in a painting class. I share this story with my students all the time.
We had a non-objective mixed media/painting assignment, working on a very large canvas for several weeks. At what we thought would be the final critique, our professor wrapped things up by making us all point to the area of our composition that we all liked the most. Once we did this, she said that we were then to paint over or in some way destroy that part of the composition, and work through it for another week for a final critique. We were all devastated. My piece never really recovered. But her message came through clear and still resonates with me today: don’t get too precious, take risks, work through problems, realize it’s all one long process rather than an arrival point. I still have to remind myself of this in my own practice all the time.
I guess my favorite assignment I have given doesn’t fall too far from this tree. In my Experimentation in Photography class, their conceptual prompt was “mistakes.” However they wanted to take this — to make a small body of work on something they believe was a mistake in their lives, or in society, to take something that would be considered a procedural mistake and run with it, whatever came to their mind. I got some amazing results. One student started sweeping the room, collecting dirt on the floor, and packing it onto his wet film, playing off of the mistake of seeing dust on your prints. He then applied a series of processes to the prints that made the dust and dirt marks work compositionally, and tied it in with a concept about vices and bad life choices. I also think it was a good practice to make them think about what could be a positive outcome of a mistake, as I feel students are so anxious about doing something “wrong” nowadays, and sort of freeze up easily.
It’s great when you see students respond to the whole destruction thing. Most are so scared nowadays. I have some who are still really running with it and making wonderful work.
Submission by: Megan Jacobs | Associate Professor, Honors College, University of New Mexico
The best assignment I’ve ever been given was during an MFA photography seminar with Patrick Nagatani at the University of New Mexico. He asked everyone in the class to map the evolution of their work — not only what they created but inspirations (from all disciplines) — in a visual manner. The results were visually diverse and personally rewarding. I remember someone created an image of a river with the confluence of various water sources comprising their influences. I created a kind of star chart to map the connections among bodies of work and sources of inspiration. The project left everyone inspired and with a better understanding of how they work and build meaning.
In terms of the best project I’ve given, I created an ad remake project to help students analyze the embedded ideologies in ads and learn studio lighting skills.
Best assignment I ever got: The one I remember the most was one where we got to use strobe lights to create multiple and long exposures. Students took turns modeling and using props. I really fell in love with photography and became fascinated with the possibilities of photography with that assignment. I loved being able to photograph things I couldn’t see.
Best one I give: I like one of my first assignments that is a group project where students build a still life using glass and other objects. They take turns lighting it, arranging, shooting, assisting each other, etc. They learn how to balance the meter, how to use a tripod, do long exposures, and play with lighting to create different effects. We use the negatives to create reversal prints, sandwiched negatives, hand-colored prints, and sabattier. We can do a lot of things.
Submission by: Jeff Wild
Best assignment I had was in Adam Dienst-Scott’s experimental (alt process) class. We drew names of famous artists (ranging from Renaissance to post post modern) out of a hat. Then we had to emulate that artist using Van Dyke Brown without Photoshop. That assignment really got me thinking of photography as a “creating” rather than a “taking” process. That assignment also made me think about using the characteristics of the camera for emotive purposes.
I drew Lucian Freud’s name and had a blast figuring it all out. I took portraits using a wide angle lens as close to the subject as I could to distort facial features.
Submission by: Rion Huffman | Assistant Professor of Graphics and Imaging Technologies | Pittsburg State University, Pittsburg, KS
I give the students a “Psychology of Portrait Photography” presentation. It delves into understanding how different each of us can be and how people physically try to cope with what they may perceive to be deficiencies in their appearance or in other cases, when someone is boastful of their appearance. The presentation also covers how to talk to people and find these perceived deficiencies and break down the walls to get the most genuine portrait possible. We open up a discussion led by myself telling them what I perceive to be my physical deficiencies and I then tell them how I have overcome them and how it’s essential to do a self assessment and be comfortable with yourself in order for you to not carry that ideology into a portrait session. If you think you’re overweight and you don’t like to have full body portraits taken of you, that doesn’t mean that a person with a similar body type feels the same way. Once we open discussions about perceptions and realities, the students get more comfortable and start to see people in a different way.
For the assignment I have them meet in a crowded area of campus at the beginning of the next class period with their camera. They are tasked with taking at least 4 portraits of perfect strangers and they are told to keep track of their names, offer model releases, keep track of how many times they are turned down and even the gender of those that turned them down. As an incentive, the two students with the highest number of stranger portraits in an hour receives a free credit for a lesser assignment. In one hour the record is 77 individual stranger portraits. They are also told that posing two strangers together as a couple (with a witness) counts as 5 strangers since it is much more difficult to do.
While some students struggle, many come out of their shells and excel the rest of the semester. I love giving this assignment and watching the change in the students attitudes from one week to the next.
In the preceding lesson they are taught to avoid projecting their inadequacies on other people and simply accept them for who they are…strangers most often. So the “strangers” assignment puts this into practice and almost forces the students to get out of their comfort bubble to approach others and be comfortable with themselves. They learn that being comfortable with themselves is one of the hardest things to master, but when they get there, approaching people and photographing them becomes much easier.
I ask them what the most difficult and simple aspects were. If they were more comfortable approaching people of the opposite or same sex. If they tried to target a certain type of individual. How many rejections they had. How many people wanted a copy of their image emailed to them. And if they had difficulty getting their settings and posing figured out once someone said “yes.”
I have model releases handy, and I let them know that if they want to use the image for anything other than the class, they need to have their subject fill out a model release. It is very rare that they get model releases though. The images are stored on a “private” Flickr page viewable only to the students enrolled in the class, so they are not available to the public at all.
Submission by: Sarah McWright | Millbrook School, Millbrook NY
When my students are seniors, I put them into pairs and ask them to make a cohesive set of three portraits of their partner. In the first photograph they can only use natural light in the first, only continuous light in the second, and in the third, only strobes. My students are beginners with studio lighting, so the light in each image feels different. To make the work feel like it belongs together, some students latch on to interesting concepts. In one of my favorite student pairings (Amanda Clizbe and Victor Lou), Amanda photographed Victor with a praying mantis on his face (the insect was/is his pet) and Victor photographed Amanda with a fan blowing her hair in a way that was more aggressive than it was “L’Oreal.” Acquaintances before the project, they put up with each other with good humor through it and were friends by the end.
Submission by: Derrick Burbul | Associate Professor | University of Nebraska at Kearney
Photographs can distill and express our experiences in tangible ways. When we take a photograph, our hopes often are that the image will express where we were, what we saw, how we felt, and what that moment meant to us. The more people relate to the ideas of who, what, where, when, and why, the more broadly accepted and admired the image can be. This project questions these ideas: How can we alter what an image means? How can the one photograph, when presented in different situations, say different things?
Assignment: You will select a photograph and explore how its meaning changes when photographed in different environments/contexts. To do this you will select or create a photograph, it can be your own, or a found photograph, and photograph that photograph in different contexts (environments). Think about how the environment that image is taken in affects the meaning of the photograph. Think about moving the photograph closer or further from the camera. Think about where it is in the composition, in the center? Top left? How do all of these factors affect the image, it’s meaning, and the dynamics of the image. How does a narrow depth of field affect the image? An infinite depth of field? Once image is captured, explore some simple post processing techniques to improve image quality. You should explore subtly altering density, contrast, and saturation. Images should be compositionally compelling as well as altering the meaning of the selected photo.
Submission by: Stacy Platt | University of Colorado at Colorado Springs | Editor, SPE’s Exposure journal
Best assignment I give: I totally stole this from my mentor, Elijah Gowin, and modified it a tiny bit by including a reading. In my Intro to Photo class, I tell them on the first day that we will have an assignment sometime later in the semester that will require them to bring the oldest photo that they have to class, and be prepared to talk about it. I further tell them that this can mean whatever it actually means to them at the time: maybe it’s a childhood photo, maybe it’s a family heirloom and they don’t know anything about anyone in it, maybe it’s a photo that was taken within the last year and lives on their phone. On the appointed day, I hand out an in-class reading by Douglas Nickel, “Snapshots: the Photography of Everyday Life.” After giving time for the reading, we circle the chairs so that we’re facing one another, talk briefly about the reading, and then start sharing the photographs and what we know about them, one by one. It is always the most revelatory and the best day of the entire class: we hear incredible stories about one another’s relationship to photography, about who in the family is in charge of the image archives, about where their photos are and if they ever print them off their phones, about the power and importance of vernacular photography, about whether they stole any family photographs when they left home for the first time. The class is always permanently bonded with one another after this day, and something genuine and meaningful was exchanged both in feeling and fact.
The above essay has been brought to you by the Society for Photographic Education, as an article published within Exposure, its flagship publication. SPE is a nonprofit membership-based organization that seeks to promote a broader understanding of the medium in all of its forms through teaching and learning, scholarship, conversation and criticism. SPE has Affiliated Chapters with events and conferences in every part of the continental US, with Chapters developing internationally, and has been instrumental in fostering community and career growth among photographers, lens-based artists, educators, students, and the broader community of image makers.
Interested in submitting to Exposure? Read our submission guidelines here.
Find out more about SPE here, or learn about the many benefits of membership here. Join with other thought leaders in the field and add your voice to the direction of the organization. Find out more about the 2018 Annual Conference “Uncertain Times,” to be held in Philadelphia, PA here.