Five Things Studying Ceramics Taught Me About Photography

How learning to work with clay informs my work as a photographer.

Lawrence Lazare
Live View
8 min readAug 1, 2023


My ceramics professor demonstrating throwing on the wheel

On paper, learning ceramics would seem to have little to do with photography. However, when I recently took a ceramics class, little did I realize that the lessons I learned from clay could be applied to my work as a photographer…

Last fall, I told my wife I wanted to return to school to finally get a degree. My wife, a sculpture professor at the University of West Florida, asked me what I wanted to get my degree in.

I shared that I wanted to get a degree in photography at UWF. “Well,” she replied, “we don’t offer a degree in photography.” She explained that although they had film photography classes at UWF, it was part of the Studio Art program.

“Okay,” I conceded, I’ll get a BFA in Studio Art, but I plan to study photography.” She laughed at me and said, “Yes, you’ll study photography, AND ceramics, AND painting, AND 3D design, AND art history.”

This is how I found myself taking an Intro to Ceramics course this summer, my first class back at school. Going into the class, I had no interest in ceramics — none. But then a funny thing happened — I found that not only did I enjoy working with clay, but I also found that many of the soft skills I was learning in ceramics could apply to my photographic practice.

“In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.” — Shunryū Suzuki

1. Approach your work with beginner’s mind

Having never worked with clay before taking my Intro to Ceramics class this summer, I approached ceramics with a beginner’s mind without even trying. Every aspect of working with clay was new and fresh, so I absorbed every step, technique, and tool with fascination and excitement.

This idea of approaching ceramics with a beginner’s mind was the greatest lesson I learned in the class and will be the most helpful with my photographic practice moving forward.

So just what is beginner’s mind? Simply put, it’s a Buddhist concept of approaching the world with an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions. With more than 40 years of experience taking photographs, it’s been a long time since I’ve approached photography with a beginner’s mind. Even when learning a new technique or using a new camera or lens, I bring a body of knowledge that often leads me to move very quickly and assuredly when trying something new. Because of this, I tend not to immerse myself in the minutia of the new camera or technique, while it’s often the minutia that’s the most interesting thing to learn.

Approaching ceramics as a beginner led me not only to absorb and learn more but it also brought a level of delight into an artistic practice that I have not felt in a long time. There are a lot of photographic tools and techniques I am looking forward to testing while in school — building a pinhole camera and a camera obscura, learning studio lighting — I look forward to approaching them all with curiosity and lack of preconception, that is the heart of beginner’s mind.

My first piece in progress — a Big Lebowski-inspired urn

2. Expect and embrace failure.

Even for the most experienced ceramicist, failure lurks around every corner. As a rank amateur working with clay, I experienced almost nothing but failure. As my ceramics professor so aptly stated, “Clay does what clay wants to do.” Too wet or too thin, and that bowl you’re throwing can collapse in an instant. Not dry enough, and that vase you are coil building can collapse under its own weight. Even if you manage to build your piece perfectly, an errant air bubble can cause your work to explode in the kiln. That glaze you thought would be a nice blue, it somehow came out deep red.

My first three attempts at my first class project (a Folger’s urn in an homage to The Big Lebowski) all collapsed a couple of hours into construction. I got used to putting in hours of work on a piece, only to have to start over again and again. Interestingly enough, the failure didn’t bother me — as a complete beginner, I expected to fail.

Each time I experienced failure, I shrugged it off as part of the learning process. My goal in the class was simply to learn. If a decent finished piece resulted, it was a bonus.

When it comes to photography, my failures are usually small ones. I can usually tell when a shot is not working out, so I quickly make adjustments and try again. In post-processing, I try to take a minimalist approach and hardly ever spend more than 15 minutes editing an image. The thought of spending a few hours on a photographic project only to scrap it entirely is not something I encounter often.

Truth be told, in my photographic practice, I avoid failure. This allergy to failure is the main reason I never spent time learning astrophotography. The idea of putting 30 minutes into a nighttime timelapse only to get a frame full of indistinct star trails? No thank you, please. Perhaps my newfound comfort with failure in the world of ceramics will help me embrace failure in my photography rather than run from it.

Untitled, Dangos, 1984. Photo: Courtesy Jun Kaneko Studio

3. Dive deeply into the work of other artists

In my ceramics class, we were required to watch hour-long videos on five different ceramicists and share our thoughts on their work. With only a minimal knowledge of ceramic artists, I loved these deep dives into artists such as Jun Kaneko and Ebitenyefa Baralaye. I marveled at the scale of Kaneko’s work and loved watching him pound 20lb blocks of clay into place with a sledgehammer.

As a student, it was my responsibility to soak in and learn as much as possible about ceramic artists. But going down the rabbit hole into these artists’ work made me realize how seldom I do the same when it comes to photographers. Sure, sometimes I pull out one of the photography books on my shelf or read the odd article in Aperture Magazine, but I seldom go down the rabbit hole, even with photographers I love.

Now that I am a student, I intend to take my inquisitive mind and select a movie about photography to watch each month for the rest of the year. What’s at the top of my movie queue, you ask?

My professor demonstrating coil building

4. Work with intent

One of the most interesting aspects of ceramics was that the finished piece could be functional, a work of art, or both. When I sat down to master a new building technique, I had to think through what I wanted to make and why I was making it. Am I making a functional piece like a wheel-thrown bowl or a cup? Am I making a slab-built work of art? Am I building something just to master a technique or to try out a new glazing method?

As a photographer, I seldom approach my work with intent or a goal in mind. My photographic work is driven by location or subject. Sure, I think about what technique or style I want to use, be it infrared landscapes, gritty B&W street photographs, experimental film images, or color images that document my travels. But my photographic process is usually about the act of being in the world and capturing what I see. I tend not to think about the fact that I am creating a piece of work and where that work will live when I’ve created it.

When working with clay, because everything you make will eventually need a home, working with intent is essential. Is your ceramic piece good enough to sell? Is it a functional piece, like a mug, that you will gift to a friend or family member? Is it a work of art you’d like to show in your living room or in a gallery? As a photographer, the conversation about what to do with the finished product is one I rarely have with myself.

Moving forward, camera in hand, I want to understand better the context of the image I am about to take and where it fits within my practice. Am I taking this image to learn? To practice? Will this image be part of a specific body of work? I want to be more deliberate about what I am creating with my photography.

5. Celebrate the physical object

The creation of a tangible object is by far the most significant difference between my budding ceramic and well-established digital photography practice. Sure, for years, I sold calendars and the odd print. Once or twice a year, I make prints of my work for a show, but 99.999% of my photographic output ends up in the same place — on my hard drive.

No matter how big or beautiful your computer monitor is, photographs are at their best when they are printed. Transforming your photos into tangible objects makes them come alive, and it also leads you to spend more time looking at your finished product. Our Live View Editor, Derrick Story, the host of The Digital Story Podcast and a big proponent of printing photographs, once recommended the following: Once a month, pick your best photograph and make a minimum 8x10 print of it. At the end of the year, you’ll find yourself with 12 beautiful prints — enough for a show.

Having spent the summer creating tangible pieces that were both functional and artistic, I am hoping to up my printing game for my digital photography. Will the print be a gift, a framed print to hang on the wall, or a keepsake to put in a physical album? What matters is that I want my digital photography work to have a home somewhere off of my hard drive or online.

Unless otherwise noted, all photographs copyrighted by the author

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Lawrence Lazare
Live View

Legally blind photographer and former e-commerce product management lead. Now working on a BFA in Studio Art at the University of West Florida. IG:@llazare