Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Impossibility of The Perfect Photograph

I've often thought about the possibility of shooting a perfect photograph. I started taking photos at about age 8 or 9 with an old Brownie camera. Since then, I guess I've take more than a quarter million photos. Most of them not that good, I hate to admit.

Since I began teaching a visual communication class in 2000, my own photography got better. I try to inspire my students to shoot well-composed images. I show my own images in class to illustrate a concept. Frequently, I explain how my own photos fall short of perfection or how they could have been more successful.

In recent years, I've tried to set and keep appointments for myself to think about, plan and shoot images. I make time for myself and my craft. I've made some images of which I'm proud. But still, each photo has some flaw or less than ideal compositional element.

A great photograph is superior technically: focus, contrast, print quality and the like. A great photograph is composed and cropped well so the viewer is drawn to the figure-- the main idea-- while the ground-- everything else in the image that helps the viewer interpret it-- explains the context and meaning. More than that, an excellent photo is one that communicates a specific message as intended by the creator.

Does the perfect photograph exist?

Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother," shot in 1936 for the U.S. Resettlement Administration, comes close. The photo is well-focused, has excellent contrast and displays many textures. From a content standpoint, the image is nearly perfect. A viewer can't help but feel compassion for Florence Thompson, the woman in the image, and her children.

Look closer and you may notice a "phantom thumb" in the lower right corner. Thompson's thumb and index finger were in the original print, holding a tent pole. The image was retouched to make the thumb less noticeable. It's still a great photo, but not perfect.

Steve McCurry's "Afghan Girl" appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine in June 1985 and is another perfect photo candidate. The haunting, piercing green eyes of then 13-year-old Sharbat Gula in a refugee camp in Pakistan make this one of the most recognizable images ever.

After closer scrutiny, the viewer may notice a vertical reddish line at the right third of the image from top to bottom. This is most likely the edge between two panels of the green fence behind Gula. The line is not a huge distraction, but it can take some eye time away from the girl's vacant expression.

John Filo's "Kent State" photo was shot May 4, 1970, and moved that day on Associated Press. The image of Mary Vecchio screaming as she knelt over the body of Jeffrey Miller, a student who was shot by National Guardsmen, appeared in hundreds of publications perhaps most notably Life Magazine. It is one of the most memorable spot news photos in U.S. history and won a Pulitzer Prize.

In May 1995, Life ran the image again in a feature on important news photos over the years. In the new version, a fence post directly behind Vecchio's head is gone. In the original photo, the fence post was a distraction. It looked as if it could have been a javelin piercing Vecchio's skull. To be fair, Life editors said they had not altered the image on purpose. Rather, they received the photo for the 1995 edition from their image library and only noticed the alteration after printing.

Finally, let's consider what is arguably Ansel Adams' most famous photo: "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico." Shot in November of 1941, the image shows a nearly-full moon rising over a small community and fading sunlight reflecting off crosses and headstones in a foreground cemetery.

Actually, I can't think of anything about the image that isn't perfect. But the perfectionist in Ansel Adams wanted a second shot. He often told how he had seen the moon in the mirror of his truck while driving. He pulled over, quickly set up his camera and exposed the shot. Before he had time to insert another plate in the camera, the light had faded and the magical moment had passed.

I'm humble enough to know that none of my images compare with those mentioned in this article. I feel a bit sheepish passing a critical eye over these lastingly memorable images. That's the nature of the serious practice of the craft of photography. The key word is practice.

In 2008, I spoke with Jim Brandenburg, noted National Geographic photographer who lives and photographs in Northern Minnesota. When he visited our university for a lecture, I had the chance to show him some of my work and talk about how his approach to the craft. I told him I was still trying to shoot a perfect photograph. Brandenburg admitted he too felt he was getting closer but he had not yet achieved that goal.

Maybe that's what keeps us going.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Converge: In Media and the Academy

So much is being written about convergence in media that the word convergence is becoming a buzz term and losing its meaning. In the past few weeks articles about media convergence have been seen in a variety of scholarly academic journals, trade publications, and even popular mass media.

Students in mass communication programs are starting to notice and care about the fast-changing nature of the media in which they hope to find employment in the near future.

Faculty must envision, create and deliver a curriculum with value and meaning to our students. We must recognize changing trends and react. Classes should change and evolve at least at the same rate as the media to which we will deliver our graduates.

There is even the argument that university programs should evolve faster than the media so classes are ahead of the curve and prepare students for the jobs that will be available a few years in the future.

This is a problem for higher education. While not as bureaucratic and slow to action as some governments, academe has traditionally been slow to change. Partly this may be because rapid change has not been needed. In mass communication, in spite of changes in technology and speed of creation, production and distribution, the basic concepts have remained mostly unchanged for decades.

Until just recently, Newspapers hadn't changed dramatically in more than 50 years. Radio formats are essentially the same as they were in the 1960s and 70s. Television has evolved somewhat since its golden age in the 1950s, but now seems to be back-tracking to low-cost, high profit formats. One major change is there are now many channels for smaller niche markets, but they deliver similar content: weather, sports, financial news, soap operas, game shows, cartoons, etc.

Since the introduction of the Internet and the World Wide Web, early adopters in the media sought ways to capitalize and expand on the capabilities of new and developing information delivery systems.

In recent years, media outlets large and small have begun to experiment with combining technologies-- not just for whiz-bang affect-- but to more effectively deliver content to their audiences. Newspapers, formerly relegated to two-dimensions, ink on paper, now have web sites with natural sound audio, video and animation. Radio stations, formerly limited to through the air audio, also have web sites on which they post text, photographs and video. Television stations also have web sites where they combine text, audio and video to inform their audience while promoting their programs.

In each case, the media seek ways to increase their reach to maintain and grow their audience, always with an eye to maximizing profits through additional ad revenue.

The mass communication program here at Winona State University has a photojournalism program. Until recently, the curriculum was almost completely based on two-dimensional photographs. Recent graduates have found they need additional training in video and audio news gathering, as well as in developing web content and using content management software to upload work to their employer's web sites. The program is changing, now focusing on "visual journalism" and bringing more digital and web technology into classes and student projects.

Similarly, journalism students must know how to operate a camera to make themselves more valuable to potential employers. In tough economic times, many media are sending so-called One Man Band journalists on assignments, expecting them to return with text, audio, video and still images. The OMB journalist must edit work in all areas and post to the web with speed.

To be sure, some media will still have room for specialists who focus on excellent writing, compelling images, or dynamic video story-telling. More and more, as the media adopt convergence, mass communication professionals must be competent and proficient in more than one area.

To adequately serve students, university mass communication programs must change and adapt rapidly. Convergence in the academy is also appropriate: bringing the journalism, photojournalism, broadcasting, and information technology (web design and management) elements together.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Lecture To Project Disconnect

The disconnect between lecture material and class projects:

In the mass communication program at Winona State University, there's a strong emphasis on both theory and practice. In my courses, a fair amount of time is spent on foundation concepts students need to know to be successful on active-learning projects they will complete as graded assignments.

During the first several weeks of class I lecture more, focused more on base-line information. As class proceeds less time is spent lecturing, and students spend more time working on projects, or peer-evaluating the work of classmates. My pedagogical plan is for students to hear and understand the concepts I share then apply those ideas in their own work. Further, when I get students into peer evaluation sessions, I expect them to apply class concepts as they proofread and constructively criticize the efforts of their classmates.

Unfortunately, there appears to be a real disconnect for many students between lecture and application of lecture materials. Most students listen carefully and take notes during lectures. I drop in pop culture references or humor (admittedly lame humor) to keep lectures interesting and fast-paced. It seems, however, when the lecture ends, students close their laptops and start on projects. They consider the two activities as separate and distinct.

It can be frustrating. In lecture I tell students what I believe to be hallmarks of good journalistic writing, or elements that must be considered in strategic publication design, or compositional elements that can and will make their photographs more appealing and effective. I'm often disappointed when I evaluate student assignments and find few, if any, elements discussed in lectures evident in their completed projects.

I make an effort to provide prompt feedback to students. I evaluate assignments as soon as I receive them and return projects to students with feedback at the next class meeting. I select a number of completed projects to show in class as I discuss their strengths and weaknesses.

Usually, by the fifth or sixth graded class project -- after hearing significant repetition from me about important class theoretical elements-- students begin to understand the value of incorporating these concepts in their own work. By then, there may only be a few weeks of the semester left and only one or two more projects in which they can show their mastery of the course material.

I consider it one of my greatest responsibilities to help students learn class content and develop confidence in their own skills and abilities. I also place a high premium on helping students create and perfect a body of work that can serve as examples of their newly developed skills and abilities. These class assignment projects should result in finished pieces appropriate for a portfolio to help students gain meaningful and rewarding employment in a mass communication related career position, or admission to a graduate school program of their choosing.

It works. I emphasize class theoretical concepts and eventually those ideas show up in student work. What's the problem?

I wish I could be more successful at getting the students to connect the class lecture material with their own projects earlier in the semester. I try to find new ways of helping students understand what I'm looking for in their work, so they can apply the concepts sooner.

I don't want to reduce class projects to mere imitation or replication of my thoughts and class examples. I want students to understand concepts, internalize theory and own and use class terminology in their own words. Most of all, I hope to have foundation concepts of each class show up in student work for the right reasons: to communicate effectively with a target audience.

This semester, I'm experimenting with an idea that came from several student evaluation comments following last semester's classes. At the same time I introduce and explain a new assignment, I show samples of the project that were submitted by students in the same class a semester or two earlier. I show some exemplary pieces and explain how and why they succeed. I also show examples that are lacking and describe how they might have been improved.

Already, after only two or three graded assignments in each of my classes, the work is better than previous classes at the same point in the semester.

I'm certain there are other ways of being more effective at engaging students to synthesize class concepts in their projects. I'm always seeking ways to improve my classes and help students to succeed and produce to their greatest potential.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Faculty Ignite Learning

A faculty member's responsibility: Ignite student learning

I've been teaching Mass Communication classes for more than a decade; the last three years full time. Faculty colleagues often talk about how hard it is to ignite a love or desire of learning in students. Journal articles and speakers describe similarities and differences in the classroom between Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y, Millenials, etc.

I'm not sure generalizations can be applied to college students by age or generation. In my experience, it comes down to: a level of maturity (not necessarily age in years), the drive to succeed, self-confidence, and positive encouragement from a faculty member.

In nearly every class I have taught, a small percentage of students lead the class in quality of work, attention to detail, meeting deadlines, etc. These students speak up in class frequently, visit with me after class and show me their work in progress seeking input and constructive criticism. These students also help others in class if they are asked, providing peer evaluation with honesty and tact.

There's also nearly always a small percentage of students in each class that just go through the motions, filling a transcript requirement. These students skip class frequently, perform poorly on projects and exams, and do just enough to earn a passing grade. They almost never speak up in class, rarely participate in peer evaluation, and are likely to be either dozing during a lecture or laughing at their laptop computer screens (reading email or facebook).

In the middle are the students who don't have a lot of confidence, but who want to succeed and maybe are too shy or insecure to ask for help. They turn assignments in on time, but often don't apply text and lecture concepts in projects. This group has some absenteeism, but usually for understandable reasons: family emergencies, illness, car problems, etc.

To be fair, all students probably have the same kinds of difficulties. They get sick, have family crises or automobile break-downs. I just don't hear about them.

The top students don't make excuses. When difficulties arise in their lives, they find ways to deal with them and still excel in class. The bottom students miss class and deadlines and don't bother to explain themselves.

The professor's temptation is to spend more time and attention on students who excel, give limited attention to those in the middle and avoid or neglect those that lag behind. With a little rearranging of my effort, I find I can improve classroom performance overall. After the second or third week of a semester, I have a pretty good idea of where my students fit in my arbitrary three categories.

It may be unfair to label students and categorize them. Sometimes students surprise me and move from category to category. Nonetheless, it helps me to try to identify the students who need and deserve more of my time and attention.

I spend a little more time with bottom-dwellers, to see if I can find a way to ignite their desire to succeed. Once in awhile I make a connection and help a student move to a more active, productive role. More often than not, though, it is only the student who can realize their situation and make a decision to be more serious about their education.

The top students will usually forge ahead with or without extra attention from the professor. A few moments before or after class is enough to keep them moving.

It took awhile to realize this: spend more time with the students in the middle and help them realize their potential and move them to truly want to do good work. Sometimes I arrange an office meeting, and just listen to what they are thinking. I may ask about their career plans, and devise a plan to help move them toward their goals. Once they know someone cares about the quality of their work, they try harder. A well-timed kind word of encouragement can make a lot of difference to most students. It seems an oversimplification, but I cannot overestimate the power of sentences like, "I believe in you," or "I have high expectations for you," or "I know you will go far."

Maybe this idea has been studied and written about in education-pedagogy-curriculum journals. As a relatively new member of the faculty, I came from professional practice. I hold a doctorate degree but have never taken a course in classroom management or student motivation. I received help from my colleagues on text choices, syllabi, testing procedures, and the like, but had to find my own way developing my approach to building supportive, productive relationships with students.

A good portion of a faculty member's job is delivering class content and ensuring students receive that information. Perhaps as important is the faculty member's responsibility to manage the classroom environment, and help students to achieve at the highest level they can, or care to.

Many colleges and universities have a flame or light as part of their logo. This element refers to the perpetual flame of enlightenment or knowledge. Appropriately, the responsibility to ignite this flame and to keep it burning is a shared responsibility between the student and the faculty member. Both should take it seriously.