Daylight Dialogues X Pete Brook, Larry Cook, Kate Palmer Albers, & Tamara Cedré

Teaching photography

 

Pete Brook talks with Kate Palmer Albers, Larry Cook, and Tamara Cedré about fear and the state of photography education in the age of memes and the disconnection between image and context. 

Pete Brook is a writer, curator, and educator focused on photos, prisons, and power. In 2018, he was awarded the W. Eugene Smith Fund's Howard Chapnick Award and a Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting grant. Pete teaches at CSU Sacramento.

Tamara Cedré was born in Brooklyn, New York and was raised in Central Florida. Her photographs, video, and filmic installations have been exhibited across the country and featured in publications on the web. Her recent work mines historical and personal archives that articulate diasporic identity shaped by the colonial status of her family’s homeland of Puerto Rico. She currently teaches photography at Cal State University San Bernardino and spends her summers on the island.
 

Kate Palmer Albers has been Associate Professor of Art History at Whittier College in Los Angeles since 2018, where she teaches courses on visual culture, new media, contemporary art, and history and theory of photography. Before that, she was on the art history faculty at the University of Arizona for ten years. Her books include the forthcoming The Night Albums: Visibility and the Ephemeral Photograph, Uncertain Histories: Accumulation, Inaccessibility, and Doubt in Contemporary Photography and Before-and-After Photography: Histories and Contexts, co-edited with Jordan Bear. 

Larry Cook is a photographer and conceptual artist based in Washington DC. Cook is a finalist for the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery (2019). He has exhibited his work nationally including MoMA PS1 (2020), the National Gallery of Art (2017), the Baltimore Museum of Art (2016). Cook is currently a 2021 Light Work Artist in Syracuse, NY and is an Assistant Professor of Photography at Howard University.

Pete Brook: I think I might hold some serious fears. Fears about the field of photo education.

I have a  fear that photography and images don't relate to the real world anymore. I sense that the visual culture of politics, news, what's visible, our screen experience, is very shouty, repetitive, and untethered. I sense the beauty or the nuance or the opportunity that images give us to connect with the human condition is getting lost. Additionally, there’s a lot of unknowns during this time of enforced distance learning. I worry that we may not be able to learn visual literacy fast enough to stay ahead of misinformation or images that are “untrustworthy”; I worry that Trumpism (which will continue for years regardless of who is in the White House) has only exacerbated weaknesses in our fragile, negotiated relationship to images. And I worry that these things might not be as temporary as I would prefer them to be.

Is my fear warranted?

Tamara Cedre: The generation we are teaching speak in images. You had the Vice Presidential debate, and what were the images that were circulating the very next day? A fly on the head of Mike Pence and his pink eye. We're speaking in memes to each other — this traffic of images. You've got sensational images that accumulate immediately during and after these events, and then you've got, frankly, very romantic images in the press. 

In photojournalism, we’re seeing more of a tendency towards a kind of formalism again, a kind of romanticism, this artistic latitude in documentary photography that was not necessarily present in earlier photojournalism. It's very bizarre and surreal to have these events like the president getting Coronavirus and then seeing these very romantic images in news stories when newspapers are considered vehicles of objective representation to convey stories. And then on the other side of it, you're seeing viral memes and selfies.

The Vice Presidential debate’s most trafficked image. 

The Vice Presidential debate’s most trafficked image. 

PB: Is that a healthy image environment for young people– kids, teens, young adults, college students– to be in? Or is it just different? Is it helping everyone's critical thinking? Memes seem to be ever more prevalent. Is meme-"culture" (ugh) a distraction that's harmless? Is it a distraction with negative outcomes? And I ask the same questions about news photography!?

Does a visually-led society, which I reckon we are increasingly becoming, just get to the essentials quicker? Are we more efficient with images? Or are we shallow and attention-starved in our interaction? Do memes affect what would ordinarily be our negotiation with the world through images?

 

Larry Cook: I tend to lean on the side that it doesn't help critical thinking having so many images and the use of social media. It just allows people to be very much more reactionary and to respond based on certain emotional aspects that are triggered based on whatever position you hold and the context in which you're viewing the image. The utility of photography has expanded so much. Sometimes we're not fully aware of how those things are being used in our everyday lives. One of the reasons I appreciate darkroom photography is that element of slowing down the process and having a certain amount of patience and discipline and understanding that comes with that type of process. This gets lost in the transmission of millions of images every day used in a variety of contexts. It's hard to slow down and think about a particular image. What does it mean? Why is it being used? And I think we're just so used to going into our gut reaction. I don't think it's necessarily beneficial.

PB: Have you incorporated social media platforms into your teaching? I have a colleague who sets up a new Instagram account each year for one of their classes. Have any of you thought about using Tik Tok or Instagram in your teaching?

 

TC: I did for this last summer's classes. I usually teach analog photography and a beginning digital course. We were told that students would not have access to any equipment. I teach in a lower-income area where students do not necessarily have cameras. They've got them on their phones only. Maybe one out of ten students could afford a DSLR, so I didn't think it was fair to require them to shoot. So I had them using found images. I had them using Tik Tok. I had them using Instagram, I had them using anything lens-based, by any means necessary. And I gave these very open prompts like a self-portraiture prompt. If they wanted to use found images, if they wanted to do a narrative through Instagram or Tumblr, they could, and it was a very different way of teaching. It wasn’t the way I've done it for the last eight years which is a very formalist way of teaching the photographic image. But I think it was valid, and I am bringing in readings like Kate's book Uncertain Histories: Accumulation, Inaccessibility, and Doubt in Contemporary Photography and Allan Sekula’s The Traffic In Photographs. I'm having them think about images in a very viral, democratic way that might be a departure from the decisive moment and the way that we were taught to make photographs in art school. 

 

Kate Palmer Albers: To me, so much of this has to do with attention, right? You can bring critical attention to any image. It can be a meme. It can be a photo documentary work. It can be an artwork. My classes aren't production classes. They're classes in visual culture and history, and the way that I bring in social media is not through having a dedicated Instagram or Twitter page for the class, but, rather, asking the students to be critically aware of how social media functions and how images circulate and of what the text/image relationships are in a meme or in an Instagram feed or in a fine art photograph.

This is very much an attention economy, and that's something to be fearful of for the reasons that you've said, Pete. It threatens to be so dominant in terms of how we consume and what our attention is directed toward. Certainly, as educators, that's always a place to intervene, always a place to interrupt— that constant onslaught of information— by doing what Larry mentioned: slowing down, backing up. Let’s try to understand what this fly [on Mike Pence's head] is all about, let's analyze how these images are circulating and how people are responding to them, and what the speed of those images is in relationship to the speed of other kinds of images.

PB: Larry, do you teach studio photography? And what else goes on at Howard? How would you teach now? You're building that program up at the moment, right?

 

LC: We just put together a curriculum for an MFA in photography, so I'm hoping that it gets approved by the graduate curriculum committee. In terms of what I teach my students, I focus a lot more on technical execution alongside being able to articulate your decision making. What are the problems that you're creating and how are you solving these problems? One of the reasons I take that approach is because, in my experience, teaching in these types of environments, there's so much emphasis on identity. It’s always concerning because I think when you have such a fixation on identity, it becomes a little bit limiting. You begin to rely a lot on things that are in the abstract, in a way that I don't think, especially for beginning photographers, is as healthy. So I’m just really trying to build a strong foundation. There are so many things, as we all know, that come along with that— a certain type of discipline and attention to detail and cultivating a certain type of love and passion for the craft. So I tend to start from that particular point and place a lot of emphasis on those qualities. 

In the art department, just in terms of education, the social climate often creeps into every aspect of it. It's hard to be able to teach and navigate certain images, where a lot of people want the conversation and content to remain in a particular space. A lot of it, as I mentioned, is either political or identity politics and I think a lot of it has to do with what's happening in the larger society and certain expectations and how we see ourselves. It can be difficult to— not completely break away from that— but to try to provide a good balance.

PB: When you are talking about this weight that keeps people's discussions in the same area, are you  talking about the motivations or the reasons for certain approaches in studio when you're making photographs? Are you talking about images in the current day in the general visual environment? Where are people getting stuck?

 

LC: I was having a conversation with a student last week, and she was saying how she wants to be able to produce work in a way that, when people respond, is not attached to this idea of “Blackness.” So if she's photographing herself in front of, let's say, a tree, we don't have to contextualize that within the framework of oppression. Just being able to have broader interpretations in terms of how we digest images. But I think, partly, the blame for that is how the art world places certain expectations on artists of color to think about their creative expression in the context of or in juxtaposition to a certain type of oppressive systems. So then when we think about, again, creating images, that becomes our default setting in which we begin to read them.

 

TC: There are existing signifiers. There’s this kind of semantic currency that— I really love this example that Larry gave of someone who's Black in front of a tree. When you teach photo history or you teach the history of images, that image is always in conversation with all of the images that come before it and all of its interpretations. Unfortunately, I feel like the more images we have, the more traffic we have of images, the more we start to exhaust some of that signification. We start to expand it. We start to ask more questions but the problem is that it's limiting. It's hard to say that I want my students to move away from identity-based work because, when you begin making work as an artist, so much starts from the self. And I say this because I look at artworks from a very Marxist purview, and I actually try to depart from being classified as a Latina and only showing in Latina exhibitions or being siloed only as a female image-maker. I really do try to depart from those categories. But it also is so much a part of how I see the world and was my starting point for making images. 

Work from the series Reclamar|Anarchives, by Tamara Cedré

KPA: Tamara brought up earlier that these aren't new conversations. Some of them are, but a lot of them have really important historical connections, and the degree to which we can encourage students to be thinking about some previous conversations, I find that long view very encouraging. There is a history of struggle and a history of people feeling overwhelmed by images and by media and by representation or lack of representation. I don't think it would be better to be [thinking about this] 50 years ago, you know? It’s heartening to take a much longer view. 

 

TC: As I read something like The Traffic In Photographs, which I keep going back to, there's something about– I think images need other images. Images need context. Images need words. This idea of the singular, absorbing image, the high craft, the formalism– I can't look at photography that way anymore. It's not my world. It's not my kids’ world. It's not what they're looking at. I always ask my students, “Who are you in conversation with?" That's not how I was taught in art school. It was, what's your unique and individual voice in the world? Find your authorship. And I always tell them, “Well, that's bullshit. You are in conversation with the music you listen to, the films you watch, where you come from. Your vernacular is not in a bubble. Everything is in context with something outside of yourself. Right?" And that's how I'm looking at photography, too. It’s getting weird. It's exploding. It doesn't stop. It's still revealing. 

LC: If you feel that there is an imbalance then, again, as instructors, we have a certain amount of agency in providing that counter-narrative or balance to those particular topics or issues. I think that in terms of outlook, it's just an opportunity to engage it from a different perspective. In terms of what I would like to see more of, it’s really just more diversity of thought and perspectives in the way that people engage with these kinds of topics and materials. And again, it challenges me to go beyond just the scope of what I was taught and the artists and critics that I had to rely upon and to be diverse in terms of my research and preparing my courses and even the materials and the examples of photographers and references. It just puts a little bit more of the onus on me as an instructor.

PB: I feel like you're just well-positioned to do that because you make work, and then you’re an educator also, and your work is quite subtle. 

How have you changed your curriculum in 2020? There have been a lot of calls for decolonizing curricula, so I've made changes to what I teach, and I'm interested to know if you felt pressure or exhilaration or worried?

 

LC: Can you provide an example of changes you have made, Pete? 

 

PB: I’ve added a couple of assignments that ask students to connect with 19th-century images through their own stories and storytelling. 

Instead of mentioning the Zealy Daguerreotypes in a lecture, which I have done in the past, I spent two classes on them. It has helped that Aperture has just produced a book and they're doing public talks. I am following the scholarship and locating those Zealy Daguerreotypes as almost a visual Ground Zero, the starting point, if we're going to talk about the relationships between slavery and photography and power. Maybe that's the first place we go before we explore the other photographs from the 1840s that precede these daguerreotypes. The Zealy Daguerreotypes, made in 1850, in terms of what they were doing– photographing people without their consent, as property, and as evidence for bogus racist science– they anchor us in our history of racial violence.

 

TC:  Ariella Azoulay’s new book locates the origins of photography. There, embedded into the medium of photography, is colonization. In the age of Western Expansion– as large parts of the world are being colonized– is the birth of the camera. That's how I have started my photo history classes for years. 

 

KPA: Yes, I think there's a lot with framing, certainly. I'm teaching History of Photography right now. For this class starting in early September, it was like, Well, I can't possibly just start with the invention of photography. Not with this state of the nation, this state of the world. I always make a big deal in my classes about the way that images impact narrative, and the role of images to either expose or conceal, and the connection between text and image in media and in art, all these much bigger framing issues. But for this class, our whole first unit was protest and pandemic. That was the dual theme. 

I introduced the whole shape of the class and all of that material about narrative and the role of images in relationship to narrative, both now and historically. For instance, from the Aperture issue that Sarah Lewis edited, we read her conversation with Bryan Stevenson, Truth and Reconciliation, about the role of images to shape narratives of racial violence over history and to foreground different national narratives as well as different individual narratives. This expanded into a framing device for the entire class. 

 

LC: My curriculum hasn't shifted too much. I require a lot more writing, in terms of formal visual analysis, looking at photography, writing about photography. I think one of the reasons is just trying to be mindful of people’s circumstances and resources that are available, not being able to be on campus. The critique is very different being online. So, written critiques, peer-written critiques, those kinds of things. It is more a response to the limitations of being virtual during the pandemic.

KPA: I've also been much more attentive to trying to get them to not spend all of their class time on the screen on Zoom. So I had an assignment where they had to take something we'd learned and teach it to someone in their lives, and they really liked that because they got to demonstrate their knowledge and they got to talk to a human being who was not in the class. I stole Nigel Poor’s [practice of ] having her students write directly on a photograph, an exercise in slow looking. That work was amazing to see. So, things that are more physical and interactive in their own spaces in their own worlds because I hope that they don't come to equate learning with only being on the computer.

 

TC: The thing that I've been changing— I've always been decolonizing the curriculum because I come from a colony. And I also come from a lot of Black, radical scholarship in Baltimore that I’m grateful for. I have always looked at photography as this colonial medium, but what I recently have been doing is integrating more queer work, LGBTQIA work, which was absent from my education in graduate school and undergraduate school, and trying to bring visibility to some movements that I didn't necessarily know about. Jess Dugan, Rafael Soldi and some other folks— the Strange Fire collective— has some really wonderful resources that have helped me to integrate that into the curriculum. So that was kind of cool. They're doing some fantastic stuff.

I also have students doing online journals through Tumblr and Instagram, and I have them meditating every week. If we've got 13 weeks, they will have 13 entries on the material, and they can produce anything from a YouTube video to whatever they want. They’re always processing. There's a process journal that goes with everything from studio photography to photo history. That's kind of nice, because it gives them a kind of introspection, and it allows them to use social media towards something that's a little more thoughtful.

Kate Palmer Albers’ student Clara Velazquez breaks down an image by Martine Gutierrez.

Kate Palmer Albers’ student Clara Velazquez breaks down an image by Martine Gutierrez.

Velazquez completes a writing exercise about the same Martine Gutierrez image.

Velazquez completes a writing exercise about the same Martine Gutierrez image.

PB: I think Trump has done quite a lot of damage to photography. 

He and his administration undermine the media. They formalized this phrase "fake news,” and they groomed us every day on a diet of seditious, democracy-busting lies. All the while, technologies, deep fakes, facial recognition, AI, are taking image-reading out of many images. Even loose captions or deliberately misleading comments send folks into partisan tailspins. Question one:  Do you think that Trump Republicans and the larger political environment has damaged previously healthy, or healthier, relationships to photography?  Question two: Does that have any long term consequences or effects on education and photo education? Personally, I think the answers to those two questions are related, but I don't think they're the same.

 

KPA: I'm not sure I would agree with the premise that trust is necessarily bound up with a healthy relationship to images. So there's certainly an opportunity to connect historically theatrical modes of image production with what we're seeing today and draw a historical continuum. The alarm that we should have about things like deep fake videos and the potential for those to do a lot of damage is real, but I'm not sure I would hang it on just the last four years. This is all part of a much broader context.

Student McKenzie Grant Gordon’s still life for Larry Cook’s fall 2020 class

Student McKenzie Grant Gordon’s still life for Larry Cook’s fall 2020 class

Kennedy Mallard’s work for Larry Cook’s Digital Photography class

Kennedy Mallard’s work for Larry Cook’s Digital Photography class

LC: In terms of the news and images, I think that it's been persistent before Trump. But I think, as I said before, photography is just a utility. When we're in an election year, it just gets wrapped up in everything that's happening surrounding that circus, and it's just reflective of that. And it can be difficult to navigate and weave through. There is this sense of entanglement, but these issues, they've always persisted. 

 

PB: Sounds like you think education is robust enough to outlast this moment. 

 

LC: I'm optimistic.

 

KPA: To some degree, I think there might be even a greater visual literacy, like the photo op, the walking to the church with the Bible, and tear-gassing protesters, and then the recent ones around Walter Reed and the White House balcony, those were immediately understood and dissected as these staged, desperate acts for attention and blatant manipulations of power. So that's something to be hopeful about, perhaps. I don't think there was ever a moment when that all seemed true or transparent.

 

PB: Or normal. 

 

TC: I don't get caught up in, we must vote Trump out. Yes, we should vote Trump out. But I feel like, teaching a class like Art and Activism, the activism for me is not necessarily in electoral politics. The activism for me is not necessarily in legislation. It's in grassroots movements. It's in personal choices. I happen to think everything is political. Every choice is political and has political implications. So that's what I'm teaching my students first. What are your artistic concerns? What are your social concerns? How are you acting to change that? We actually don't get caught up in talking about Trump. Fred Moten writes about The Undercommons and his place being, not part of the institution, or of the institution, but in it, and there's a great potential ground for us to be able to make change and catalyze change. As educators, I think that we're in a place to make more radical change than some of the people in the government.

 

PB: If images are decoupled from reality either narratively or in post-production, the response might be that, in this attention economy, people might not be being artists, but they might be pushing back in their fractional way with memes themselves. I don't want to be fearful. I want to think that meme creation is a form of art and a form of resistance and a good thing. 

As much as stuff is getting thrown at my students, they're also throwing stuff back. We might dismiss it because it's 15 seconds here and 30 seconds there to create and consume. Over the years, that is a massive amount of labor. 

 

KPA: I can never resist the conversations about too many images, or fear of too many images. But, it connects a bit to the conversation about visual images becoming more like language. And no one ever complains that there are too many words. 

 

TC: I love memes. I just agree with what Kate was saying, they can't exist singularly. If your whole diet is memes, that's not a balanced diet.

 

KPA: It might have to be a bridge to a fuller conversation, right? My son is 14. He gets all of his news from memes— that's really not an exaggeration. But a lot of times, those have opened up really useful starting points for conversations. Let's talk about it. Let's fill out that backstory. Let’s take a closer look. So I think memes can be quite useful.

 

LC: I would say you've been able to persuade me a little bit more. As I mentioned earlier, there's this opportunity, and if you switch your perspective, and you look at it as an opportunity to engage, instead of dismiss, the material because our students— I mean, it's relevant. It just challenges us to step out of our traditional boxes and forms of education to think about the implications of these things in the future.

The scene in front of St. John’s Parish on June 6, 2020, five days after Donald Trump was photographed in front of the same church holding a Bible. (Nicole Glass/Alamy)

The scene in front of St. John’s Parish on June 6, 2020, five days after Donald Trump was photographed in front of the same church holding a Bible. (Nicole Glass/Alamy)

PB: What stuff Are you really excited about teaching? Which artists are doing it the right way?

 

LC: I get excited teaching still life photography. So folks like Nakeya Brown, Awol Erizku. I like non-traditional approaches. The technical aspect is important but, shifting to more conceptual approaches and non-traditional techniques give upperclassmen room for more diverse interpretations and force artists to really think conceptually in terms of the material that they're choosing, the decisions, the metaphors, the symbolism that's embedded. So I’ve been focusing on our relationship to objects. How to create a narrative, and one of the things I've been challenging my students to do is to focus on a lot of irrational juxtapositions. So just finding ways to challenge students to dig deeper into the materials and into the decisions that they're making. 

 

KPA: I love every artist I teach. I really do. But when I hear myself jumping up and down in class, it's oftentimes about an artist where students can see the way they are moving through the world in a multiplicity of directions. Artists whose work demonstrates that their sense of themselves as visual agents in the world is not confined in any way but rather who are working in a multiplicity of ways through the idea of what art-making is. So, we’ve looked at Latoya Ruby Frazier a few times over the term in different modes of producing, in different modes of image circulation and commentary, and being visible and out there in the world. That's one example.

TC: You took mine! I love Latoya Ruby Frazier's work. I think it's rounded. It's contextualized so well, and it’s another great example of using the personal for the political without necessarily relying solely on identity politics which is, I think, amazing. I love Pao Houa Her’s work. She is a Hmong artist who has been doing incredible work in her community in Minnesota. She's the first Hmong artist to graduate from Yale, and I love her work. It's super powerful. I like these new young bloods coming out too like Rahim Fortune, who just recently did work for Time Magazine. I've watched the trajectory of his career over the course of a year, and the work that he did documenting his family and the death of his father in Oklahoma was very powerful— how he relates the personal to the political. I like Karolina Karlic’s work. She's a professor out of UC Santa Cruz. The way she located her own positionality in Detroit, as the daughter of a Polish immigrant, working with the automobile industry, and then somehow was able to expand that to the Fordism in the Brazilian Rainforest. I'm excited by these artists that work from the micro to the macro. Sofia Gallisa Muriente, who is a Puerto Rican artist who was recently in the Whitney Biennial. Her work is incredible. 

I just love photography. I think when I stop loving it, maybe I'll just do something else besides teaching photography. I think there's great potential, but how I'm teaching it is changing. I think we do have to do that. I've been teaching for eight years, and I was at that sweet spot where like, after five years, I had all my slides ready. I'd integrate a few new people into the mix, but I felt like I had flow. Well, that changed in the last year with everything, especially with Coronavirus. It was all new preps. For me, I'm just thinking about everything in a very different way. And maybe it's a good thing that we get shaken up by some of these questions, right?