In the first installment of this series, I shared a few thoughts on how to teach kids photography–ideas that I tried out with some success with my own daughters. To organize my thoughts in order to share them with you I’ve broken down the lessons I’ve learned so far into ten bullet points. The first three were published earlier, three more today, and the final four will be published in the next installment.
Here are today’s ideas:
4. Help them learn how to see. After they are comfortable with the idea of photographing as a special thing take it to the next level. During the summer, spring break, or on a long weekend when they have more free time, give them real photography assignments. Make it fun, make it basic.
Here is what I did with my kids. I wrote up basic photography assignments, printed them out, and left them on the kitchen table the mornings when we were going to go shoot. The kids were excited to start their day off with a sort of surprise– something novel after the boredom of summer (boredom of COVID?) has started to threaten. Don’t forget the food! Afterward, go home and have the kids choose their favorite twenty images from the day. Put them on the TV and view them as a group (again, don’t forget the food). Make a sort of casual rule that everyone has to say one intelligent thing (or at least one coherent thing–sometimes you have to take those first steps when we are talking about teenage kids) about each image. No just sitting there. They have to engage.
Plan ahead: When all the lessons are done have the kids edit the best images into a portfolio book. Mail a few copies to relatives. Make it a big deal because it is.
5. Take them to art museums and discuss the works. (COVID lockdown version: There are many ways to display art on your TV set—and there are many online exhibits.)
Let them express their own thoughts. Let them hear yours, too, but not in a way that leads their thinking, that determines their opinion. Show then good photography. Let them make their own connections. Don’t push them to love Ansel Adams, if you do. Don’t rub their nose in the Bechers even if you find the work fascinating. It might seem like nothing to them. Point out whatever catches your interest in the images–a dog at the edge of a frame, a trick of the light, a similar image elsewhere in the gallery. Get them to see images rather than to memorize why certain images are important.
Here are a few examples:
While we were working on these photography lessons I drove with my family down the California coast, stopping along the way to see art exhibits.
At Santa Barbara we saw an excellent Brett Weston show (which raised his work in my estimation). I walked around looking at the images with my kids, discussing each one as their interest directed, and moving back and forth between rooms at the museum when the kids realized that certain images, separated at the exhibit, appeared to be made on the same day at the same place. That was an exciting discovery.
We saw a show at the San Diego Museum of Photographic Arts of early Ansel Adams prints, including several I had never seen before and even a Sierra Club scrapbook with his images. The kids didn’t care for this show as much. (Note: Rebecca Senf recently published an excellent book of this early work.)
We also had the odd experience of seeing three Richard Avedon shows, one in San Diego, one in Los Angeles, and one in San Francisco. Like all such bodies of work, you quickly go from looking at the images as photographs to playing the “can you name the personality” game. It was fun even if the prints at the San Francisco show were sometimes of abysmal quality. (One large one in particular, of Marian Anderson, was such a bad print that I’m convinced it was retrieved from the trash. Horribly dark and fogged with chemical stains. It was unsigned. We’d just seen a print of the same image, albeit in a smaller size, a couple of days earlier.)
Don’t bore the kids, let them explore, intellectually and emotionally.
6. Give them control over their camera. Teenagers are naturally lazy, like many artists. Full auto mode on any camera will slow their appreciation of the possibilities of the craft of photography. Most cameras allow some control over aperture and shutter speed and ISO. If they are using a phone as their camera (not ideal since the phone intrudes so much with its other distractions and temptations) you might consider an alternative to the built-in Photos app such as Halide on the iPhone.
Have your kids use these controls. Semi-automatic is fine. The key idea here is to get them to think of their camera as a tool rather than something you just point, to help them learn to control the camera rather than just react with it.
In the next installment, I’ll offer four final ideas to teach kids about photography.