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Around the Field: Photography History Course in Paris Dispels Assumptions, Deepens Cultural Understandings

Michael McCarthy, Director of Paris Institute for Creative Arts (PICA), a program that Athena co-founded with both McCarthy and Whittier College (CA), says that people think they know and understand photography because they see so many different photographs in so many different places every day. He quotes American documentary photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia, who once said, “photography is the foreign language everyone thinks they speak.”

“In fact,” McCarthy says, “most people don’t understand the mechanisms of photography at all; most of us just stop at a simple identification of subject matter when there are so many other and much subtler aspects that influence what a photograph expresses that most people don’t consider at all.”

Michael McCarthy teaches History of 20th Century Photography in Paris PICA.

One way McCarthy breaks through assumptions and misconceptions about photography is with his course, History of 20th Century Photography, which he has taught to very small groups of students each year since 2012.

The fact that students (and others) often think they know much more about photography than they do is, of course, not the only reason why PICA—Athena’s program in Paris—offers this photography history course.” Saying there are “countless reasons” for the course, McCarthy explains, “It’s our belief that liberal and creative arts education enables students to develop crucial analytical and communication skills that will only grow in importance in their future work experiences which will undoubtedly require people who are clever and can adapt to a rapidly changing work world. The history of photo class has the advantage of allowing us to look at work from around the world, from different cultures and periods of history. This allows students to discover many new and different views and perspectives on the current and past world which can only help open them up to possibilities they might not otherwise have considered.”

McCarthy knows of what he speaks: not only has he been teaching the course for seven years, he has been an actively exhibiting photographer for more than 20 years, which he says has given him “a rich insider’s view on a wide range of issues related to photography. There have been many different styles and art movements during its 200-year history, many technological transformations, a wide range of uses (fine art, journalistic, scientific, advertising, etc.) as well as a dramatic evolution of its place and function within the ‘art market.’ “As an artist, all of these questions are crucial in my effort to continually develop and strengthen my own understanding and use of photography. And as photography is endlessly varied and fascinating, there is no end to one’s desire to push further to improve one’s insights into photography.”

Moreover, McCarthy says, “Most historians who concentrate on the visual arts have little or no direct experience of what the process of making a painting or photograph is. They have a great deal of information on the analysis of imagery but often less direct knowledge of the many skills necessary to actually create a painting or a photograph….There are few photographic techniques or pieces of photographic equipment of the last 200 years of photo history that I haven’t actually created or used myself. As an artist, I know and can discuss the mysterious process of the artist, how one works through tests and trials and eventually arrives at powerful work. In this way, I am able to demystify the notion of creativity while still revealing its great potential for powerful expression.”

It’s clear that McCarthy loves teaching the course. Reflecting on his many years of teaching the course, he says,

“It’s always fun to watch the student’s growing sense of confidence in their own ability to find deeper and more hidden readings of the photographs we discuss in class. What originally they perceive as simple records of place, time and event grow into something so much bigger that seems to talk about the very meaning of life itself.”

PICA’s location in Paris is also a crucial piece of teaching an excellent photography history course. The course’s syllabus points out that “the history of modern photography began in Paris in 1839 when Louis Daguerre perfected and patented the chemical process of permanently fixing mirrored images to silver-coated copper plates” (hence: Dageurreotypes were the first photographs).

McCarthy explains that “crucial to helping students develop this greater interest in and understanding of photographs is the fact that we are able to spend so much time visiting art galleries and museums where we can stand in front of original works of art. It’s common to feel that this is less important when looking at photographs than it might be with painting or sculpture but while the look and feel of original photographs is often quite subtle, it is through looking repeatedly at original photographs that students come to understand just how different an original photo image can be from a reproduction, even in a high quality magazine,” he says.

McCarthy adds,

“PICA always endeavors to maximize student’s contact with the city of Paris and all our art history courses strive to place students, as much as possible, in front of actual works of art. Paris has such a rich collection of museums and art galleries that we always have a wealth of opportunities for field trips to see original photographs from throughout the history of photography.”

“Most of our art and photo history classes spend at least half of our class sessions in art galleries and museums studying original works of art,” he points out.

The History of 20th Century Photography is for any student. It has no prerequisites, and McCarthy says that, in addition to students learning about how photography works, “there are many images we’ll be studying which have an important relation to our understanding of the past and from different countries around the world. This can be of particular interest to historians but also to those studying sociology, anthropology, religion, philosophy, political science, literature and so many other disciplines. Looking at photos gives us access to countless different cultural and historical perspectives and helps open up our own vision on how to better, more fully understand the amazing complexity of the world around us.”

But students who are interested in photography or visual arts overall are the “prime candidates” for it. “Every student who works with visual arts in any medium (painting, photo, video, etc.) should take a history of photo class. Photography is too important not only in the gallery and museum world but also in advertising, journalism, graphic design, cinema and so many other areas to be neglected,” McCarthy points out.

“We look at some of the truly inspiring photographs from the history of photography but it’s much more than just a simple catalog of the best of images,” he says.

“The class helps students to better understand how photographs work, how they create meaning and interest and this is invaluable to anyone living in our modern, hyper-visual world where we’re constantly confronted with photographic imagery.”

Regarding the structure and flow of the course, McCarthy says, “This class presents the evolution of photography from one art movement to the next in an effort to help explain the relation and evolution between two movements. However, as important as understanding this historical chronology is, the class is not limited to rote memorization of names and dates. It is our belief that while it is important to understand the general progression in the history of art, the most important goal is to help students develop their skills of analysis and interpretation to help them access the richness that is in the best of artwork. In this way they will actually discover that being an art viewer will develop their interpretative and creative skills. In essence, as recent art theory is teaching us, the viewer is actually necessary to ‘complete’ the work of art and it’s our goal to prepare students to become active and not passive viewers of art and photography.”

The syllabus for the 15-week course starts with pictorialism, then moves to modernism, social documentary, surrealism/photomontage, French humanism, magazine photojournalism and war photography, “photography as metaphor,” landscape, postmodernism, and contemporary photographers. 

The course’s primary textbook is Photography: the Whole Story, by Juliet Hacking, which is supplemented by chapters from Graham Clarke’s The Photograph, in which Clarke decrypts numerous photographs. McCarthy said students also often read excerpts from important literary and philosophical texts on photography, such as Susan Sontag’s On Photography and Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. “My interest is not only giving a solid historical vision on the development of photography but also to help students improve their own analytical skills which can only increase the richness of their experiences exploring photography in the future,” McCarthy emphasizes.

Although he says that history of photography courses are still less common than history of painting courses—art history being a staple of liberal arts curricula for centuries—an increase in photography history courses “coincides with the growing importance of photography within the art world. Historians, curators and critics have all come to understand the amazing power and importance of photographs which, by recording the actual world in front of the camera, offer so many different levels of interest.”

“Beyond the simple self-expression of the artist there is also the way in which photographs can function as historical artifacts that allow us to look closely at different cultures, different socio-economic situations, different points in history and compare them to other similar situations to gain a clearer vision on the world as a whole,” McCarthy concludes.

We invite you to browse our website to learn more about Athena’s program in Paris, France.

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