Saturday, June 27, 2015

The messy alternative to online learning

David Bromwich, in an essay in The New York Review of Books (“Trapped in the Virtual Classroom” July 9, 2015), posed the shortcomings of the online classroom. While he admits that information (as distinct from knowledge) can be transmitted to large numbers of people, with the resulting advantages to our society, the disadvantages of such forms of education lie in the lack of human contact—human interaction—that so often lies at the heart of real cultural growth.

I’m an amateur photographer, thoroughly enchanted by the latest technology, which has changed my own focus from the skills involved in chemical photographic processes to those of their digital equivalents. I see the tremendous advantages of working on an image in my computer, where little mistakes can usually be corrected with a simple key press and where the instantaneous transformations that take place almost routinely provide me with a huge easel on which to practice my craft.

At the same time, I enjoy the ease with which I can ask questions online to solve the inevitable vagaries inherent in solitary study. Anything I can think of to ask, somebody has already faced and more or less resolved. I’m indebted to the Internet as much as I am to my digital camera. I trust that my skills are improving.

Last week, Judith and I attended an all-day presentation by a well-known photographer and teacher, dealing with techniques for creating well-lit and well-composed portraits. Even though the class numbered over a hundred people with a wide range of knowledge and skills, we came home inspired by the teacher to try some of the methods he had found so successful. I’ve tried to imagine what that workshop would have been like if it had been simply one of the many video courses that are available. Perhaps we could have absorbed the information just as well. I know, however, that I would not have found that inspiration in a video—it needed the human connection, well worth the time and effort of attending a class in a nearby city. There’s something about hearing and seeing an expert teaching skills that goes beyond the skills themselves.

Photography is more than a skill with operating equipment, whether chemical or digital. I have to believe it is an art that I can learn with thousands of hours of experiment and study. The art is in learning to see. Engaging one’s creative impulses is more important than applying the rather mechanistic rules, even of difficult-to-define composition and color. Those impulses are the difference between art and craft. I’ve always considered myself a moderate craftsman, whether with words or pictures. What I lack is that eye—the recognition of the difference between ordinary and extraordinary. And I know that inspiration is the motive force toward being able to express fully what I feel behind these eyes of mine.

Bromwich acknowledges the benefits of learning, especially among the millions of people who would never, without the miracles of digital technology, be able to contribute to the general accumulation of societal advances. But beyond that learning is insight—the mysterious awareness that comes, often unexpectedly, from an emotional connection with a teacher. It’s insights that form the growing edge of knowledge and occasionally of wisdom. It’s the “aha!” that comes unbidden in any field, whether looking at a graphical image or a mathematical equation.

I’ve taken thousands of photographs since the beginning of the twentieth century when I purchased my first digital camera. Every once in a great while does one of them strike me as exceptional. I treasure those occasional reflections of something deeper in my psyche than producing a “good” image. After last week, I’ve been aware of a great lack in my photographic life—the human interaction. I have a small group of friends with whom I regularly share my writing, and I’m indebted to them and to that interaction among us for whatever improvement I may be making with regard to putting words together. Now I know that I need to nurture what connections I have among people with an interest in photography, for the sake of my own growth and satisfaction.

I’ll continue to sit down at my computer and view some of the many video “how to do it” sessions. But none of them will compare with handing a print I’ve made to a trusted colleague and asking, “What do you see in this?”