Day in the Life

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This is an experiment with documentary photography. A photo taken every half hour in monochrome using a Canon 1200D with 50mm lens is an exhibition of the mundane as well an exploration of composition. I set this as homework for my Y10 GCSE Photography group with a couple of revisions. Firstly, they could use whatever was at hand to take their images (phones, iPads as well as any kind of camera). Secondly, if every half hour wasn’t a realistic preposition, then take 28 images throughout the day.

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Here’s my documentary photo-shoot WAGOLL representing my Monday ‘Day in the Life’   It is quite a challenging task! My day consisted of mainly having the MOT for my car and wandering around our local town centre. I could have contrived something far more interesting, such as a walking trip to the Peak District…

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As an alternative documentary project my Wednesday ‘Day in the Life’ https://flic.kr/s/aHsm519Tiq. This was created using a mixture of Canon 1200D with 18-55mm kit lens and an iPhone for panoramas.

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Documentary photography usually refers to a popular form of photography used to chronicle events or environments both significant and relevant to history and historical events as well as everyday life.

The mini-project can work as a one-off or the launching point to a more extended piece of work. I found these great tips for documentary photo projects:

  • Documentary means as it happens, naturally in an environment
  • To capture a person’s essence, their real personality
  • Record details and scene settings
  • To think ‘big picture’, take shots for the process and expansion of an idea
  • To create a story with images, leave a legacy of a moment in time.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the students have responded to the task and any exciting or unusual responses may have developed from the challenge.


 

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Drawing

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Any art teachers involved in the teaching of the new 1-9 GCSE Art & Design will know there is a new emphasis on drawing in all it’s forms. That includes in the Photography endorsement. The implication for this ‘new emphasis’ is that drawing was a measure of rigour. I know some ebacc orientated school leaders who think that art is ‘an easy subject’ (it’s not, despite some schools achieving 100% pass rates recently) and they find it difficult to judge levels of craftsmanship (“These GCSE paintings are ALL great, give ’em a grade A*!” declared one while I reassured him there was a full range of grades on display). Drawing is often the means that art teachers use to acquire levels of craftsmanship appropriate to the quality of ideas expressed and the student’s confidence in their chosen media. On Radio 4 recently, an interview with illustrator, Stanley Chow was preceded by an introduction along the lines of Chow uses computers, ergo, artists don’t need to have drawing skills. This was corrected by Chow during the article who recognised the importance of digital media to his style of illustration but said that budding artists should learn traditional media first.

To encourage and develop drawing skills as appropriate to the new GCSE, we went back to drawing from primary source material and the ubiquitous soda or soft drink can.

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These Year 9 student examples (13 year olds) used the direct experience of the soft drink can as a man-made form with a malleable aspect; the can be drawn as a cylinder and then dented, ripped and torn to change the form. Surface as well as typography/graphics on the can are also an interesting feature. For this task we used oil pastels in order to effectively blend colour and achieve shiny, metallic surfaces. These were selected for use independently but could also be intriguing as a contrast to a natural form or grouped with other reference materials to develop and idea or concept. My idea for the project is to explore the theme of the polluted shoreline by contrasting seaweed, sea shells, rope, plastic toys and fast food packaging. Other conceptual approaches could include:

  • Light and reflection
  • Decay
  • Distortion
  • Colour range
  • Patterns and relationships
  • Metamorphosis.

My next step is to introduce natural forms and explore colour. I have a selection of stones rocks and sea shells but also sheep skulls (some children have difficulty understanding what these are and if they do, some often ask if they are real). I could look toward a variety of natural objects of similar colours to develop understanding of the basic properties of one colour (a selection of plants for example). Drawing shouldn’t be used as the measure of academic rigour and achievement in our subject but rather the means to acquire craftsmanship and confidence in drawing media and a launching position in which to project oneself with our own ideas.


 

Light Subject

pexels-photo
CC Zukiman Mohamad

In the past week I have had two students complain about the comparative difficulty of their photography courses and that it wasn’t supposed to be challenging; it was their ‘light’ subject.

One is in the third week of their AS Photography at Post 16, so maybe we can put it down to early realisation or that a fourth AS isn’t necessary. Her three other A levels might be the priority but she said she didn’t realise there would be so much work involved and that it would be so demanding of her ‘free’ time. This is an A level, not an evening class!

The second student is in the second year of her GCSE, not a case of ill-informed choice but well into the course. “You never said it was going to be so hard!” We have just 4 months to complete our coursework, now she realises how difficult it s to get to the ‘good’ grades. It was always rigorous, tricky, time-consuming, intellectually and creatively challenging. This hasn’t been an overnight change of some kind.

Photography courses aren’t an easy option. Really. Familiarity with taking images (snaps) is being confused with the artistry, creative process, refinement and competence of the photographic art. So why has this misconception taken hold?

Okay, I’ll agree that A level maths/physics and chemistry require an intellectual understanding beyond that of practical subjects and that some students are best-placed to study them than others. Other subjects require different skills, interests and ability but are ‘difficult’ in their own unique ways. Part of the problem comes from a Russell Group of Universities guide that confirms that certain courses are regarded more highly by universities than others.

According to the guide, “softer” options include media studies, art and design, photography and business studies while traditional and mostly scientific subjects are seen as more academically rigorous. Those not studying at least two of the “hard” subjects – maths, English, geography, history, the pure sciences and classical or modern foreign languages – will find that “many degrees at competitive universities will not be open” to them, it says. The guide suggests pupils taking less traditional subjects may be “trying to avoid a challenge”, adding that if pupils study more than one “soft/light” subject, “some caution may be needed.”

Similarly and anecdotally, at parent’s evenings when GCSE option choices are being discussed, I frequently hear comments like: “Oh, you could do photography. It will be a more relaxing subject when you need a rest from the really hard ones.” Different and no less involving I would argue in these days where e-baccalaureate is causing division between the perception of academic and practical GCSEs. Besides, there are 77 UK universities offering a whopping 201 graduate degrees studying photography and surely the journey to complete such a light subject has value there.


 

Further:

Russell Group Guide; “Informed Choices” 2011

Education Datalab; “Which are the most difficult GCSEs?” 2016

The Guardian; “A level choices: which subjects should you pick?” 2013

 

Developing Photography students

This post is a reflection on how recent technology has seemed to have impacted on photography students at key stage 4 or Post-16. My thoughts centre on ease-of-use, quality and ‘quick fix’ or shortcuts.

My photography teaching started in the mid-1990s; these were pre-consumer digital camera days so it was essential to have a darkroom and chemicals and rely on a bit of hit-and-miss in terms of quality. I had a GNVQ Intermediate group (level 2 GCSE equivalent) who were largely left unsupervised in the classroom as I disappeared into the cupboard (converted darkroom) with three others of the class. This would be a safeguarding issue today but much more shocking derelictions of duty took place in those days. Without a technician, every step had to be watched, managed and dealt with; fainting kids (hot in there in Summer), smelly chemicals and dripping papers… My point is, this was a kind of alchemy, a complete mystery to all but a few who may have read the book in the library. With the time allowed and cost of materials, the students could only hope to produce something… something for portfolio to evidence they had a go until they made it to college and could explore further.

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Casio QV-10

Next stage, late 1990s, was the first affordable Casio and Kodak digital cameras. Our first one was a Casio QV10 from Dixons with a tiny 1.8″ screen and I think a 1/4 megapixel sensor. It saved to internal memory and cost an arm and a leg but revolutionised the idea of quick capture for developing art work. Not a truly photographic tool, unless you compared it to a pinhole camera.

My next step was to focus on Photoshop. Any crappy image could be post-produced and our usual ragtag of inept camera output could be cropped, liquified and gaussian-blurred without exception. I didn’t know anyone who owned a DSLR at this stage.

Nikon DSLR
Nikon D40

Around the mid-2000s a slew of 6mp DSLRs became very affordable for a select group of Post-16 students. The impact was incredible; these were the first quality to compare with analogue means of production. The interface was simple, meaningful settings (compared with SLR) and no reliance on pre-built in filters and ‘features’ (yack). At last, we could viably run a digital darkroom! My school at the time got so excited they bought green gloss paint for the skirting boards and matching green plastic chairs! Classroom of the future or what?! With Post-16 funding being what it was at the time, my class of 22 students enabled me to buy 15 Nikon D40 kits.

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iPhone 8 Studio lighting mode

In the last few years the technology has been miniaturised to fit in smartphones and tablets/iPads. Without the controls, settings and understanding but with an incredible ease-of-use. There are apps that simulate SLR use (VSCO or Manual for instance) but there isn’t the thrill of getting it wrong like on a real camera. The point here is, they are easy to use and have great quality output and with apps like Snapseed, superb end-user quick fixes that you don’t need Photoshop for. But because they skim the surface of the subject, the user has no real understanding of either the technical reasons or the aesthetics of their photography. You see it all the time on Instagram – ‘pretty’ snaps, devoid of cognitive depth. Otherwise there is a proliferation of shitpics. I am not just being snobby about it here! I have recently had students say they prefer to use their phones for assignments as they are more reliable than a DSLR camera. Why take the risk of it not going to plan? This is emphatically the case for portrait mode on iPhone 7+ and on the latest models (iPhone 8 and X), portrait lighting mode (currently Beta). We seem to have gone back a leap in photography terms. I am not dissing the photographic quality; just the usefulness – the phone camera is merely a quick capture tool in the hands of the students albeit with exceptional results. The photographic process is not being explored or learned and the photographer reduced to an idiot-savant¹.


¹ Defintion at http://www.dictionary.com/browse/idiot-savant.

Art lesson resource: Candy skull lino printing

At this time of year, we tend to roll our timetable forward so that students can begin their GCSE art and design classes before the Summer break. For us, this is Year 8 into 9 (12 to 13 year olds) who may lack maturity and sometimes skills. My new classes are keen as this is their option choice but need to be engaged by skills, topics and presentation. For this purpose I pick something that they find slightly familiar; Day of the Dead candy skulls (calavera).

What you will need

  • Linoleum tiles cut to A6
  • Day of the Dead resource sheets
  • Lino cutting tools (v and u shaped blades)
  • Water-based printing ink
  • Ink rollers
  • String and washing pegs – to provide a drying line for prints

Inspiration

Dia de muertos (Day of the Dead) is a Mexican cultural festival that takes place over three days from October 31st to November 2nd. Although essentially linked to Halloween and gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died, there are links to much older traditions such as the Aztec festival for goddess, Mictecacihuatl.

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Mexicana: calavera skulls

Day of the Dead family

Decorative skulls (calavera) are a symbol used during the festival applied to decorative or edible skulls made from either sugar or clay which are used in the Mexican celebration or even face paints for party-goers! As an inspiration for print-makers, they provide a cultural reference point from which to explore symmetry, shape, pattern and texture.

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Artists’ examples

Method

I get students to draw from examples of calavera, concentrating on symmetry and pattern. Once they understand common motifs, they can begin to produce their own designs. A double-page spread in a sketchbook can show research and presentation skills – this forms my home learning tasks and a deeper understanding of looking into other/unfamiliar cultures. I think this idea was magpied from @LeedsArtTeacher on Twitter as she found it an engaging theme for Year 9.

The video at the top of the post help the students understand the Lino printing process from sketch to mono print.

Resources such as this image help the artists achieve a variety of textures and they are asked to explore at least two blades for cutting details.

Finally, reviewing progress against a simple ladder of achievement (below) can help move ideas and details forward.

© damoward 2017

A single colour mono print can be a starting point for further exploration of lino printing, experiments with other media on top of dry prints or gradient effects with wet ink rolling. Final prints can be used as part of the double-page spread presentation or as individual page presentations.


 

A month of plastic-lite living

In June the Marine Conservation Society encouraged us to take up a “plastic challenge”, asking us to give up single-use plastic for a day, a week or even the whole month. See their website here. This blog post explores the challenge a little further with some solutions to the issues that arose.

My family and I attempted the plastic challenge for the whole month buying only packaged goods in HDPE, PP or some PET plastic that my local curb-side recycling will take! Our five supermarket shops during the month took place at different stores and we pledged not to buy rather than compromise from the very start. The rationale is that consumers can insist on packaging that is widely recycled, then big corporations can be forced to adapt to our (and our planet’s) needs. In addition, in preparation is the end of May, we replaced our plastic shopping bags with jute (natural materials) and our own paper grocery bags for loose items.

Why cut down on plastic?

Plastic pollution is one of the greatest threats facing our oceans. Up to 12 million tonnes of plastic is entering the oceans every year. This is affecting sea life – one in 3 turtles and 90% of seabirds are now estimated to have ingested plastic. Plastic is even ending up in the seafood on your plates. Coca-Cola produces an estimated 100 billion throwaway plastic bottles every year – and billions of these will end up on beaches, in landfill and in the sea. Send Coca-Cola’s CEO an email here.

A single plastic bottle takes hundreds of years to break down in the ocean, which is dangerous to wildlife. It could be swallowed by a whale or a shark, while its bottle top might be picked up by a seabird who then feeds it to its young. If it’s not swallowed whole, the bottle will break into smaller and smaller pieces, which can then can be ingested by creatures ranging from zooplankton to whales, which mistake it for food. Slowly but surely it will turn the ocean into a kind of toxic plastic soup. — Greenpeace Connect, Summer 2017

#plasticchallenge

The five supermarkets we went to during June were: Asda, Lidl, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s. All are guilty of over-packaging; presumably for the convenience of warehouse storage prior to shelf display. We bought loose vegetables and placed into our own paper grocery bags; every time we went to checkout we got quizzical looks but we were keen to explain the plastic challenge and every time we were commended by the staff who said they would pass on to managers and what a great idea. Any processed, packaged food was scrutinised for the materials logo:

recycle-logos-1So we felt that by getting some items (ready-meal curries for example) in a PP tray would be ok as the curb-side collection take this plastic. As we soon found, on collection day all of the PP plastic was left behind in our front garden (even stuff previously taken).

Although this was a bit of a set-back, it was an even more tricky shop when trying to avoid food items we would normally buy not available in a recyclable form. Such as Alpro yoghurts. Tweeting about it directly to Alpro was very satisfying:

Alpro were very positive, they may even have something in development for June 2018! We did have trouble finding toilet rolls in paper packaging, all the supermarkets we went to use a plastic film that is not recyclable. We even had a look at other supermarkets in the area in case they had something; Tesco, Aldi and the Co-op. Nothing. This was our first compromise; day 12 of the challenge and we had little choice as we were totally out of supplies!

This was a great response on Twitter:

So we will certainly be prepared next June! We found Morrisons the best for frozen food packaging (cardboard boxes rather than sleeves with plastic/film lid inside). Lidl was the only one to supply brown paper grocery bags for bread (even though plastic supplied for loose veggies). Only the Co-op sell recycled toilet paper; and this is in a plastic package. This is shocking. All of the supermarkets need to be a bit more plastic-conscious; people always agree and usually have a positive comment about the habitat of wildlife so it is really should be  a case of ‘the customer is always right’. If a supermarket wants to be the first to put environment as priority they need to take adapt Greenpeace’s solutions for plastic packaging:

  1. Prioritise reusable packaging and develop systems based on reuse
  2. Make sure packaging is 100 percent recycled, as well as recyclable or compostable
  3. Share information about the plastic they use, reuse and recycle, so progress can be measured
  4. Support bottle deposit return schemes, where a small deposit is added to the cost of packaged drinks, which can be reclaimed when the container is returned.

Further: Get involved

Try the #plasticchallenge next June and support the Marine Conservation Society’s efforts – information here.

Greenpeace is leading the way in a campaigning against plastic waste; targeting one of the worst global offenders: Coca-cola. Sign their petition to affect change at Coke here or donate for their plastic appeal here.

Advice from EatDrinkBetter on reducing food packaging here (image at top credited to this website).


 

Art lesson resource: Split pin characters

Here is an extended task to go with the animation project we normally do with Year 7. This is actually suitable (with adaptation) for Year 5 or 6. Some of this is fairly straight forward but does require some technical know-how. I will include an example character resource below.

What you will need

  • Cereal boxes or thin white card
  • Scissors
  • Choice of colour technique; paint, felt tips etc.
  • Split pins (essential)
  • Green cloth
  • Camera
  • Computer to create final cartoon

Inspiration

Still image from Ivor the Engine

To accompany the many types and methods of animation, it is worth showing students Oliver Postgate’s work, especially Ivor the Engine.

The story behind the artist and Smallfilms:

Method

There are many templates for split pin characters (here is a split pin model free resource), however, for Year 7 we like to get students to develop their own ideas in a sketchbook. These can be story related or based on characters by Sjors Vervoort like ours. Here you can see development of my example character; a cheeky fox.

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Next transfer the character outline to card (use thin card like cardboard cereal boxes as easier to cut with scissors). Use an appropriate method to add colour but remember to separate arms, legs and head or any moveable parts!

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Cut out each part carefully. Make a pilot hole using a compass at each split pin position. Attach the split pin carefully. As you can see from the example, I painted the tops of each split pin to match the background colour.

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Photograph against your green cloth in a well lit room. Change positions of limbs etc to suggest movement in each frame/photo. Transfer the set of images into the movie editor of your choice or use an app like Doink on iOS.

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I used iMovie and followed this simple green screen tutorial. I have added a bit of music and sound effects just for fun but this is only supposed to be a screen test. The real fun is getting the students to make their own!