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Saturday, July 01, 2006

Feet Are Optional

A long time ago I taught photography in a very tony prep school, the kind of place where very driven, accomplished, successful people spend appalling amounts of money to send their kids. To give you a general idea, not long ago I found a sketch of one of the school's former students in the "Talk of the Town" section of The New Yorker, and happened across another presenting news on ABC. Some of their parents' names I'm sure you would recognize.

So, anyway, I discovered something curious early on: the kids who did well in photography and the kids who didn't were turned upside-down vis-a-vis the school's usual hierarchy of achievement. Many of the best photography students came from among the school's rebels and outcasts, the low-achievers and the marginalized. Many of the school's academic hotshots, by contrast, didn't fare well in my classes.

The reason? I came to believe that it was because success in art is a "no-no-no-no-no-yes" proposition, whereas success in, say, math is a "yes-yes-yes-yes-yes-yes-yes and it better be learned in the right order too" proposition. The kids who functioned at a high level in terms of the school as a whole were simply uneasy with my assignments.

I'll give you an example. Once, I assigned a class to shoot a roll of film over a weekend. "What do you want us to shoot?" came the chorus. Anything, I answered. Whatever you want.

Well, this was good enough for a lot of them (one girl hustled out exclaiming, "I'm leaving now before he changes his mind!"), but a few of the kids stayed behind. "What do you really want," asked one, "because I know you don't want just anything. We'll come in here on Monday and you'll tell us what we should have shot." I managed to convince the stragglers that the assignment really was open, that it wasn't a trick, that they weren't going to be judged. But one girl, a high-flyer who eventually went off to Yale and glory, wasn't having it. "You have something in mind," she insisted. "I'm not leaving until you give me the real assignment!"

"Okay," I said, "You have to shoot 36 frames, each one different, and your feet must be in each picture."

"What?!?" she snorted, "I'm not doing THAT!"

"Too late now," I said sweetly. She returned on Monday, grimly, with 36 pictures of her feet, for which she got an "A." (And I didn't hear from her parents, although I certainly might have.)

What these straight-A kids wanted was for me to set the terms of their success for them. They wanted me to set up the hoop so they could jump through it for me. They wanted to be told how they could be certain of success. It was what they encountered everywhere else. But what I wanted was for them to set up their own hoop, or, better yet, look askance at the hoop and go, "Nah, not today," and wander off somewhere and see what they could find. The fact is, you need to fail a lot if you want to succeed as an artist. That's why the kids who were used to failing weren't fazed by my classes: they weren't threatened by the idea of falling flat on their faces 90% of the time. The good students definitely were.

Accordingly, here (drum roll, please) are my Official Rules of Photography:

1. Feet are optional.

2. Never stop trying to lower your hit rate.

3. Resist your Inner Dork: stop thinking about rules.*


*Unless, of course, you want to.


Blogger PatrickPerez said...

Rule #2, never stop trying to lower your hit rate. That one gave me a good big grin. Almost like a koan in it's seeming paradox.

5:23 PM  
Blogger Rookie Mama said...

I am a new reader and plan to be back.

6:21 PM  
Blogger S Bowen said...

In my youth, someone told me that life is a series of "flaming hoops" - we all seemingly must jump through some to survive in society, but jumping through all of them may leave one with a life that's sterile and not one's own.

6:41 PM  
Blogger John Bates said...

You know, it's funny, but this discussion has stirred me to think about my days in my one photography class, at a tony prep school.

I loved that class. I loved exploring. I loved taking pictures. I even (god help me) loved the darkroom. We didn't talk about rules. We talked about what we liked, and how to make good prints.

That was my one art class, ever. When I told my parents I was going to take Photography II, they got quiet. Then they said no. They seemed to think that being a photographer might not be the *best* career choice for me, and they seemed afraid that *two* art classes might be enough to contaminate me beyond repair.

It's been twenty years. I still haven't forgiven them.

Would it surprise you to know, Mike, that straight-A math students in high school rarely make good mathematicians? That once you pass the rote learning approach that is the prelude to *real* math, it is the rebels and the outcasts who excel?

6:48 PM  
Blogger Ted said...

The feet story reminds me of a bit from Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (sp?). A student is unable to write anything. The teacher diagnoses the problem as the student trying to be to say too much about too general a subject. The prescription: an assignment to write about a specific building, starting with the upper left hand brick. When confronted with a specific detail (be it a brick or a foot), the student's block was broken.

Ironically it's often easier to find the universal in the specific and concrete than in the general and abstract.

10:16 PM  
Blogger Geoff said...


11:17 PM  
Blogger Mathys said...

Rule number 1: Follow the rules of photography
Rule number 2: Ignore rule number 1

12:24 AM  
Blogger Scott Kirkpatrick said...

36 feet as an assignment is not a bad idea. How did she do? And have you used it since?

At least it causes you to look in new directions.

3:23 AM  
Blogger Ian Rees said...

The mutually exclusive nature of analytical and artistic talents (except in the rarest of individuals..) is hardly news.. I have many artist friends who would faint if I tried to describe in great detail the algorithms I use in my research. :) I've accepted I can never be a great artist, I don't have the creative energy for it, but it sure is fun to try, and sometimes I feel I produce something reasonably good.

4:31 AM  
Blogger Kevin said...

You could also be seeing differences in global vs sequential learning styles.

Some people (like me) need to know the big picture before they can proceed. Others need the steps laid out and grok the big picture later.

I don't know if artists tend to be one ot the other. My guess would be that most artists are global thinkers, but I'm sure it could go either way.

7:44 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

Good story, Mike.

But I think that it illustrates something more fundamental: not all photography is alike and not all photographers are alike. What works for us is not likely to be what works for someone else.

Maybe we should just quit worrying about whether someone else is using rules or not, and just do whatever it is that works for us.

11:40 AM  
Blogger mzsupa5 said...

As a "tony" myself I am curious to know what it means adjectivally. (product of a minor English public school as a local council scholarship student, is that tony?)

11:59 AM  
Blogger Hugo said...

What about a cropping/composition mini-test? Take any image in high resolution and find the most interesting crop that occupies say half of the total image. The possibilities from a single images are endless. Will people generally prefer the same composition?

1:44 PM  
Blogger allankh said...

A wonderful little bit of wisdom. Thank you!

4:21 PM  
Blogger paul bk said...

Drive for success..? Fear of failure..? Sounds like cultural artifacts. I don’t think it’s that simple. It’s a deeper difference, more organic (brain structure, hardwiring). I’m a 58 year old engineer with more than a few years submerged in a nuclear submarine, much of it thinking about this subject exactly. Mostly in an effort to understand artistic thinking. Conclusion, artist don’t think when in creative mode. They do something else, but it’s not what I call thinking. It’s closer to impetuous musing.

I enjoy art, all kinds, and love photography. And now that I have more time, photography has become a consuming passion. But an engineer’s passion it not an artist’s passion. I was born a geek and will die one. It’s literally in my DNA. My passion is to understand. (Why are leaves green? How do magnets work?..) An artist’s passion is to express what can not be accessed from the conscious mind. And that’s the mystery.

I agree with your rules. Engineers need them. Artists don’t.

4:28 PM  
Blogger Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Great article. There is a very basic different between people who always play by the rules and others.
I've blogged this at

4:53 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

ton·y also ton·ey (tō'nē) pronunciation
adj. Informal., -i·er, -i·est.

Marked by an elegant or exclusive manner or quality: a tony country club.

[From TONE.]

—American Heritage English Dictionary

4:59 PM  
Blogger Joe Reifer said...

What is it about the foot methodology that is just so irresistible?

1:34 PM  

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