Concerning the History of Photography

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Welcome to our first (of hopefully many!) student blog post, brought to you by Digital Photography student IRA AIKMAN, who talks us through his process on some of his recent projects for the History of Photography course.

One of the strengths of the Professional Photography program offered at CAT is the quality and diversity of course content. This equates to a well-rounded, complete understanding of both the technical and creative facets that make photography so compelling and fulfilling. From learning the principles of camera operation, lighting essentials, post production, as well as each professional photographic category, students progress through learning the tools and thought process required to move from taking to making photographs. One course in particular that I feel is a stand out is the History of Photography.

Upon hearing that they’ll have to take a history class, most students likely tune out and assume that they’ll have to endure a dry and boring lecture series rather than the immersive hands on experience that the other classes offer. The good news it, they couldn’t be more wrong. Victor Poirier, who is an instructor and department head of both the photography and film departments at CAT, takes students through the masters of photography and how their photographs shaped, and were shaped by, the world around them. These images offer social change or commentary that created a timeless impact. We have the luxury of studying their work today with the benefit of hindsight, to become better photographers, artists, and visionaries.

Not only does this class offer a lecture component that exposes the student to a new world and the opportunity for deep discussion concerning any of the photographers or time periods covered, the best part is the practical application of the course content. History of Photography is not simply a passive learning experience, rather one where the student is expected to create emulations from one of the photographs studied each week. Students take either inspiration from or try their best to recreate a photograph that was presented in class. The following week, students show their work in a class critique. This allows them to showcase their work to the group, as well as garner further understanding of what works or perhaps needs improvement. Having the opportunity to show your work and receive constructive feedback, is truly the best way to learn and grow quickly as a photographer.

Above all this, it’s also super fun to be faced with an exciting new photographic challenge every week. One that forces you to expand your creativity, and strive to be better than your previous submission. Also, you get to get inside the heads of the masters of the craft and recreate the pieces that they are famous for. To understand and emulate their lighting, composition, and subject matter only improves one’s ability as a photographer to start seeing differently, and makes clear how you can take pieces from the classes in the program, to begin taking your photographs to the next level. There are no rules, other than make good and interesting photographs. This allows students the freedom to get as creative as they like. I’ll share briefly two of my first emulations of the semester.

Edward Steichen’s “Avocados” from 1930 seemed like a simple still life to tackle for my first assignment. Well, that was wishful thinking.

What appears to be a quick shot of a couple of avocados in a bowl turned into hours of trying to get as close to the original composition as possible. This was followed by working the photo in post processing to achieve certain characteristics that only a photograph shot on film ninety years ago possesses, was a lot of work. Through the process though, I was able to learn so much from both the technical and aesthetic qualities of recreating the original photo that I simply would not have learned without this class.

Two photos of avocados, one by Edward Steichen from 1930, and a remake by Ira Aikman from 2020.
‘Avocados’ | Left: Steichen (1930) ; Right: Ira Aikman (2020)

I also chose to emulate Alexander Rodchenko’s famous “Steps” photograph for our class on constructivism. My goal for this emulation was to attempt to include two of the mediums that Alexander Rodchenko had incorporated in his career – both his graphic design and photographic work, as well as the construction of art.

His images were stripped of any unnecessary details, an emphasis on diagonal composition, as well as movement of his subjects in space.

With the desire to portray both his photographic and graphic design work, I turned my focus to a thought I had while studying Rodchenko’s photos, that of “clipped highlights.”

My emulation is a result of cutting by hand, from a sheet of white paper, the highlight regions of his original image. These were then backed with black card to express the shadows, followed by photographing the subject on a sheet of glass placed over top, while trying to capture the movement and aesthetic of his original work.

‘Cut out’ background for replicating photo.
Two photographs of stairs in high contrast with a figure on them; one is the original by Alexander Rodchenko, the other a remake by Ira Aikman.
‘The Stairs’ | Left: Alexander Rodchenko (1929) ; Right: Ira Aikman (2020)

These two photographs are just another example of work that I wouldn’t or couldn’t make before enrolling in the photography program at CAT. For any prospective student looking at the program, take it from me, this school offers both great instruction and the ability to learn the craft, preparing you to enter the world of professional photography miles ahead of where you’d be otherwise. The best part is, you’ll have a great time doing it.

Self-portrait: Ira Aikman
Self-portrait: Ira Aikman

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