> Hybridity and Digital Transformations
> New Beginnings and Mediations
> The Generative Photographic Landscape
> ‘Open’ A Refreshing and Reinvigorating Way to Learn
> A Bricolage Approach to Education
> Publishing as a Fluid Process
> Node into the Network
> The Compass Analogy
Jonathan Shaw is Co-Director of the Disruptive Media Learning Lab and Associate Head of Media Department (Innovation, Profile & Research) at Coventry University. As a photographer he has been described as being part of an early generation of artists responsible for the emergence of a new school of photography which blurs the boundaries between the still and moving image. He has produced three publications, Crash (2009), (re)collect (2006) and Time|Motion (2003).
Jonathan led the team which pioneered free and open photography educational resources at Coventry University; the classes picbod.org & phonar.org have been accessed by thousands of people worldwide; the apps developed have been called groundbreaking; the Photographic Mediations collection he curated had in excess of a million listens. As an Adobe Education Leader, Jonathan forms part of their worldwide community championing creativity in education. He was awarded a Direct Fellowship of Royal Photographic Society (RPS) for his achievements in the field of photography, and a Fellowship of the RSA, in recognition for his work in Photography education practices.
Hybridity and Digital Transformations
The photography community, as with any other, rightfully encompasses many different opinions on what makes a good practitioner. However, I am sure there would be commonality in the following skills; the ability to pre-visualise the frame, the technical negotiation of the apparatus with the simultaneous control of light, and finally understanding (or predicting) the resulting effects onto a chemically enhanced material – plate, then film/paper and now semi-conductor. If the large scale photographic fairs are indicative, it may also be true to say that there is also a deep-rooted ‘geek’ strand built into our DNA, fetishizing photographic innovation and technology. This trait is part of what drives our technical innovation even if the boundary between ‘early adopter’ and obsessive is often hard to discern. Two of the most exciting elements that have sustained my engagement and practice with photography are, first the fact that since its genesis as a media form it has burgeoned with innovation, and second that our community has always exhibited a thriving entrepreneurial spirit. Historically, the development of the photographic industry had fairly rapidly slipped through the hands of the specialist (gatekeepers) to the amateur (mass market). Even within the past 5-10 years we have seen the apparatus reunited with its long lost child, the moving image, after (arguably), having given birth to it many years ago. Most recently and significantly, a ‘lens’ that has become algorithmic, networked, location aware and socially connected, has disrupted the photographic evolutionary timeline. It is this fundamental paradigm shift and the pace with which it has occurred that both photographers and photography generally appear to be struggling to come to terms with, or keep abreast of, whilst simultaneously revelling in it. My initial encounter with the ‘digital’ resulted from an interest with memory and virtual reality. “From the messages our senses receive, the mind perceives that we live within a physical reality. Interestingly, some of the things we naturally recall, presume and assume as being reality, can only be understood as mediated representations of that reality ? e.g. our memories, which are physical/chemical, yet are not direct referents of events as such, but are representations of our perceptions of the event.” Whilst being drawn towards the digital/virtual as an idea, I was equally frustrated on a practical level with the inflexibility of the physical mechanics for reproduction and distribution. ‘Reflections on time, motion and photomechanics’, described how the negatives I produced did not conform to ‘standardised’ dimensions of the film frame. My negatives were exposed using a personally cannibalised twin-lens reflex camera, re-constructed to create a single image (frame) the entire length of a roll of medium format film. To reproduce these negatives as printed physical objects, at a commercially viable scale, required further engineering engagement. Two months later, with the input and patience of a very kind mechanical engineer, I constructed an enlarger that would simultaneously expose and move the negative and paper proportionally to produce prints that were 50cm (20”) high and anything in the region of 10m (33’) long. In many ways I now see this work as pre-figuring the kind of ‘bending of the frame’ that characterises much digital work. During the late 1990s and early 2000s (pre-social and fully-connected media) photographer’s artworks were often shared with potential clients or venues by mailing out a set of 35mm transparencies or slides. These had an approximate image size of 24mm x 35mm which meant once re-photographed the long panoramic format of my work when represented in this ‘slide’ format was a visually illegible two millimetre high representation. In total it took four years to transform that two millimetre high product into a viable professional practice. The following four years (post-digital), the emergence of (high-end) scanning and reproduction, released the potential of that work, in the form of prints, album covers, immersive installations, interactive media and even the production of ‘massive’ whole building-scale hoardings. Most importantly, (and admittedly only something I realise with the benefit of hindsight) I believe it was that struggle and experimentation, which led to my hybrid solutions, marrying both the analogue and digital technologies, that remains at the heart of my thinking today.
New Beginnings and Mediations
“…a process of turning experience into learning, that is, a way of exploring experience in order to learn new things from it.” The next chapter in my story was set in motion during the early part of 2007, with a desire to explicitly explore ideas on the 21st century photographer, and how might we learn as a small community of practitioners. To address this, we wrote and then the following year launched our new undergraduate photography programme, coincidentally the same year Facebook reached its first 100 million users. At that time, and unfortunately still today, in some corners of the photographic education community we hear the un-reconstructed murmurings – people being divided into; the analogue or the digital, the fine art or commercial, truth or enhancement, the theory or practical camps. These were not the interesting debates for us, nor truly the pertinent questions affecting or influencing lens based media. As a reaction to the sterility of those false polarities I organised, together with Gary Hall and Joanna Zylinska, a gathering entitled “Photographic Mediations”. This small and intimate symposium was our first, collective-collaborative attempt to locate ourselves within – and perhaps to understand how to navigate – this rapidly evolving landscape. The recordings from the symposium were converted into a series of freely available podcasts, and it was in this space that we noticed something special occurring, the scale of their popularity indicated we were not alone in our mission. We continued on our quest, asking more questions, inviting more people to share their thoughts, each time openly sharing the content online for free. Within two years more than a million people had ‘tuned-in’ and listened to the Photographic Mediations collection. As the team expanded and matured we were gradually introduced to and sought out others who, in their own ways, were also exploring radical thinking and writing on photography. In particular, academics such as Fred Ritchin in New York, Daniel Rubinstein and Katrina Sluis in the UK, who amongst others were expressing ideas on the impact of photography in digital culture. Work which enabled those concerned for the future of photography to think more broadly about the visual’s relationship to the Web as a networked image and what exactly post or hyper-photography might mean for the contemporary practitioner.
The Generative Photographic Landscape
The stream of headlines perpetuating the buzz around the ‘digital in photography’ continue. Stories on the avalanche of images uploaded by the millisecond to the multitude of social media platforms on which they are shared, or the scares about the privacy and security breeches at government level affecting our individual freedom, whose ramifications continue to expand. What is fundamental for the sector to reflect on is the scale of this change and its impact upon the creative industries workforces. The economic disruption engendered by this ‘digital’ disruption can be exemplified by Facebook’s purchase of Instagram in 2012 for an incredible $1billion. Instagram as the new style photography business had a mere 13 employees when it was sold; whereas the equivalent pre-digital (ironically digital camera inventors) and now recently demised Eastman Kodak had over 100,000 employees at its height. As participants, creators and stakeholders it is important that we capitalize on, rather than fear, the shift in power enabled by this technologically driven change. It seems that we exist in a world where anyone with access to a smart camera-phone has the ability to make an image to a technically proficient standard and almost instantaneously distribute that same image across a free global network for either personal, or commercial gain. This is clearly one of the motivating factors behind Getty Images recent announcement, making 35 million of its images freely available for non-commercial use. Olivier Laurent claims this has “single-handedly redefined the entire photography market”. Presented with this stark paradigm shift, we need to ask what it means and what are the implications for photographers practising now? A mind-set attuned to these contemporary challenges must seek out and absorb new approaches to photography; as a practice and profession, to the photograph as an object and to the exploration of its ability to communicate, beyond the conceptions and traditions outlined by figures such as John Szarkowski in his 1964 exhibition “The Photographer’s Eye”. All those interested in photography’s future, need to re-explore the fundamental questions of photography beyond the ‘two-dimensional object’ ? where the purpose and role of the ‘image’ has to be considered within its increasingly personalised, connected, transient and mediated technological contexts. The purpose here is not to propose that such approaches are wholly, radically ‘new’. We should remind ourselves of the striking similarity between what George Eastman claimed for his new camera: that, “You push the button, we do the rest”; and then shift forward by 100 years and see essentially the same statement, (updated in the context of the ‘professionalisation’ of the mobile image) by Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger. The importance here is that if, we accept, in principle, that the creative, critical, entrepreneurial and technical skills have been, and remain constant requirements of photography as a practice and that there has been a continuing trend in innovation and technological development present throughout the last century, then the variable left ripe for change is our approach and mind-set as practitioners, educators and professionals. Photography and photography education need to cherish the contemporary moment (that of the multiplicity of the photographic) and perhaps consider the pluralities and inconsistencies embodied within its current forms, as well as in its emerging history. If our analogue ‘preference bubble’ has burst; this is a moment of uncertainty and it would be easy, but damaging, to revert to a position of resistance, forging a separate path towards conservation and isolation. To paraphrase Doug Aitken from his aptly entitled ‘Broken Screen’ book published in 2006, the practitioners who are going to help build and collectively shape this new generative landscape will be stepping into the turbulence of modern life rather than standing in the calm centre of the hurricane.
‘Open’ A Refreshing and Reinvigorating Way to Learn
Howard Rheingold commented, in 2011 Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun at Stanford University shook up educational institutions by opening their doors to their ‘Introduction to Artificial Intelligence’ class, offering it as an interactive MOOC (Massively Open Online Class). Two years earlier in the back of a converted cinema in the UK, Jonathan Shaw and photography educators Jonathan Worth and Matt Johnston sought to enhance student engagement with photography and connect them with their wider professional networks, had explored a similar idea from perhaps a more progressive stand-point, allowing the world to peer into their classroom. In 2009 the course at Coventry University piloted ‘#picbod’ (an abbreviation for Picturing the Body), a ten-week open photography class, taught by Jonathan Worth with second year undergraduate students. Later that same year the photography team expanded, recruiting Matt Johnston, a social media consultant and photographer, to help develop its final year counterpart ‘#phonar’ (Photography and Narrative). The open classes continue to be a core part of a wider set of disruptive initiatives that form the fabric of the department, the breadth of which has been cited by governance agencies and described as revealing the potential of higher education’s future. This approach is driven by the desire to reveal and facilitate the individual learner’s practice and to explore the potential of visual storytelling using a medium in perpetual technological motion. In itself this is not that new, but the real game changer is the resulting collaboration in a live, mentored and open space with the class (lecturers and learners) in direct dialogue with its wider external community of interest. It is important both on a philosophical and practical level that the online elements of the classes live within the existing networked ecology of the Web, using free and open access tools and platforms. Living offshore from the university’s closed virtual learning environment provides the agility for experimentation necessary for the dramatically evolving landscape. The classes are best understood as a hybrid activity with content accessed via the class blogs. These spaces act as a ‘hub’ for both on-campus students who attend the face-to-face class and the wider community of external visitors and participants. Delivered across ten weeks through a range of practical and thematic tasks, material is shared across a range of social media platforms. The blog is curated and produced by a course team, designed as a rich resource and a motivational space for engagement and learning. The hub is a single port of call, providing ease of access, to read, watch and share all material before the classroom doors are open. The use of curation tools, such as Storify, enable the staff and students to co-create research material in the form of related hyperlinks, commentary, or potential questions, as well as annotated critique. The approach, of sharing before opening the door has firmly put to bed the fear that an open approach will engender poor attendance, it allows learning to take place at the speed determined by the learner and has positively encouraged participation to continue way beyond the scheduled in-class time. Employing the language characteristics of the digital ecology, the implementation of the ‘#’ has enabled lecturers and learners to independently filter and draw out research and conversations from wider streams of networked consciousness, published by the on and off campus class community. These new connected and collective conversations hugely enrich, and add a crucial dimension to, the original content authored by the team. Viewed in the extreme, this methodology enables the syllabus to exist as a co-authored script, curated by the academic, but produced by the collective exchange and effort of the learning community. The shift to envisioning the class as a hub, which by its very definition forms the effective centre of activity, is a change in ethos. The lecturer-learner relationship becomes one associated with and connected by trust. The associated educational resources are freely available, openly licensed and produced in a range of formats. This offers flexibility for different learning styles and location mobility ? learning may be taking place, on the train, in the studio or even up a mountain! As one student, Daisy Ware-Jarret put it, “…by reaching further afield, the feedback you get is likely to be richer and more diverse, helping you to see new angles and make faster progress.” This way of working provides the opportunity for our immediate community of learners inside the university to connect with a much wider and distributed asynchronous network – which includes other students, academics of other universities, professional photographers and interested amateurs. Similarly with the adoption of this mind-set new relationships can be brokered across both the enthusiast and professional photographic communities, creating opportunities for dialogue in a shared and open environment. The emphasis here, to paraphrase another student, Sean Carroll, in an interview for a co-sponsored project with Sony Ericsson, is on the discipline/practice itself, rather than on controlling statements, or the enforcement of authority that would have traditionally existed between the lecturer-professional-student community. This diversity of connectivity and communication equally acts as a draw for new collaborators to engage with our on-campus students alongside the remote students and wider audience, this continually extends the professional networks and connections of the class as a whole.
A Bricolage Approach to Education
“You just can’t keep up? Of course not.” It is at least arguable that the biggest disruption facing educators is not caused by the global economic crisis itself, or even the failure of vision of any particular government, but the one housed by the behemoth server farms and the global content producers of the Internet. We are in the midst of an educational system in which knowledge is being liberated from scarcity; previously the scholar’s role was to offer authoritative elucidation on the (rare and inaccessible) book to the privileged few. Today in the new ecology of ‘knowledge’ abundance, we have the potential to educate the masses – our problem is keeping up with and deciding what content to educate them about. The danger in this scenario for the educator, results from the pressures felt by the increased expectations and requirement of the educational system. In 2012 the UK introduced £9k fees per year for Bachelor’s degree study, although not on the same exorbitant scale experienced in elite colleges in the US, this has had a significant impact on the relationship with our students and their expectations of the desired/expanded roles we now perform. The relevance of our roles as educators should be at the forefront of our minds, in todays distributed world, where knowledge can be unlocked both textually and visually with a simple gesture on your mobile device. The 2012/3 “Google Search App: Interview” commercial serves nicely as a demonstration of this in action. The scene opens with the nervous interviewee looking desperately around their interviewer’s office perhaps looking for clues on the impending encounter. It is the moment he sees what we are led to believe is a ‘treasured’ picture on the rear wall that ‘Google our hero’ comes to the rescue. The lens of the camera, acting as the eyes of Google’s visual recognition software provides the all-important details about the castle in the picture. As the interviewer enters the room the interviewee empowered by this new knowledge is able to seamlessly engage in conversation and build a relationship of ‘trust’ with what one would assume would become his future employer. It is important to understand that I am not presenting this scenario to suggest the demise of the educators role – replaced by the algorithm, or software device, but more that this image should act as a positive motivator for us to consider what we teach and how we should teach to ensure that the learning we provide is fit for purpose in the 21st century. This shift is away from delivery (broadcast) of content towards creative collaboration, curation and re-appropriation. The benefit of openly, collaboratively and collectively seeking to find new questions has not only been liberating but, without doubt improved our teaching practices; the Media department has moved up 52 places in the Guardian League tables in the last four years and created new and previously unobtainable international opportunities for Coventry students; e.g. Marta Kochanek’s exclusive internship with Annie Leibovitz. The adoption of this new, or perhaps more accurately defined, alternative mind-set has certainly re-energised the breadth of our practices at Coventry. Working with an Open Media policy, authored by Dr. Shaun Hides in 2009, the Media Department has foregrounded five key traits that we seek to embody in our academic life, to be; Tactical, Sustainable, Engaged, Visible and Collaborative. This has under-pinned the renovation of our teaching spaces and the teaching experiments we have undertaken. Within the Centre for Disruptive Media we have been successful recipients of various external research grants that have enabled us to extend our reach across a range of digital media learning initiatives, including; the production of ‘Living books about Life’ a series of open access and editable online books by Professor Gary Hall and others, the development of a suite of open media classes and a number of bespoke mobile applications. We have also, advocated the ‘Re-Imagined Art School’, as part of a collaborative project with the University of the Arts. My recent talks at the UK’s Media Education Summit and at Adobe’s International Education Summit explored the idea of the ‘21st Century Art School’, passionately, arguing that “the only limit when working creatively and commercially are the limits of our imaginations!” This call to action, suggested that it is now high time for educators within the creative industries to use the insights they gain through their contemporary practice to reinvigorate their pedagogies. I shared my current thinking and practices which embody more of a bricolage methodology. For instance what would happen if we consider our roles to be that of a curator of a (open) programme comprising a range of activities, produced with a specific audience in mind? How might this shift our desire for the traditional lecture and alter our engagement with, and the participation of, our students? What would happen if we made it easier for our students to search, locate and evaluate specific content within our resources? Would this reconfigured relationship, built around purpose, move us closer to an intrinsically motivated, sharing community, would sessions in this space be ‘like-d’, ‘share-d’ or even ‘favourite-d’? Perhaps, in this engaged and positively-charged learning environment, this would influence and change how we write and produce the encounters with our resources and materials? What would happen if we created ways to filter our information, producing a ‘course programme’ taxonomy that considers our learning and social habits, offering to filter content by theme or by media type? Might we see increased comprehension of this content and more dialogue amongst students within and between our disciplines? What would happen if we partnered with external agencies offering the classroom as a ‘live’ environment in which to meet? And how might such meetings be a catalyst for understanding the changes inside and outside of the university walls?
Publishing as a Fluid Process
So far, I have already charted the journey from the origins of my practice, up the mountain that was the Photographic Mediations symposium and the short cut through the maze that is the open photography classes. It is a true privilege to have contributed to this spontaneous expedition, creating our own lines of desire which others have been able to follow and meander through. It would be difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when the seed for this particular venture was planted, but with the beauty of hindsight, the furrows were clearly being dug and the seeds planted during the process of re-visioning, some 6 years ago. New lines of desire are continually being formed through the emerging landscapes; this one entitled newfotoscapes was influenced by two pivotal moments. The first being the introduction of the ‘friends of #phonar book list’, at a time when frustration was resurgent amongst academics, based upon a perceived lack of student engagement with the carefully considered and constructed class reading lists. This book list at last count had received over 100,000 views and remains, to date, the most read entry for the open classes. The second was the ‘liquid book’ experiments of Professor Gary Hall and company – questioning and exploring the changing function of the book. “Here, what we think of as ‘publication’ – whether it occurs in ‘real time’ or after a long period of reflection and editorial review, ‘all’ at once or in fits and starts, in print-on-paper or electronic form – is no longer an end point. Publication is rather just a stage in an ongoing process of temporal unfolding.” The series of liquid, or living books are freely available online and on an open-access basis; they invite collaborative contributions and offer and enable editing rights on the part of their readership. NEWFOTOSCAPES is similarly interested in seeing the publication as a ‘process’ as it is about content, alongside a desire to explore the potential for hybrid forms of publishing. It seeks to fuse the experiential qualities afforded by the tactility of the printed book, together with the mediated experiences enabled by screen-media in the form of the agile e-publication, or the fluid and connected, online construct. It is an experiment attempting to navigate the potentiality of the photographic in the 21st century. Offering access to an interweaving series of curated dialogues, it seeks to offer simplicity rather than simplification of the increasingly complex professional landscape. It seeks to activate a new mind-set for the emerging audiences and to inspire new practices in the visualisation of our world.
Node into the Network
NEWFOTOSCAPES constitutes a node in the network, situated knowingly within the contemporary context of a, “… global economy [which] does not function in a linear manner, but is rather web-like, scattered and poly-centered.” The Web version of NEWFOTOSCAPES employs three key terms, in an attempt to explore the potential for process-orientated thinking, beyond the confines of the linear experience found within the traditional sequential, paginated and bounded leaves of the ‘book’. ‘CATALYST’ identifies the impetus for the NEWFOTOSCAPES encounters. The questions that occupy the attention of each collaborator, and which have guided their current thinking, research, practice and catalyse their engagement in this field. ‘CATALYST’ can be used as a filtering theme, allowing the online community to navigate through and across each encounter, encouraging intersections of contextual relevance. ‘ENCOUNTER’, the knowledge container encapsulated in the form of the curated transcripts with each collaborator; a space/spaces in which the reader can meet – encounter – new ideas, new dialogues and new formulations. The knowledge from these exchanges is located thematically and can therefore be simultaneously explored online alongside the associated material available under ‘CATALYST’ and ‘ANTENNAE’. ‘ANTENNAE’ is conceived, as the part of the book that can engender flow, enable adaptation, connect and response to the evolving discussions on photography which fixed ink on paper could not. Where traditionally the book is seen as the container of knowledge, condensed and bound by cloth, then Antennae can best be understood as the node into the network.
The Compass Analogy
In this first iteration of NEWFOTOSCAPES, it was important that the selection of collaborations was informed by people that were already connected to and trusted by the team within the research partnership. It was important that this group brought together a range of ‘active’ perspectives from people who are dealing with these challenges on a daily basis. Each encounter seeks to be critical, ambitious, inventive and experimental, yet equally accessible to wider audiences, raising awareness of this exciting juncture in photographic history. This collective conversation aims to act as a compass, a means of navigation, which offers the reader (amateur, curator, photographer, teacher etc.) a different perspective upon which to motivate and empower their own personal journey of curiosity and exploration. The encounters were orchestrated to wrap, connect and offer new insights upon the collaborators previous projects. The organically structured dialogue enables the reader to understand the motivations behind their work. The distinct perspective of the stakeholder offers informed perceptions on the new paths currently being trodden by photography. Lastly touching upon ideas and terrain that perhaps have not yet fully formed but are nodes stimulating their mind and vision now. For the purposes of this book the encounters that follow have been organised alphabetically with all of the conversations held within the last nine months. The majority of the original encounters were audio captured and transcribed from a range of physical and digital meetings, transcending the globe and neutralising both distance and time. The final textual encounter being co-produced and mutually agreed through a critical and reflective exchange.