Thursday 26 September 2002

Deflecting reality

Joseph Duemer asks:

how come most of the personification I see in student poems—which I think are a fairly good representation of the culture at large—strike me as sentimental, which is to say, untrue? Is it only because the personifications—of wind, sun, moon—are so often cliches, or is there some further deflection of reality taking place?

Steve Himmer suggests a reason:

I wonder if it’s an issue of students having the poetic tools they’ve absorbed from the canon—the nature imagery, weather, etc.—but not cutting close enough with them to the experiences they’re trying to represent. So those standard devices are rendered unable to stand in for anything except what they actually are.

When I taught photography, the photographs taken by first year students were—with very few exceptions—sentimental clichés. Finally, at the beginning of a new school year, I suggested to the other instructors a strategy for addressing the problem. We drafted a flyer and posted it on all the notice boards in the department. It read:

For this semester, the following subjects are declared off-limits to first-year photography students:

  • Closeups of bark on tree trunks
  • Shadows cast by sunlight streaming though a blind
  • Grizzled old men with silvery whiskers
  • Coils of wet rope on sand
  • Toddlers with ice cream smeared on their faces
  • Nudes
  • Grainy pictures printed on high contrast paper
  • Portraits in which the subject stares at the camera
  • Slow exposures of water running over rocks
  • Unmade beds

These subjects have been photographed so much over the past few years that they are exhausted and in need of a holiday. We expect to see them back, refreshed and enthusiastic, in six months time.

For a few weeks, the students were bereft. They’d imagined that photography consisted of re-photographing the photographs they’d seen in books and magazines. But many of them rose to the challenge, freed themselves from their habitual seeing, and started to observe the world afresh. The photographs they made were marvellous.

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