Photographic Treasures | Suzanne Makol

This summer I taught a darkroom photography class for 6-8th grade students at Marwen in Chicago, IL. The class was called Photographic Treasures in the City, with the idea that as a photographer, you must train your eye to look for captivating details when you are out with your camera.

This mindset is often the way I think about photography: whether or not you have a specific idea in mind when you go out shooting, your eye has to be able to seek out details that will make your photographs worth taking a closer look at. These details can be the way light hits the side of a person’s face, a pop of color in a drab landscape, or the shape made by two trees. After finding your “treasure,” you must also remember to consider how everything fits into your composition before you click the shutter.

In the first few sessions of Photo Treasures, I gave the students assignments that helped them train their eye and build technical capacity.  Since it was an analog photo class, students had to become comfortable with the manual controls of aperture and shutter speed on their cameras, as well as learn to print in the darkroom. Looking at the work of other photographers helped the students gain a sense of strong composition so they could make informed decisions rather than simply pointing their cameras in the general direction of their subject.

To focus more closely on the  idea of ‘treasures’ and help instill the mindset of photographing specific details I created a photo treasure hunt which yielded excellent results and worked on all the skills I wanted my students to develop: technique, composition, and individual creativity.

I gave each student a list of items to photograph (there were four different lists, which had some overlap, but enough different items to avoid having students copy each other’s ideas), which included a range of restraint, such as literal objects, qualities of light, perspective, and even abstract concepts.  Here are some of the items from the scavenger hunt list:

Take a photo of a person jumping in the air with a shutter speed of 1/1000.
Take a photo of a person within arms reach with a wide-open aperture.
Take a photo of a reflection.
Take a photo of a line.
Take a photo of trash.
Take a photo that follows the rule of thirds.
Take a photo that DOES NOT follow the rule of thirds.
Take a photo towards the sun.
Take a photo of a stranger posing for you.
Take a photo through a fence.
Take a photo of hands working.
Take a photo looking down from a high spot.
Take a photo of the impossible.

Unlike a typical scavenger hunt there were no right or wrong answers, and there was no literal treasure to discover. Some of the best work for the class came out of this activity, which made me think that perhaps I should give restrictive assignments more often.

I’m finding that formal restraint, or providing limits, forces creativity in a way that an open-ended project cannot. These are limits that we can either set up for ourselves as artists, or for our students as teaching artists. They can be especially helpful when the vast possibilities of what to create are overwhelming, making it difficult to figure out where to start. By being able to focus on a set agenda, my students had to figure out ways to be creative within the boundaries I set for them. I don’t think intense restrictions make sense in all situations and levels, but it can be a great way to start the creative process.

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