Photography and Sound Collaboration / Suzanne Makol

This past fall I worked with teaching artist Nick Jaffe in a Peer to Peer exchange program at Marwen, where I teach photography to middle school students after school. It was a valuable program where we visited each other’s classes, made observations, and had in-depth conversations about our particular approaches, ways to improve/innovate, and about teaching artist work in general. Aside from getting a better understanding of how we work, it also gave us the idea of getting our students to collaborate in their art making process. Conveniently, we would be teaching the same night of the week during the winter term.

I was teaching a 6-8th grade darkroom photography course that involved making photograms and using hot lights to take pictures indoors (due, at least in part, to the fact that Chicago winters can be brutally cold and there would be no sun in the late afternoon). Nick was teaching a high school sound art class, in which students used recorded and appropriated sound to make their own compositions. We wondered what would happen if our students were exposed to each other’s art making.  Because we wanted to leave the potential collaborations open rather than forced, Nick and I decided to approach it as a multi-media exquisite corpse of sorts, and see how far it went.

It made sense for my photo students to go first in the collaboration because we would be making photograms early on in the class. (A photogram is an image made without a camera, usually by placing objects on photo paper in the darkroom and then exposing it to light. Man Ray is an artist well known for making photograms.) Photograms tend to be abstract and dreamlike, so we thought they would work well as inspirations for sound (or other) artwork. After the second week of making photograms, we invited Nick’s sound art students to take a look at our work so far. They were then invited to choose a photogram if they desired to use it as inspiration for a sound piece. A handful of Nick’s students chose to go for it.

Sound art student Mehak Haleez made a piece inspired by this photo by student Gustavo Reyes. Mehak’s sound piece picks up on the mysterious floating body in Gustavo’s photo by incorporating echoing voices and slow creepy guitar.

After a couple of weeks of Nick’s students working on their sound pieces inspired by photograms, I shared one the sound works of student Kenaya Howard. The photogram piece she worked from was made by placing string on the photo paper. The photogram image is high energy; some parts have a denser amount of string, making those parts lighter than others since they block out more of the light from hitting the paper. Kenaya’s sound piece did a good job of mirroring the texture and erratic nature of the photogram. For me, listening to it resembles the intensity of a windy day in the city.

I gave my students the option of using a sound piece by any of Nick’s students to then make a photograph, but no one pursued it. I think there are several reasons for this. My photography students were middle schoolers, while Nick’s high school students were more mature and more able to make independent decisions like this. My class was also more physically sporadic: one week students were making photograms, the next they were photographing lighting setups, and the next they were making traditional photographic prints from negatives. This hectic atmosphere gave less time for long-term projects, since they were experimenting with such different aspects of photography.

Nick and I were happy with what came out of the collaboration, and like I mentioned we didn’t want it to feel forced. One of the unexpected aspects that came out of it was how the students naturally had a desire to see how students in the other class worked in that particular medium. My photo students observed and learned from how the sound students worked, and listened to their sound pieces. Some of Nick’s students checked out the darkroom process and even made a few photograms themselves. In the future I would love to try out more collaborations like this, and see if we could push them even further, especially if there is a common theme that would help tie the mediums together even more. But even without a specific theme, I love the idea of having an open door between two studio art classes and seeing what happens.

Here is a link to the sound pieces, which include those students that collaborated with the photo students:

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