Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Pivot

One of the more interesting talks at this year's Northwest SPE conference was by Erik Palmer. Palmer's basic philosophy is that photographers should spend more time interfacing with social media, and less time worrying about actual photography. Things like camera operation, technique, and printing should be pushed to the back burner, or even relegated to hired staff. Instead photographers should prioritize online networking with Twitter, Facebook, etc. Palmer paused several times for naked appeals to tweet his lecture (which bore immediate fruit), and to follow him on Twitter and Tumblr .
Palmer calls this shift in priorities The Pivot, and it forms the backbone of the photo curriculum he's developing at Southern Oregon University. Students coming out of that program may not know what an f-stop is, but they will know how to structure a visually pleasing Tumblr, how to tweet in appropriate amounts without being spammy, and how to generate likes and followers across a variety of platforms.

As one might expect Palmer's talk generated a heated discussion afterword (which spilled over into my scheduled belly button lecture, but that's another topic). There were the Luddites who rejected computers as evil, the branding experts saying the internet will lead to salvation, and many opinions between. The audience consisted mostly of photo teachers. So not only were they articulate, they were on the front lines. All in all it was a great exchange.

My feeling is that Palmer is basically right. If you want to develop a career as a photographer, the actual making of photographs is relatively unimportant. Everyone makes photos now. What sets some above others is networking. So if the goal of a photography program is to convert fledgling students into successful photographers --and that's a big if-- The Pivot makes sense. Social networking tools are the most essential skills one can learn.

But let's go back to that big if. Should career development be the goal of a photo curriculum? I'm not so sure. I tend to think photo programs should concentrate on image making. Students should learn how to see, how to be curious, how to put a picture together (assuming those things can be taught). Perhaps most importantly I think schools should develop students into interesting people with rich inner lives. Because those are the people who will make strong photographs, not the folks spending all day on Twitter.

Maybe all of that that sounds pretty fluffy and Liberal Arts oriented. And maybe I'm completely wrong. Maybe photo programs should be essentially technical. It's an open question, and I'm willing to consider other views. I don't teach photography and I've only taken one photo course in my life. So I don't have the boots-on-the-ground understanding of Palmer or other professors. I just know how I interact with social media, and it's not entirely healthy.

I have sort of a love/hate relationship with blogging. Readers of B may have noticed a general increase in posting over the past several weeks, and a general decrease in the length of each post over the same period. Those trends are not unrelated. The more I post here, the more I feel obligated to post, and the less I tend to develop thoughts into longer essays. My posts tend to become short bursts, things I just thought of sharing that day but which won't necessarily stand up over time.

Maybe short thoughts are good in some ways. They're immediate and zenlike. But an entire culture of zen minds will not create much of lasting impact. When I felt my thinking compressed by B earlier this year, I had to quit blogging for a while. And I may have to do that again.

I know I could hold off and develop longer essays, then post them occasionally. That's what I'd like to do. But it's not what happens. I think there's something in the nature of blogging and all social media which favors the fleeting and the ephemeral. It values NOW. And it sucks you into that world. I don't tweet but I can imagine that Twitter is an even greater jump into that mindset, into The Pivot.

I think The Pivot is probably here to stay but it makes me nervous. With a new generation focusing on social media, where does that leave the making of photographs?


Unknown said...

I never know when I start reading one of your posts if it's going to be serious or satirical (for that matter I'm not always 100% sure after I read it), but I'm never disappointed.

If moneymaking is the goal of a photo program then networking and branding and all of those other made up almost serious words should be a part of it (I'm not a Luddite but I can see the possibility of me becoming one).

I tend to think that photography programs should teach photography, both the technical and fuzzy Liberal Arts aspects. Major in photography and minor in twitter if you'd like but learn to see first. Otherwise you're just some other asshole with nothing to say on twitterbookr

ed g. said...

There is a place for the kind of program Palmer is proposing: a business school. Students who want to learn that stuff should go to a good business school, from which they will emerge with an MBA, which will prove far more valuable than an MFA in the case where the build-your-own-media-empire thing doesn't work out.

For that matter, if Palmer taught that program at a business school, it would likely pay him much better as well.

Also, that has to be the least-interesting tumblr I've seen in the past month.

Blake Andrews said...

Interesting comments. About the serious/satirical confusion, I think not knowing is part of the fun. Who knows if this lecture really happened? I mean, I can sit here and tell you it did. But can you be sure? But then again maybe this comment itself is satirical.

About the comparison to business school, I think the essential question is how much focus should photo programs place on career development vs. making photographs. I suppose each program will have its own priorities. I think Palmer's program at SOU is probably the leading edge of a trend that we will see spread to other programs. Photography isn't alone. Many college courses of study are basically being funneled into a business model. Which probably makes sense for many students. But let's not forget the value of curiosity and basic WTF? motivation which is the root of much good art.

Stan B. said...

Too busy Pivoting to attend his lecture, had my hired staff Tweet up a storm though...

Matt Weber said...

I don't think you teach someone to see. Maybe I'm biased because I never went to school. You have an amazing eye, and I would be shocked if you told me that someone else had anything to do with your skill, which I'm pretty sure is innate...

SR said...

Haven't been able to locate actual talk content for Erik Palmer (would like to) but would certainly like to see his take on the 'pivot' that most certainly exists in image making, and therefore education in it's name, since digital capture, manipulation,and presentation became ubiquitous. What comes to mind is a pseudoquote from Bill Jay that took pride that in responding to photography professor's criticism of his work. Jay stated that photography had a pivotal role in changing recorded history and documenting humankind and therefore was much more important than it's sole value as art. As reportage and documentation by assigned or roving qualified photographers are replaced by i-phone lay reportage imagery maybe Palmer's point is well taken that the remaining art and entertainment aspects of photography may be best served by teaching graphic design and presentation if one's goal is to educate young image makers to be ' successful' in those endeavors.

As for your blog woes.... if it's any worth.... your entries are mostly eagerly anticipated and thought provoking to this photographer ...and thinking of photography is valued in my time between capturing and producing imagery.... missed your blog when it was gone.....