A conversation.

With his usual reticence to tout his own achievements – “I don’t profess to have any particular insight other than doing it for a long time,” Barry Andersen succinctly distilled the major challenges facing the role of art education and art making in contemporary society over chili the other day. Professor Barry Andersen, head of the photography department in the College of Arts and Sciences at Northern Kentucky University, began his teaching career in 1975, remaining at NKU continually through the current academic year. Beginning in the Fall of 2011, Andersen will step down as a full time instructor and teach part time in his “retirement”. During the course of his tenure, he has developed an expansive view of the role of art education in a “fluid” society and an argument for the continuing relevance of artistic vision in a world which seems to increasingly challenge its existence.

Andersen has created an extremely broad curriculum within the photo department at NKU which involves a  “Chinese menu” of photo classes  including the typical  Introductory, Intermediate and Advanced courses in using the tools of the medium to develop a personal artistic vision as well as many practical  or “applied” classes in lighting and other technical aspects of the field.  This has been done with the intent to give something the students can use to “float their boat” once they leave the program. Andersen sees less and less difference between editorial and journalistic photography and what has been traditionally called “fine art” photography. He arms his students not only with the ability to deal with “internal” or personal issues but also with the ability to meet “external” needs, or the various assignments which photographers can take on to create a career out of their art making skills.  The many tools students learn throughout their applied and fine art classes prepare them for both tracks.

Andersen sees the incredible expansion of the field of fine art photography in terms of the means by which it can be made as well as the large number of those successfully making it, as an opportunity to teach students about the “fluid” nature of the world. In the 1970’s, when fine art photography was a fledgling among the more established artistic media, “you knew everyone in the country club”.  When students learned about the tools of their trade during this time period, they experienced the “three weeks from hell” where they became fluent in the “finite” tools of their trade. At this point in photographic practices, however, the means of image making have become infinite.  Bringing students up to speed in the use of current image making technology is more like teaching an ongoing learning process by which students continually assimilate new technology as each new wave  becomes available approximately every three years or so.  While Andersen has mixed opinions about the use of technology in personal life, he sees it as an opportunity for students to experience a wider array of art than was ever before possible.

Although embracing certain aspects of new media as valuable (and others as an abhorrent waste of time) to budding photographers, Andersen sticks to his “object making” roots in terms of judging the value of a photograph or series of photographs. Having been exposed to artists like Henri Cartier Bresson, Walker Evans and Harry Callahan through traditional monographs at the University of Florida library where he was a graduate student, he sees the experience with photo books and gallery exhibits as essential to the learning process. The ability to examine a printed image which is significantly less mediated than one coming through a computer screen and the ability to contextualize images within a larger collection of works in book format or in gallery exhibits, is incredibly valuable in Andersen’s opinion. In turn, he sees the ability to produce photographic objects as the true test of a photographer’s vision and craft. For Andersen, works which have a conceptual thrust can have value, but they mainly pique his interest by virtue of their impact as objects as opposed to ideas. As examples he cited several works in the current exhibition of work from the 21C collection at the Cincinnati Art Museum. While Yinko Shonibare’s multimedia reinterpretation of a selection from Goya’s Los Caprichos may have been meant more as  contemporary satire, to Andersen these images work as beautiful photographs in a modern sense; intentionally and beautifully lit, posed, framed and printed. The renowned Chinese artist Huan Zhang’s “Raise the Water Level” project which was represented in the 21C museum exhibit by a large scale photograph of the “performance” in which Zhang placed swimmers in a pond to try to raise its level, fell flat for Andersen. In one sense, the work is an excruciating and biting commentary on the manipulation of human movements and life on a grand scale by the contemporary institution. In Andersen’s view, however, the project’s conceptual value is diminished in light of the poor quality of the printed object shown in the gallery space.

For the reader to more fully appreciate Andersen’s ideas, his own words are transcribed here.

DR – How is teaching photography different now than it was when you first started teaching?

When I started photo educators would talk about the three weeks from hell in Photo I where you were teaching them how to process film, how to use a camera, f-stops and shutter speeds, how to print and wash.  It’s longer now. It depends on the student. For some of them, they come in the door in a basic class knowing a lot, others are looking for the on button on the computer – less and less now, most of them are pretty computer savvy, maybe not so much in terms of their digital photo skill set.

So that’s changed quite a bit, the other thing that’s changed a lot is the demand on me as a faculty member. I’m constantly having to learn new software and also software for my own work. My own work had a tight skill set that I used to use, whereas I have to know a lot more to be able to answer questions. So that gets exhausting. I heard about the next “.5” that’s coming along for the next  Adobe CS and I thought, my God, I don’t want to learn more software over the summer.


DR-Do you get a sense that students now are looking for something different by majoring in fine arts or photography than they were before?

Our program has never made a big distinction between fine art and applied stuff. The people who want to earn a living in photography are not looked down on as having sold their soul. It’s sort of another avenue, and as a result of that, we have quite a lot of classes. Part of it is that they see it (commercial photography) as a possibility and like seeing their photographs used in editorial kinds of things and think that would be cool to do, so they aim that way. They know there is money to be made doing weddings, or portraits or whatever else.  That is an attainable goal for a number of them.

DR-The criticism of that idea would be that you’re maybe substituting something as part of a fine art education that arguably is not fine art.

One could say that and that’s fair because it’s not. Our students have a choice of multiple tracks. Really strong students could be a BFA in Applied or BFA in Studio Arts. They’re still going to do those applied classes, but they’re also going to do sort of a Chinese menu of all the visual arts, they’re going to get a broader background. They’re going to be more focused on solving personal problems than meeting client’s needs and those are two different things, to my mind there’s a real distinction. It’s almost a 180 degree difference. In one case you’re solving problems for someone else, someone tells you I need this done, so it is your job to solve that . On the other hand, you say no, you’re solving self assigned problems or responding to the world, talking about your relationship to one thing or another. But the more I look at it, the harder those lines are to establish. Take someone like Gene Smith, magazine photographer for Life magazine, hailed and embraced by the visual arts world. I mean, he’s at the Museum of Modern Art, and has had all kinds of accolades from the visual arts community.

If you’re doing annual reports and portraits of ceo’s in their offices it’s pretty clear what that stuff is, and again, I guess my age is part of the process, I tend to be less and less judgmental about that stuff. The more I look at that, I look at it and think, it’s not easy to photograph somebody in some kind of ugly fluorescent lit space with clutter all around and try to make them look appealing and make an interesting picture out of an awful visual environment. Good for you if you can do that. It takes a pretty big skill set .

DR – Another question on technology. Do you feel like the expansive and changing skill set required of photographers has had an inherent impact on creative problem solving for students, since they have moved into that technology?

Well, it’s hard for me to know. Things that I notice is that I think attention spans are shrinking. “Scatter brainedness” is increasing.  A sort of obsessing with social media is rampant. I mean, I use “obsessive” as a word quite carefully. I think it really is obsessive behavior.  A lot of us teach in classrooms with computers. I take a break and half the class, before I’m out the door, have Facebook popped up. For the life of me I don’t know  what’s going to change between the start of class and the end of that class or even that day that they have to check in every half hour or every hour.

There was a point in time where I was really trying to push students into using the internet and look for stuff online because it was all new, and now it’s a challenge to get a student to go to the library and get a hard copy book. I hit them over the head with this, so to speak. I tell them, you’re a photo major. There should be a photo book on your nightstand all the time. And you should be looking at photos all the time. If you’re not hungry for it now if you don’t have a fire in your belly, you’re in trouble.


DR – To play devil’s advocate, why should I ever go to the library? Why should I ever go to a museum? I can get my work out on flickr. Why can’t I be a fine artist and never make a print or see a print? Isn’t that the state  of being a fine artist now. We went through this phase of using all these tools then we went through a stage of getting away from making objects, so what’s wrong with that?

My response is yes, yes, yes and yes.  You can do all of that. It depends on to what end, who’s your audience, what you are trying to accomplish. If you want to have a lot of people see an image and do that electronically, you can have more people see your work in more ways than are even imaginable in terms of actual physical objects. Having said that I think the transition from the electronic stuff to a real physical object is a real tangible difference in that physical objects still have presence and demonstrate craft and vision in a way that electronics don’t. You can’t see a 30×40 inch image electronically. You can’t appreciate the level of craft in a delicate little Loretta Lux that is only this big (around 14×11”), although you may see it in the same size as the original. You might even be looking at it bigger on screen than it is in real life. When you see it in person it is quite beautifully crafted in a frame of her choice. In the 21 C show now at the Cincinnati Art Museum, it is a beautiful thing.

You’ll see some other stuff that’s maybe more conceptually based. The stuff among that which involves the sort of intellectual inquiry that plugs into societal questions, how timeless that stuff is remains a question. I mean Edward Weston’s “Pepper #30” is still beautiful and we’re approaching 80 years or so . Some of that conceptual stuff will stand the test of time. Others, even if it’s sort of linked to social times or phenomena might speak in interesting ways, but maybe only historically. I’m thinking about the Starburst show (a recent display of 1960’s color photography at the Cincinnati Art Museum) and I’m looking at that work now and going “hmmmm?” At the time it was made, it was stronger and more innovative than it appears now. That’s true of Harry Callahan’s work. You forget now that it was done in the late 40s and early 50’s. It has a much greater importance now when you look at it historically.

There has always been and there will continue to be work that I think is pretty vapid that gets quite a bit of attention. There was a time that I found that to be upsetting in the past.  It just is what it is. There will be a gallery person that is touting some person for whatever reason. And I have more and more sympathy and respect for people that try to run a gallery. It very quickly becomes a business. They can love art all they want, but they can’t fold it up and eat it. They gotta pay the rent and keep the lights on and pay salaries and taxes. And to the people who deal with all those business realities, I say “good for them.”

DR- What do you see as the place of art education in the world today? Is it more or less important? How should we be thinking about that?

My knee jerk liberal response might be that it is important in that it helps people become more sensitized to issues of our human condition. Because I think that is what a lot of artists do is talk about the human condition, our frailties and strengths, the wonders and horrors we experience as humans on the planet. I don’t think anybody can go through a good visual arts program without confronting some tough stuff, both in terms of being exposed to difficult issues by teachers and having to face issues themselves, about themselves. If students are serious about working hard, they have to examine themselves and the work they’re doing, all that internal stuff that frankly, most people never deal with. A kid in business college is looking at numbers and figuring out how to make more money. The issues of the human condition and interacting with your fellow humans on the planet may be dealt with in that environment, but I don’t think they’re in the foreground the way they are in the arts. So experientially, for a person learning the visual arts, it’s an experience that will make them a better human being in the end.

I was on a board of regents, and there was an examination of the relationship between students’ majors and what they end up doing in life. One of the things that seems prevalent for students is that things change, people in the workplace change jobs a lot. People like me are an anomaly. I came to work in a place in 1975 and 36 years later I’m still here. A lot of that is going away in favor of people moving from job to job. Having a broad general education is a good thing because a lot of employers say they are looking for people who can think outside the box and can be trained and are intelligent, can think, write and speak. So a broad liberal arts education that could be inside a visual arts program is a valuable thing.

How has art making changed over the years?  I don’t know. For people who are committed to it, it’s not a lot of fun, generally speaking. It’s pretty frustrating. I still have memories in graduate school of wishing that I just had something to hand in – a ten page paper to write or a bunch of math problems, because you can get your hands around it. Art making requires answering harder questions: What the heck am I going to be making pictures of? Why does a grown man do this?  Those are all questions that I’ll ask indefinitely.

– David Rosenthal

One Response

  1. Barry has been one of the most influential voices in my life, not only as an artist and teacher, but also as a person. His lessons in and out of the classroom have proven invaluable to my development as an artist, and I could never thank him enough. I look forward to the work he will produce during this next phase of his career, and thank you for writing this article.

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