The Magnum Intensive Documentary Photography Course in association with London College of Communication, will run throughout August in London. For over sixty years, Magnum’s international photographers have chronicled the world; helping to shape documentary photography as a modern form of both artistic expression and a tool for change. The course will be led by acclaimed, award-winning Magnum photographers Stuart Franklin and Mark Power, alongside experienced tutors from London College of Communication, and will consider all elements of successful project development; from research phases, to access and shooting, to the editing and creation of a public projection.
A: What are some of the key concepts of the programme that you will be lecturing on and how have these developed throughout your own careers?
MP: The course will be aimed specifically at documentary photographers, although I have to admit I’m uncomfortable with such categories. That said, I’m sure the course will veer comfortably into landscape, photojournalism, still life, and any other genre you care to mention. I tend to encourage experimentation to break down these barriers. To be asked “what sort of photographs do you take?” is always a tricky question to answer. I try to push myself into new areas where I might feel uncomfortable with each new project I undertake. We will similarly be expecting the students to step out of their own comfort zones.
A: How do you manage to balance the practical and the theoretical on a course such as the one offered by Magnum? How important is the theoretical when approaching the start of a new photographic project?
MP: The course won’t get bogged down with heavy theory. I’ve never been a great believer in having to justify everything you do before you even start; it can be a mountain too high for some students. Most people, let’s face it, tend to work out what they’re doing simply by doing it (including me). However, there will be an emphasis on the development of ideas, and a decent chunk about the history of photography, and documentary in particular. It’s really important that students understand where their work fits, both in what has gone before and what is happening now. If they don’t, they are constantly reinventing the wheel. We’ll also look closely at the Photobook, particularly in reference to its history, content, sequencing, pacing and (appropriate) design.
A: What, in your opinion, have been the most exciting trends and technological advances in the history of photography that you believe students should have an engagement with?
MP: Technological advances come and go, but one fundamental point remains the same. Photography – or any artistic practice for that matter – begins and ends with good ideas. Whether students work with film or digitally, on large format or with an iPhone, I don’t really care… as long as it’s appropriate.
A: What value do you place on a formal education in art or photography? Is it necessary to initially hone one’s skills in an institutional environment?
SF: Learning is a shared experience. Much depends on the quality of the exchange. To engage meaningfully in dialogue is to be open, curious and sensitive. With these qualities you can go anywhere! The rest is technique and theory, both of which are easy to teach and best delivered in a formal environment where the necessary support is in place to encourage the student. A good institutional environment allows for shared learning and the chance to be exposed to new ideas. Both are important. A knowledge of the history of art and photography is also invaluable. All art and all photography produced today stands on the shoulders of others who have worked the visual languages and found meaningful solutions. These are important lessons.
A: Do you believe that photography as a medium is still a viable career for students given the prevalence of social media, which provides a free, immediate platform for the mass-dissemination of photography?
SF: Photography is a hugely valuable career, especially now. We are starting to live in a post-television era. In a way it’s like being back in the 1950s before TV became dominant in news or documentary. On the Internet and in print there is an important role for photography, but it must step up to challenge. There are sites of opportunity and there is always a market for quality. Today quality in photography is not so much about craft (as it once was), but about strong narrative, visual eloquence and affective communication. There are also practical issues to overcome to retain an independent voice in the medium. I tend to think journalistically, so telling the right story at the right time is critical. So often the best stories are dumped by the mainstream media for a whole range of reasons. Photographers must find spaces where important stories can be told and then use social media to build an audience. It’s a challenge, but like any challenge the more prepared one is the easier the task; and that involves learning.
The Magnum Intensive Documentary Photography Course, 7-27 August, London College of Communication, Elephant & Castle, London SE1 6SB. Find out more at www.magnumphotos.com.
Follow us on Twitter @AestheticaMag for the latest news in contemporary art and culture.
1. Manchester, Moss Side Estate, 1986. Courtesy of Stuart Franklin and Magnum Photos.