If I were just curious, it would be very hard to say to someone, ‘I want to come to your house and have you talk to me and tell me the story of your life.’ I mean people are going to say, ‘You’re crazy.’ Plus they’re going to keep mighty guarded. But the camera is a kind of license. A lot of people, they want to be paid that much attention and that’s a reasonable kind of attention to be paid.
Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph by Diane Arbus, Stan Grossfeld
My own photography is rooted in community collaboration, which naturally feeds into my teaching practice too. As I said to the students, my own practice shares an empathy with Diane Arbus in the sense that the camera gives me a licence to feed my curiosity and ask questions, which would seem taboo without camera in hand. This was the spirit in which we began the Arbus schools workshops in rural Fife. With just one afternoon per school the workshops were fast-paced and very much rooted in the photographic encounter. How to get your sitter to reveal part of themselves which you could then use in a photographic portrait. The students spent one-to-one time getting to know more about the person they were going to photograph. They then had to ask themselves:
How can I make an interesting portrait of this person?
What am I trying to say about them?
What would Diane Arbus do? (this one got some cool responses)
The students are working towards Higher Photography so already knew about apertures, shutter speeds and ISOs so rather than get hung up on technique; we used iPad minis which were acquired by Fife Cultural Trust especially for the ARTIST ROOMS exhibition. Set to square format and black and white, we discussed how these devices provided less of a barrier between photographer and subject, just like Arbus’s twin lens reflex (Mamiya C330). The iPad does not obscure the photographer’s face, allowing continued communication with the sitter. We also worked with reflectors and controlled the direction of light for some portraits.
After making portraits the students returned for a group crit and discussed their photographic encounters. They were incredibly supportive of each other.The next task was to look at Arbus’s Identical Twins, Roselle, N.J. 1967 portrait before making our own versions using the Photomirror app. Lots of giggles bellowed from the corridors and playground and the students made a cool body of work before discussing dual selves. These images will be exhibited alongside the Diane Arbus exhibition at Kirkcaldy Galleries with some students also submitting the work as part of their Higher Art submission.
The doppelganger theme was used again for an engage Scotland, ARTIST ROOMS and ArtWorks Scotland sharing event at Kirkcaldy Galleries. I led an exhibition tour reflecting on how I might present an exhibition of this sort to different groups and sharing engagement approaches. Participants, mainly artists and art educators, made Arbus twin-style portraits of one another using the same app, followed by discussions in groups of the dual roles in our work life and practice. For example, I’m a photographer and educator – the two roles are complementary yet distinct.
The students were very excited to have the opportunity to work with the iPads to create their own versions of Arbus’s work and Alicia encouraged them to be playful and imaginative in their approach. It was a hugely valuable opportunity for my pupils to work with a contemporary photographer and for them to benefit from her extensive knowledge.
Jenna Graham, Teacher of Art, Design and Photography at Lochgelly High School