Well, not completely new I suppose, more a continuation. I’ve just started studying for a BA hons degree in Photography at the University of Westminster in London. I’m worried I may have bitten off more than I can chew! I’m very excited, but equally daunted by this new venture. The course is part-time, the only one of its kind in London, and will, therefore, take me four years to complete… a huge amount of time investment I think.
The emphasis of the course will be a significant learning curve for me. They’re not interested in seeing my pretty pictures, they want to see a ‘conceptual’ approach to my work – this doesn’t come easily to me! I get the feeling the more conceptual and abstract the better.
I’m already dumbfounded by my first module. By Christmas I have to produce a body of work that holds together as a series depicting the themes of ‘Absence and Presence’. This will be an analogue project with my film camera in black and white. I will have to process and develop them myself in the darkroom. So no digital, computer or Photoshop for this one. I love using my film camera, so that’s not a problem, but it is a bit more limiting. The ISO on the film cannot be changed for example, and of course you have no idea whether the pictures have worked until you develop them! Not everything works in black and white, so there has to be some awareness of that too.
I love the discipline that comes with a film camera though, I think much more carefully about what I’m going to ‘snap’ and take fewer images. My film camera is a 1984 Nikon FG, which I bought back then, and used for 18 years before switching to digital in 2002. I had it serviced and it’s great to have it back in action. It’s still in very good condition, but I only have one 50mm fixed lens for it – so this imposes still more discipline. It’s lovely to use though, lightweight, but more metal bits, and surprisingly easy settings. I find it easier to change the settings without taking my eye away from the viewfinder.
So now I have to think of ideas. I don’t think they want anything ‘literal’ such as depicting the belongings of an absent loved person. They’re looking for themes shot in a variety of conceptual settings depicting, for example, absence of communication, emotion, intelligence, security, morality, identity… Hmm, so how do I do that?
The facilities at Westminster are wonderful. We have a purpose built department for creative studies of all kinds. The darkrooms are very well equipped, with individual rooms to work in, and the technicians are reputedly extremely helpful, friendly and experienced photographers. The tutors I’ve met so far are all lovely, so I’m hoping it’s going to be a positive experience.
I’m worried about the workload though. In the first semester we study two modules. Apart from the darkroom project, we also study ‘photographic theory and culture’ which is the academic side of the course, and the emphasis is 50-50 academic and practical. Our tutor is a very experienced art historian and he’s written several books on Surrealism, so he knows what he’s talking about. We have three essays to complete in this time alongside the practical work. It’s a long time since I wrote an academic essay, so I hope I’m up to that! The first two essays are 1500 words each and the third is 3000, not too bad I suppose. In the fourth year of course, there will be a huge dissertation! Synthesising information from lots of academic tomes is something I will have to improve at, and we do have a lot of reading to do. Fortunately we also have a state of the art library for this purpose. Libraries have changed out of all recognition since I studied for my last degree 36 years ago. I’m the oldest person on our course… but there are a lot of mature people, mainly in their 30’s and 40’s.
I’m not sure where all this will take me. I don’t think having a degree makes you a better photographer necessarily, but it does make you think ‘outside the box’, and, in the words of my previous tutor, it does give you authority. I’m obviously too old to work as an assistant on completion., and I can’t see myself as a journalistic photographer somehow. Some people open and run their own businesses alongside the degree, and this is something I’m thinking about. I would like to open a studio at home and run a portrait business perhaps. I would also love to work on commission to produce art, still life or event photography. I think I might also enjoy teaching photography.