Show & Tell In A Photography Class

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I held Old Camera Show and Tell for my photography class at LeTourneau University the other day, dragging a box of old gear to campus to explain what using a camera was like in the dinosaur days. This is the fourth fall semester I have taught this class. It fills to capacity each time offered. That is not because I am a great teacher – or even a particularly good one – but because it is an attractive elective, especially for the engineering and aviation students who are looking for something a bit less onerous to add to their courseload. I enjoy interacting with the students, who are intelligent, polite, and catch on quickly to the technical aspects. If you can learn to fly a plane, learning how to operate a digital camera is child’s play. The tricky part, for some of them, is letting their creative side blossom.

My modest old camera collection includes a working 4×5 Speed Graphic. Think of a 1940s movie where they walk the perpetrator past a gaggle of photographers, each holding a boxy camera the size of a small breadbasket, flashbulbs popping left and right. I bought mine for $100 while attending Stephen F. Austin State University in the 1970s. I first used a Speed Graphic while a 15-year-old part-time photographer at the Longview News-Journal. Being the rookie kid, I was dispatched with that monster to take football team photos at the smaller towns around. I finally graduated to a twins-lens reflex, a Rollieflex. While I had a 35mm Nikon for regular shooting, the Speed Graphic became my landscape camera.

As I explained to my class, when one must put a camera on a tripod, compose the image, use a handheld light meter to gauge the exposure, stick the 4×5-inch film holder in the camera, remember to remove the slide so the film can be exposed and then click the shutter, you become more deliberate about the image you are making.

That forced deliberation is also the reason students in my class must use actual cameras, not phones, for the assignments. There is something about putting that camera up to your eyeball that is different than holding a camera phone out at arm’s length. One sees all four sides of the frame, what is in the foreground and background as well as the primary subject. I tell them that by looking through the eyepiece of the camera instead of the screen on its backside, they will become better photographers using their phones as well as their cameras.

I am not a natural in the classroom. Even after four years of teaching this course, I still obsess over whether I am getting through to the students as I explain aperture and shutter speed, depth of field, and the facets of composition. Sometimes I see them getting what teachers call that thousand-yard stare and worry that I am losing them. But I love to show and talk about photographs. Each class begins with images from photographers whose work I admire – Ansel Adams, Elliott Erwitt, Annie Leibovitz, Gordon Parks as well as that of photographers I have personally known. I bring in at least four guest lecturers each semester, folks who have made a living taking pictures.

Most teachers carry a niggle of self-doubt. Are their students understanding what they are trying to impart or not? The better teachers can engage their students, to get them talking or doing an activity. That is not my strong suit, I feel. But I am working on it.

Out of the blue, these two events happened on the same day last week. I ran into a former student who works at a local tire store. I was getting the tire pressure checked before my Beautiful Mystery Companion (who puts me to shame as a teacher, by the way) went out of town for a conference. The young man checking the pressure looked at me and asked if I taught photography at LeTourneau.

I took a closer look at him. “Tommy!” I exclaimed. He was a dual-credit student the first time I taught the course, in 2019 – bright, enthusiastic and in love with making images. He proudly told me that taking the course inspired him to start a sideline photography business, shooting weddings and senior portraits. I congratulated him and wished him the best.

That afternoon, when I got home, there was an email from another former student, this time from last fall. He thanked me, writing in part, “everything I’ve learned has been from your expertise and experience. Thank you.”

What were the odds of two students thanking me for teaching the course years apart in the same afternoon? I have no idea, but it made my day considerably brighter.


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