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Interview With Hirsch

By: Robert Hirsch

What made you decide to write your first text book?
I want to stimulate students. Get them thinking - to come up with their own ideas. I was frustrated by the dearth of good photography texts that existed at the time. Photograph books as a group fell into one of two categories: a monograph/catalog or technical application. And both groups have something to offer. But text books at the time were basically technical manuals. I thought a text needed to do more than explain how to make a photograph. It should also generate ideas and discuss issues of visual literacy.

I didn't start from scratch, really. During my tenure at Amarillo College in Texas, I had written and collected so much material, that I thought I could make a contribution by writing a text book. But my idea was hard to sell. I went to fifty companies before I found a publisher.

How far back does your interest in photography go?
I was lucky to have early exposure to the visual arts. We need to show young people that such a path exists and that it is an option available to them.

Growing up in and around New York helped, too. It is such a visually rich environment and I had access to a lot of visual material. As a kid I loved to go to The Met (Metropolitan Museum). It was on one of those visits that I became intrigued by the works of the painter El Grecco.

But it was my dad, who had an art background and was an amateur photographer, who introduced me to photography. Naturally, he had a darkroom in the basement. By the time I was twelve, I knew how to process and print black and white photographs. By fifteen, he had me accustomed to using a 35mm camera and I was already buying my own equipment. Throughout high school I was continuously experimenting with things, and I would visit photography shows at MOMA and other museums.

Photography, has been and is, an integral part of my life; it is hard to separate it out. It is how I know my world.

What is your approach to teaching photography?
I want students to learn - then forget: Technical knowledge is important. Students must have a fundamental grasp of their materials, otherwise it is hard to realize ideas. So, early classes should be very specific and directed to ensure that students have the skills and know how things work. Fortunately, technical skill is the easier thing to teach. I don't want to "emboss" them with my way of doing things. So, once students have mastered the fundamentals, I step back and teach more by example and I let them find their own path. Part of photography is about interpreting a subject, creating your own personal spin on it. The goal is to have the student discover what they have to say as an artist. Technique is just a means to expressing that end.

To say "teach by example" I do not necessarily that I am the example. At one point I ask students to give a presentation on an artist. Whom they choose is up to the student and I encourage them to explore all avenues. Once given, the other students are required to respond to the presentation. The goal is to get a discussion going and to create a give-and-take - a flow of ideas. There needs to be an engagement between students. Students should have their ideas tested and to test the ideas of others in a free-wheeling discussion and debate.

By the way, this interactive method is particularly suited for online classes. Because when online the only way to express yourself is in writing, which requires that you take time to think and present a well reasoned idea. This process of thinking and reasoning transfers to your photography and it improves your ability to be a good audience.

What advice do you have for photography teachers?
That it is not enough to be a good technician. As an educator, you want to fire-up your students' creative engines and drive them to do their own exploration. For example, if you are discussing depth-of-field, avoid using mundane illustrations. Use examples that are inspiring and where concepts like depth of field are part of the photographer's concept.