The visit to RIBA was hot on the heels of our first gallery visit, and once again we had the luxury of an education room to prepare the activities. Whilst half the group was to start by experiencing some practical photography, using the photogenic RIBA interior as their subject, the other half would work with audio description in the gallery, using the Edwin Smith collection, and then the two groups would swap.
I asked the whole group to begin to develop their own lists of ‘types’ of photography as a basis for future discussion on genre. We had a brief housekeeping session on how to behave in a gallery, and also how to use a camera.
Photographs from this session will be used as the focus of a follow on classroom session. The remit was to think: ‘time’ and ‘place’; to take up to 40 photos each, and to include close up, medium, and long distance. We established what ‘landscape’ and portrait’ means. I requested that they identify which photographs were whose by book ending their series – by starting with a close up of their own names on their workbooks, and ending with a selfie (thus providing me an opportunity to put names to faces). One student pointed out that ‘these cameras don’t do selfies, Miss’ – which led to a fruitful conversation on what constitutes a selfie. This was given a new twist by learning that there was an Edwin Smith self-portrait in the exhibition, so they were given the task of finding it.
If the first gallery visit at TPG was designed to encourage looking intently – and feeling entitled to do so – this session was designed to build on that, and to start to communicate what they saw…
I have used audio describing previously, (with Hendon school last year at NPG as the first part of a more portraiture targeted activity), but this time I used it as a freestanding activity, and in much greater depth. This proved to be really successful: allowing not only both partners a thorough opportunity in both roles, but then repeating the entire process. There was a risk of it becoming repetitive, but as the pupils wanted to prove they could do it better the next time, and with the challenge of fresh subjects to audio describe each time, along with the novelty of being blindfolded, there was an excellent level of focus throughout the process. Three girls worked together in a mixture of English and Portuguese, so that the pupil who had less confidence with her spoken English was able to contribute fully to the activity and on an equal footing.
Because the pairs repeated the activity, once the structure had been established, they were able to continue unsupervised. And because this activity was done with only half the group at a time, and in-depth, I had an opportunity to spend time with each pair, discussing what they had learned from the exercise. It felt like a really positive example of trusting that covering one thing slowly and well was better than attempting half a dozen activities superficially.
The Edwin Smith ‘selfie’ was tracked down, and ‘self-portraiture’ added to the list of genre. We did a brief genre search within the exhibition, and saw how, even in such a specifically themed collection, there were examples of fashion, editorial, advertising, portraiture, architecture, landscape… and that genre was a slippery thing.