AK Dolven photography masterclass for Ikon

On March 21st I ran a photography masterclass for Ikon in Birmingham. This was the third such workshop I’d done with Simon Taylor, head of Learning, where we ask participants to respond to a current exhibition with their cameras.

The format is simple. After a brief introduction, Simon leads us on a tour of the gallery where he talks about how the artist approaches their work, both technically and intellectually, and picks out themes and issues to consider. We then return to the classroom and discuss what we’ve seen, developing it into a framework for photographing Birmingham. Something this is a simple case of aesthetics, sometimes it’s a little more conceptual.

With out framework in place, and after a break for lunch, we spend two hours walking around Birmingham with our cameras taking photos. Finally we meet up again at Ikon, load the photos onto a computer and talk through them as a group.

The aim is for the group to have gained a better understanding and appreciation of the Ikon exhibition alongside developing their technical and aesthetic skills in photography. By working within a narrow constraint they are forced to stretch themselves and try things they wouldn’t have considered. The hope is when they return to “normal” photography they bring this with them and are pleased with the results.

This particular masterclass was using AK Dolven‘s exhibition, Please Return, a wide ranging retrospective of her work. These shows can be quite daunting to get a hook into so we started with the obvious - how she practically makes her photographic work - and let that lead us to more nuanced things.

A lot of AK Dolven’s work involved using her cameras wrongly, deliberately defocussing or “badly” composing the shots. This is a very interesting approach to apply to photography in the modern age where an off the shelf camera is engineered to take a “perfect” photo with by default. Switching off this perfection and getting things wrong is the challenge of our age.

To illustrate this I called back to my Through The Viewfinder days from 2006-10 where I found myself bored with “perfect” photography and started sticking random stuff in front of the camera to distort and enhance the image.

I then emptied a bag of old camera bits and, to be honest, translucent rubbish, onto the table. From broken lenses to flash-bulbs to dirty mirrors to plastic bags and the packaging of the snacks we’d been provided with - anything that could go in front of the lens and distort the image was fair game. We tried out a few of these and then went out on the walk.

Interestingly the snack packaging was the most fruitful. The bases were crinkled and refracted the light in nice patterns, whilst being opaque enough to smudge the details. The image at the top of this page was taken with one.

The walk was amusing to watch as a group of grownups wandered around holding rubbish in front of their relatively expensive cameras. We got some looks and comments which just encouraged people to go further. It was nice to see this playful approach to photography, a discipline that is usually serious and exacting, embraced by adults.

Feedback at the end of the workshop was great. People enjoyed themselves but also learned a lot about their cameras and how to develop their photography. And from my perspective it was a lovely chance to mix my teaching with my artistic practice within the context of an art gallery.

My photos taken during the walk are here. Workshops with Ikon tend to come around every 6 months and I will announce them in the Photo School newsletter.

Some more photos: