Photography is a very important part of the visual art curriculum, and is often overlooked due to lack of resources. Since the development of the daguerreotype process in the 1820s, photographers have been able to capture integral moments in history and expand upon the photographic process. Fast forward to today, where due to smartphones with cameras, photography has become such a normal part of our daily lives.
Photography has been difficult to achieve in many art classes at all age levels. Many schools lack the resources for students to have their own cameras (either film or digital), as well as the means to edit and produce the photographs (darkroom or printers). Even if we wanted to use cel phone cameras just to learn and practice the perspective and angles to take the shots, many schools do not allow phones while school is in session. So the question is with the challenges faced, how can we incorporate photography in our classes, especially at the elementary and middle school levels?
Have discussions about photography. Even if the process and production isn’t there, talk about how photography is art. Talk about how photography changed the world, or how it documents history. Talk about perspective, angles, lighting, and space. You can even create a game of identifying photography vocabulary with images. Having students know the photography vocabulary when taking their own photos is better than not knowing how to use their eye when capturing a moment in time.
Play with sun sensitive paper. This type of paper can be found in many art supply catalogs, and is an easy way to explain the exposure process to your students. Since the paper creates a positive/negative images in a small amount of time, you can have students design their exposed spaces to demonstrate elements/principles, such as patterns, balance/symmetry, value, etc. You can also play with different light sources and the effect that various exposure times show in the process. Since water is used to help process the finished exposures, it’s the simplest process for elementary students.
Explore more of the cyanotype process. You know the sun sensitive paper you just read about? The paper is used for cyanotype prints. There is also a more intense process involved that, depending on the materials available, can be accomplished with middle or high school students. I recently came across a blog called obscura-works.com that shared a class project. The author had created a large queen-size bed sheet cyanotype by soaking the sheet in cyanotype solution at home, then having volunteers help in covering the sheets before exposing it with students lying on top for a selected time. The finished result was an amazing sheet with student silhouettes hung for display!
Create a pinhole camera. There are many websites you can search that share how to create your own pinhole camera using shoeboxes or Pringles cans. You may not be able to have a photograph product, but in making the pinhole camera, you can have students observe how the exposure process is achieved. If you teach middle or high school students, you may have resources available to be able (such as a school darkroom or local photographer) to process photo paper for show box pinhole cameras!
Find a use for your old film camera. Do you still own a film camera that you no longer use? Why not have your students see what it’s like to snap a photo with film? Load a roll of film or two and have each student snap a photo. This is only an option if you have the camera lying around and no longer wish to use it. You can also purchase a disposable camera for this option as well! After taking the film in to be developed, share the photos with your students and have a critique about the their captured moments.
Tablets Available? Explore the camera options. If you have access to tablets (but not for digital cameras), consider experimenting with the camera option. Tablets are more portable, so students can move more around the room or school. Tablets could also contain apps that can manipulate photos that have been taken and can teach more about the editing process.
When in doubt, look for used. There are many digital cameras that are still in good, working condition and sold for resale. In purchasing digital cameras, you can gather some that are even a few years old, find memory cards at an affordable price, and keep them in your classroom for student use. Older digital cameras can still connect through USB ports and print out in your classroom printers, if available.
Even with no darkroom or access to top notch cameras and printers, you can still bring elements of photography to your students at the elementary level!