It was with some sadness that I heard about the fate of a piece of work I created a few months ago with Thomas, one my very talented first year students. The work, “Photodoor” was a homage to Victor Burgin’s Photopath. In keeping with – or perhaps more accurately – hardly deviating from Burgin’s original idea, we (again, really here I mean Thomas rather than me) photographed the surface of a door and placed the resulting colour image, scaled to the exact size, over the door we/he had photographed.
I had the idea to create this work when I was struggling to think of what suitable images could replace the ones already stuck onto the doors of the loading rooms in the photography teaching area. There was little doubt these dated and cliched photographs were in dire need of changing. Certainly, they did not reflect the critical thinking and purpose myself, my teaching team and my students were engaging with around photography, the image and representational practice. It therefore seemed fitting to create a conceptual work which would bring theory into practice and would also quote the work of Victor Burgin. I confess, it was more imitation than quote, but nevertheless it gave me a chance to speak to students about Victor Burgin’s original work. It also showed students how work could be used to articulate ideas about representational practice. In short, as a work it worked to make the viewer think and to activate more intelligent discussions within the degree programme I was leading.
Today I found out that “Photodoor” has been removed. Its removal is, I fear, also the symbolic dispatching of any new ideas and any new thinking that the students were beginning to engage with. I suppose I shouldn’t really be surprised. Perhaps the cliched photographs, which had been on the doors for some years – and that our “Photodoor” piece briefly replaced – were in fact entirely fitting and representative of certain thinking by individuals in the department. Sadly, I suspect this limited and very narrow view of what photography is will, once again, dominate the future of image making in the place where I used to work. I hope it won’t but I imagine it will.
In one small twist of irony, the door is now left looking like the image of the door that had been removed from it. But this return to the original door, by the removal of the image, will no doubt be lost on those who took it down.
I’m mostly annoyed that a first year student’s work has been ripped down without first speaking to that student. Removing and destroying Thomas’ work without any discussion or consideration says a great deal about the people who did it. But they don’t understand this kind of work, because it requires work to access it, it requires thought, it makes the viewer think. In this pointless act they’ve shown they don’t have the capability to think very deeply or to understand how photography functions.
It seems, that my time working with students like Thomas was only, as Victor Burgin has himself remarked in another context, a ‘parentheses in history,’ a time when students began to think a little differently about photography and images, a moment when we were all able to head away from the limited thinking of before. It is and has always been my aim to place critical discussion – “a reflective stance” – into the classes I teach. The symbolic removal of “Photodoor” represents a return back to the way things were. A return to the uncritical teaching of things like form over content, of ‘un-thinking photography.’ It may well be that my critical perspective only covered over the limited ‘frames of mind’ of others, their ignorance of what photography is and most worryingly what they wrongly think undergraduate study should be about. I can see now, some people will never understand what critical practice can engage with. Perhaps, I am most surprised at my own surprise. Given the nature of those who persistently fail to understand critical thinking in photography, I guess I should have been predicted that “Photodoor” would have a time limited existence.