One of my favorite assignments for my beginning photography students is the Collaborative Photographic Alphabet. Students are asked to make photographs that express individual letters. Students try to create as many letters as they can, and only a single letter should fill each frame. This is a project as much about learning to see as it is about learning to make. Every year there are delightful surprises and new visual interpretations of the alphabet.
Students are asked to make their pictures without photographing any existing writing, typography, billboards, graffiti — in other words, nothing that was intended to be read as a letter. One goal of the project is that by imposing some structure you establish a set of parameters within which students can begin to think and see more abstractly. They begin to “make something from nothing,” in the words of one of my students. Each image is a kind of transformation. The photograph transforms something literal into something abstract. Another important restriction is that the students cannot stage their images-no carving elaborate letterforms out of pumpkins, no drawing with a stick in the dirt and pretending that they stumbled upon it. As a challenging exercise in photographic representation, this assignment can be a breakthrough for many young photographers, although they don’t always realize it at the time. Central to its lessons are issues of selection, framing, point of view, isolation of details, and awareness of the subtleties of light. There are also many technical considerations like depth of field, selective focusing and proper meter readings that will transform a tree limb into a majestic Z, a pathway into a playful Y, or a pile of lumber into an N. The goal for each student is not to make the entire alphabet all by themselves but to seek out as many innovative solutions as possible. We talk about the “easy” solutions like manhole covers and automobile wheels for the letter O, and encourage them to get past this.
Because the work is displayed as a mural, the individual letters rely on each other for their collective meaning. This allows for more risk-taking with the final edit of letters. Though some of the individual letter photographs can stand on their own as beautiful images, they are all at their best when viewed in the sequence of the rest of the alphabet. A particular interpretation of Q may be so conceptual or so abstract, that it only expresses its meaning as a letter in the group mural. And then there are those wonderful combinations of letters in the mural where the viewer moves from abstract, to playful, to hilarious, to elegant.
Throughout the year, the Visual Arts Department shares as much student artwork as possible with our school community, exhibiting projects in a wide variety of locations at the school, from hall galleries that get a lot of traffic to more contemplative library seminar rooms, to our own Dana Gallery. Those years when I exhibit an alphabet mural with each letter presented as a unique 8 ½ x 11 print, it has consistently been the work that receives the most commentary from passersby. People take their time looking. Isn’t that one way to judge the success of an assignment? That we slow down and look?