Photo Teaching in Primary Schools, Part 2: David Hockney’s Joiners

I have inspired students of all ages with David Hockney‘s Joiners for the past 30 years, both in this country and whilst on a teaching exchange in Tucson Arizona in 2003/4. There is something extremely satisfying about seeing a body or object in small pieces, photographing each part, joining them together in a very physical way, and then making a life-size picture from them all within one school day. It also works very well, because it is so participatory.

The Primary School children that I have been working with on the Beaford AVTTOS Project, had already got used to using the cameras and made some great stand-alone pictures. I started off by showing pictures that David Hockney had made himself in the 1980s. Some of these were in black-and-white, some were square from a Polaroid camera, and others were in colour. Hockney would always class himself as an artist rather than a photographer, and it is the art of seeing that he does so well. There are very few technical stills employed in his photographic image-making, automatic cameras were always used, and the prints were processed automatically too.

Hockney’s great achievement though was seeing the big, finished picture, in his mind’s eye before the first photograph was taken. This was a big leap for Primary School children to try and imagine how something might be before they started making it, using equipment that they were still only just starting to get to know.

I find that a big part of the teaching and learning process is allowing mistakes to be made so that you can learn from those and make something better. With this Joiner exercise, the mornings were often spent trying, but often failing, to make successful combinations of prints which joined together. But once the children were able to cut these contact sheet sized images up and try to fit them together like a jigsaw, they were able to recognise how to make the images better. They were always very keen to make more photographs and try again. There were also some children in all of the classes who naturally got the hang of it a lot quicker, and they were always happy to help those in their class who were struggling.

I tended to use the image above, by Hockney, as an example for the children to try for themselves. They wouldn’t be taking nearly as many photographs as he did, but the guidelines were to include themselves in the photograph and photograph one of their classmates sat on a chair including, the space between the two of them in the Joiner. For best results, they were to keep their lenses as long as possible.

Some children would take their Joiner making on a completely different creative trajectory, cutting their friends up and joining them in different, non-human ways or they might put different heads on bodies much like the old happy families card game. Distortion was also explored where legs were extended or like a photograph of a boy with a guitar where the neck of the guitar was stretched so that it was a lot longer than it should be, through the joiner process.

Once a good Joiner was achieved it was worked up into their sketchbooks and the children would write down how they made it. If there was time these finished sketchbook images were recreated life-size, using an A4 paper sheet for each individual image, and tacked to the classroom or corridor wall. Seeing their work in this way was a tremendous achievement for the children who would proudly show them off to their school friends.


Photo Teaching in Primary Schools, Part 1: Introduction

How do you teach photography to primary school children? That was the question I set myself prior to starting my work with Beaford Arts on the storytelling project A Voice to Tell Our Story. My own background in teaching had been primarily Further and Higher Education with a year in the USA in a High School with children as young as 14 and the occasional Beaford workshop day with Primary school children. How high or low do I set the bar; how much can children of this age understand? Set the bar too high and all but the very gifted will switch off, set it too low and it will not be challenging enough, the children will soon lose interest.

Many of the sessions were team taught with Matt Biggs, the filmmaker on the project. Matt’s experience was much like mine; many years of working within photography and filmmaking and with plenty of teaching experience but only with young people and adults, none whatsoever at this level! However, this enabled us to find solutions together, to try different approaches, reflect on their effectiveness and to make adjustments, often within the same session.

We always started with an introduction to ourselves and our own personal image making through a slideshow of images in my case and some film clips in Matt’s. Matt and I would describe ourselves as creatives within our chosen media and the images we showed the children would inspire them because it was both professional and visually stimulating.

Photographic history was introduced to give a context to our own work and the image making that they would be doing for the storytelling project. This was started, like most new concepts, with a mixture of practical and illustrated presentation, always with questions and answers. I brought in a very cheaply made camera obscura; a brown box with a small hole on one side covered by a simple lens and the opposite side being cut away and replaced by tracing paper. A couple of children would then volunteer, one holding the magic box and the other, whose face was lit by a bright studio light, stood close by. The child with the box would move it forwards and backwards until seeing something on the screen. This simple, practical experiment was hugely successful, the children getting very animated with excitement once they were able to see the upside-down face in the box. The camera obscurer was then illustrated on the classroom smart board.

Sketchbooks were introduced very early in the project. It had always been our intent to run the photo/ filmmaking sessions in an art school fashion, but there was also a very practical use for the sketchbooks. Class sizes we’re often in excess of 30 and our teaching methods were severely limited addressing the whole class all of the time. A class was often split in half or into quarters, with smaller groups of children learning different things and working on different tasks. The sketchbooks became a perfect tool for independent or small group work, writing up an exercise, editing images, writing scripts, reviewing or drawing.

I introduced children to the Panasonic Lumix camera in their first session with me. At first, I had set the cameras up in complete manual mode, with a black and white screen, as a way of teaching the fundamental technical skills using shutter speed, aperture and sensitivity. This worked extremely well with some of the older, year 5 children, but some of the younger or less able became lost in confusion. To enable more children to get good results at an early stage, I changed the default setting to shutter speed priority. A big advantage of the Lumix camera is the wide aperture of it’s Leica lens, and so f2.8 was set as default, giving the children images that very much looked like they had been shot with a camera rather than a phone.

The early practical exercises were all about experimenting with those camera settings and making visually interesting compositions. Subject matter was less important than a range of shutter speeds to freeze and blur images, different lens lengths and angles of view. Images were later reviewed on the classroom smartboard to learn from good practise and to increase their vocabulary.

Some of the photographs the children made were based on photographs in the Beaford Archive by James Ravilious and Roger Deakins. Ravilious had made many photographs within primary schools in the 1970s and 80s and some of these were recreated by the children in their own classrooms or playgrounds, or similar, contemporary images were made to show how things have changed. The freedom the children were given to express themselves through their photography, at this introductory level of the programme, brought unexpected rewards. These images became in themselves a story of school life in the 2020s.