No Going Back: Threshold Concepts in Photography

Prompted by the impressive force that is Jon Nicholls (Director of Creativity at Thomas Tallis School) I’ve been thinking about Threshold Concepts in Photography. Jon sent me a link to this, his consultative document and airing of thoughts on such matters. I took up the invitation to contribute – if only to stir the pot up a little – and I’m really taken with the resulting brew: facts, concepts, wider contexts – personal beliefs even -  all amalgamated to form a valuable resource.

The threshold concepts identified might not be to every art or photography teachers taste; it’s fair to say these lean towards a particular way of teaching  – or thinking about photography – but there you go, dogs and cats and all that…


William Wegman’s dog portrait. And a kitten with a ball of wool. Take your pick.

Threshold Concepts in Photography

Below is a summary, condensed from Jon’s must-read, more detailed version. I hope I haven’t compromised it too much – I am writing this with my Year 10 and 12 classes in mind, trying to make connections to some of their recent responses. We’ve been working under the broad theme of Absurdity, and I think we’re knocking on most of these doors, if not always crossing the threshold completely.

  • Photography has many genres, some of which are inherited from painting (e.g. still life, portraiture, landscape). Artists/photographers often play with genre conventions for creative purposes, disrupting our expectations.

yr10Exploring Erwin Wurm’s 1 minute sculptures was a playful introduction for Year 10′s in thinking about the role of art and photography. As a class we discussed our traditional expectations of a sculpture (still, solid, toiled over, permanent etc.) and questioned where the ‘art’ lay within Wurm’s work (Was it within the concept? the facilitating of an act? a performance? the photograph itself? And so on…). We also contrasted his work (or at least the photographs of it) – and importantly, their snapshot nature – with the more ordered video work of Paul Harrison and John Wood. This led to these responses above from Ben and George, Year 10.

  • All photography is the capturing of light (radiant energy) and includes images that are made without a camera or film. The digital revolution has instigated a renewed interest in the materiality of photography.


With these classes new to photography, we have spent time talking about how cameras work, placing particular emphasis on aperture and exposure time / shutter speed. Through experimenting with pinhole photography and making their own cameras, students have been learning how to independently use the darkroom, gaining awareness of the essential role of light, alongside some of the processes involved.

  • Photography is multi-disciplinary both in theory and practice. It is a hybrid form of art – with multiple functions, contexts and meanings – informed by science, social science and the humanities.


This recent Year 10 task – creating a staged narrative (whether overly dramatic or with a snapshot aesthetic) has encouraged Year 10 students to think deeply about the roles and purposes of photography and art, whilst also developing practical skills. After comparing the varying styles of artists such as Gregory Crewdson, Jeff Wall and Tom Hunter, alongside documentary photographers and stereotypical news stock-photography, students responded to recent educational news articles. (This was also a cunning way around the issue of creating photos that seem too ‘schooly’ by embracing the environment and uniforms that can sometimes hinder limited practical time). 


These are a few of the news articles that individuals chose. Year 10 Tom’s response is above; I was impressed with the quick levels of thought he put into his composition and lighting set-up, alongside the challenges of directing his peers.


  • Photography is unlike other visual arts in that it begins with a world full of things rather than with a blank slate. It is more an art of selection and translation rather than of invention.stella_x_mas

Year 10 students compared the family themed work of 3 photographers: Richard Billingham, Larry Sultan and Sally Mann. Over the Christmas break they then produced their own documentary project. I was really impressed with Year 10 Stella’s selections from the many photos that she had taken. She cited a ‘snapshot aesthetic‘ and a desire to catch the energy of her busy Christmas. These 2 are great examples of this.


  • Cameras ‘see’ the world differently to the way we see the world with our eyes and, as a result all photographs are, to some extent, abstractions – shaped by the technology the photographer chooses and by a process of selection, editing and manipulation.

    Two of Caprice’s Christmas documentary responses. She has ‘lifted’ these in Photoshop – enhancing colours and textures and adjusting lens blur – to lead the eye more effectively.

  • Photographs consist of formal and visual elements and have their own ‘grammar’. These formal and visual elements (such as line, shape, repetition, rhythm, balance etc.) are shared with other works of art. But photographs also have a specific grammar – flatness, frame, time, focus – that give structure to a photographer’s perceptions of the world. ‘Mistakes’ in photography are often associated with (breaking) the ‘rules’ and expectations of this grammar e.g. out of focus, subject cropped, blur etc. Some photographers reject formalist concerns in order to establish an aesthetic that represents their critical position and does not rely on conventional notions of beauty.gilden_exp
    Year 10 Bruce Gilden inspired experiments. This video of Bruce Gilden working was a great starting point for considering a photographer’s intentions. His no nonsense, in-your-face approach fascinates students. It also stimulated useful experiments relating to use of flash, panning techniques, and the breaking of conventions and expected behaviours.


  • Chance plays a very significant role in photography. You can fight chance, tolerate it or embrace it. To some extent, all photographs are the result of chance processes.


Unpicking the work of photographers such as Martin Parr and Matt Stuart can be very influential in provoking a rapid shift in how students see. I liken this change to tuning in to a more sensitive frequency – that ability to find subtle or unexpected relationships; learning to scan and process quicker; anticipating that ‘decisive moment’. After an introductory lesson exploring social documentary and street photography the subsequent responses from Year 10 and 12 students, including the 2 shots above, showed a growing understanding.


  • Photographs are never ideologically neutral. Their ability to make things look attractive can make them particularly susceptible to the abuse of power. Therefore, students of photography must be very suspicious of making superficially beautiful images or seeing beauty as either desirable or neutral.


Under our broad theme of Absurdity an obvious stop off point was Dadaism. With a higher ratio of girls in my Year 10 group I’m also aware of the need to reference strong female role models. The work of Hannah Höch provided a valuable connection to our theme and an example of someone willing to use their art to stick two fingers up to expectations. Students produced tactile collages and also digital responses as an introduction to Photoshop.


  • All photographs present us with a simultaneous then and now. Photographs warp our sense of time. Photographs remind us of people and things that have been. Photographs record what has been lost, what no longer exists, or what still exists but will be lost at some point in the future.The meanings of photographs are never fixed, are not contained solely within the photographs themselves and rely on a combination of the viewer’s sensitivity, knowledge and understanding and the specific context in which the image is seen.


I took a quick snap of my Year 10 group at the start of our journey together to illustrate how it seemingly fixes us in a precious point in time. But I suggested that as our relationships, appearances and environment change so will our response to the image. Mostly they humored me, and smiled cautiously.


I’m very grateful to Jon for provoking deeper reflections on threshold concepts for our subject; it would certainly be interesting to know the thoughts others via the comment boxes below. Mostly I’m excited about continuing to work with what is a great group of Year 10 students. They have made a great start and I’m very pleased with their progress. No going back now!


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