Photography course

What I learned from taking MoMA’s new photography course


Last week, the Museum of Modern Art launched a free online course on Coursera called “See through the photographsAs taught by Sarah Meister, curator of the photography department at MOMA. Although I have watched dozens if not hundreds of YouTube videos on everything from “How to Tie a Bow Tie” to “Coq Au Vin Recipe” from last night, I had never taken an online course. and I was intrigued by the subject.


For the uninitiated, Coursera is a venture capital-backed company that develops MOOCs (massive open online courses) with schools like Yale University, Johns Hopkins and more. This educational technology company tries to disrupt the typical (and expensive) classroom environment with online courses that users can take at their own pace.

“Seeing Through Photographs” is an optional certificate course, which can be purchased for $ 49 plus successful completion of the course and tests. I chose not to pay for the certificate.

Signing up was straightforward, and I was able to quickly see the course schedule and explore each week’s homework, which consists of videos, required and optional readings, and a test to show your mastery of the material. The interface worked well enough, but some of the reading assignments had poorly duplicated text, like this excerpt from “American Photography: 1890 – 1965”:

book photo

Some of the more recent reading materials are available in PDF format, which makes them infinitely easier to read while also making them recordable, searchable and allowing for annotations.

I only completed the week 1 homework, but here are some impressions:

  • What is old is new again. An essay by Peter Galassi, former chief curator of photography at MoMA, contained a few gems that appear to have been spoken yesterday:
    • “Before the late 1880s, the overwhelming majority of photographs had been taken by paid professionals. in 1890, anyone could do it.
    • “It wasn’t until the 1970s that an artist-photographer, if he was lucky, could begin to rely on print sales as a reliable source of income.”
    • “Steichen had long since repudiated the ambitions he once shared with Steiglitz, and increasingly viewed photography not as a means of artistic expression but as a vehicle for mass communication.
  • I’ve heard of a few photographers I’ve never heard of before, including the amazing advertising photographer W. Grancel Fitz, Clarence H. White (which I probably should have known) and Adam clark vroman, whose images of indigenous people made me reconsider the photos of Jimmy nelson.
  • I reviewed a Gordon Park photo essay titled “Harlem gang leaderWhich only increased my respect for the man and his work.

Some of the reading was a little too academic for someone who has been out of college for so long – too reliant on Ivy League vocabulary (eg “epigone”) and flowery language. And while it would be hard to dismiss the role MoMA has played in accepting photography as art (and museum worthy), I found the emphasis a bit overwhelming at times. Yet in the context of the other lessons, I’m sure my opinions will be tempered.

At the end of the lesson, the student is offered a quiz. In this case a 10 question quiz with a passing score of 8. I failed in my first attempts on questions such as “Which of the following artists was not featured in a Projects exhibition at MoMA in the 1970s? I’m not sure I really care about that level of detail.

I probably won’t complete all of the lessons, but there are certainly lessons (eg Week 3 Documentary Photography) that caught my eye. I wish there was an extra week to discuss the role of vernacular photography in contemporary life (e.g. Instagram, Snapchat, etc.), but maybe we need to be a little further from the present to say something. something significant about this moment in history.

As institutions seek ways to engage their current and desired audiences, MOOCs provide an easy way to leverage institutional knowledge and make it available to the masses. MoMA did well with its first offering, and anyone with more than a passing interest in photography would do well to check it out.

About the Author: Allen Murabayashi is President and Co-Founder of Photo shelter, which regularly publishes Resources for photographers. Allen is a graduate of Yale University and uses dental floss every day. This article was also published here.

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