Photography course

What I Learned Taking MoMA’s New Photography Course


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


For the uninitiated, Coursera is a venture-backed company that develops MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) with schools like Yale University, Johns Hopkins and more. This educational technology company is trying 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 course and test completion. I chose not to pay for the certificate.

Signing up was easy and I was able to quickly see the course outline and explore each week’s assignments, which consist 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 tasks had incorrectly duplicated texts, like this excerpt from “American Photography: 1890 – 1965”:

picture of book

Some of the newest reading materials are available in PDF format, making them infinitely easier to read while also being saveable, searchable, and annotation-friendly.

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

  • What is old becomes new again. An essay by Peter Galassi, former chief curator of photography at MoMA, contained some gems that look like they could have been uttered yesterday:
    • “Before the late 1880s, the overwhelming majority of photography was done by paid professionals. in 1890 anyone could do it.
    • “It wasn’t until the 1970s that an artist-photographer, if lucky, could begin to rely on print sales as a reliable source of income.”
    • “Steichen had long since disavowed the ambitions he had once shared with Steiglitz, and he increasingly saw photography not as a means of artistic expression but as a vehicle for mass communication.”
  • Heard of a few photographers I had never heard of before, including the amazing publicity photographer W. Grancel Fitz, Clarence H. Blanc (which I probably should have known) and Adam Clark Vromanwhose images of natives made me reconsider the photos of jimmy nelson.
  • I reviewed a photo essay by Gordon Park titled “Harlem gang leaderwhich only increased my respect for the man and his work.

Some of the readings were a little too academic for someone who’s 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 the acceptance of photography as art (and worthy of a museum), at times I found the emphasis a bit overwhelming. 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 presented with a quiz. In this case, a 10-question quiz with a passing grade of 8. I failed on my first attempts on questions such as “Which of the following artists has not been featured in a Projects exhibit at MoMA within the 1970s?” I’m not sure I really care about that level of detail.

I probably won’t complete all the lessons, but there are definitely some 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 bit further from the present to say something significant about this moment in history.

As institutions look for ways to engage their current and desired audiences, MOOCs offer a simple way to leverage institutional knowledge and make it available to as many people as possible. MoMA did well with its first offering, and anyone with more than just a passing interest in photography would be well served to check it out.

About the Author: Allen Murabayashi is the president and co-founder of Photo Shelterwho regularly publishes Resources for photographers. Allen graduated from Yale University and uses dental floss daily. This article was also published here.

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