Work by Rita Kovtun for Narrative in 27 Frames
Work by Rita Kovtun for Narrative in 27 Frames
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How do you capture themes as broad as change, secrets, history, reincarnation, or politics in a series of photographs? I spent two months in the summer of 2017 not only exploring this question, but doing so using a set of disposable cameras as part of an MCAD Continuing Education (CE) class called Narrative in 27 Frames.

Led by Jason Pearson, who has also taught in MCAD’s photography program, the class required students to use one 27-frame disposable film camera to dive into a specific set of themes each week. The disposables were meant to get us to focus on concept and storytelling rather than the technical aptitudes of a regular film camera. “I liked that it was low-tech and it was more about idea and the idiosyncratic nature of a disposable camera,” Pearson says.

The concept for the class came from an experience Pearson had with one of his undergraduate students: “We were doing black-and-white film photography. I had my students do an in-class project, and one student panicked because she was trying to see the images on the back of the camera. It was like, ‘Wow, there’s such a disconnect between digital and film, and it’s a generational thing.’ You can’t shoot five hundred pictures and edit down to the ones you want.”

 “I liked that it was low-tech and it was more about idea and the idiosyncratic nature of a disposable camera.”

Pearson himself takes a nontraditional approach to creating work. He and his identical twin brother Jesse have a joint practice and use photography and drawing to navigate shared experiences and to create narratives existing between fact and fiction. Pearson’s work has been fueled by questioning the medium of photography from a young age.

“I have a photograph of myself and my twin brother when we were young, and I remember looking at it as a kid, and I didn’t know which one I was. The idea of representation has always been kind of perplexing to me—obviously I knew who I was in the real world, but that experience stuck with me and I developed this bizarre relationship with photography,” Pearson says.

Jason and Jesse Pearson

Jason and Jesse Pearson

 Work by Jason Pearson

 Work by Jason Pearson

 

This exploratory spirit of photography was something Pearson brought to his class—each week was different. In one class, Pearson introduced us to both historic and contemporary photographers and asked us to make portraits in a few of their styles. He took us on field trips to the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Institute of Art to view exhibitions that dealt with themes we were to focus on for the next week’s assignment. He showed us clips of artists working in mediums outside photography, like performance art and sculpture, to show us different ways of interpreting the broad themes he gave us. All of these activities not only helped us think about different ways to approach our work, but they also kept the class fresh and unexpected.

Every class began with pinning up our most recent images and doing a short critique. Our small size and similar demographic—five young women—allowed us to be open and candid in our work and feedback, such as addressing women's issues. I felt encouraged to make photographs that examined more personal themes and was rewarded with a receptive atmosphere. Pearson also took us through scanning negatives and making prints of our images.

Colleen Eversman giving critique during class. Photo by Tom Bierlein.

Colleen Eversman giving critique during class. Photo by Tom Bierlein ’19.

 

Colleen Eversman, a local freelance photographer who also took the class, thought it was the perfect environment to experiment. “What I like most is that it feels like a place to explore your own ideas with the direction of wisdom and experience of your instructors. Sometimes left to my own devices, I take myself down a rabbit hole, so having some direction from an instructor is really helpful,” she says.

As a photographer who primarily shoots with a DSLR (digital single-lens reflex camera), using a disposable camera actually felt more freeing, rather than frustrating. It was also humbling—a good reminder not to take myself too seriously. I approached each assignment with an excitement and readiness to make something that was meaningful to me, but I embraced the relinquishing of control. Would the shot be in focus? Was there enough light? I never knew quite how the images would turn out, and I wholeheartedly embraced the element of surprise in their creation.

As one example, I used an assignment on the themes of beauty, history, and change to meditate on my parents’ recent move from the house they had owned for thirteen years to a townhome. Some of the photos were out of focus, some poorly lit, and some caught the classic finger in the corner of the frame, but I appreciated their rawness and realness.

Rita Kovtun Photography

Rita Kovtun Photography

Rita Kovtun Photography

Images shot for the assignment on beauty, history, and change. Photos by Rita Kovtun.

 

Our assignments were so broad that we were able to find our own ways to approach them; one person’s photos looked completely different than someone else’s. This was something Pearson had aimed to do—tailoring the class more to our interests—when he signed on to teach his first CE class.

“I liked the idea of not having to grade anybody and having more of a casual environment. Also the small class size and working with people that are not necessarily artists but just need a release. There’s not really an end game for them, which I like,” he says.

“I liked the idea of the small class size and working with people that are not necessarily artists but just need a release.”

Narrative in 27 Frames is the perfect class for students to delve into their ideas without the roadblock of material or technology. And, like all film cameras, disposables delay the instant gratification of immediately seeing photos and they provide a limited set of frames, forcing the user to truly consider what they’re shooting. It’s no wonder other photographers are turning to this medium as an exercise to rediscover their craft.

In an already image-saturated age, a class like this one can help students gain an understanding of how to creatively produce and articulate the potency of the photograph while finding their own voice.

Jason Pearson is currently the curator at the Duluth Art Institute.