Teaching to see: A master photographer helps students get the picture

Medford Taylor’s own work lines the walls of his office. The master photographer is teaching Intro to Digital Photography at Sweet Briar this semester.
Master photojournalist Medford Taylor is teaching Intro to Digital Photography at Sweet Briar this semester. His students gather around to critique their assignment-based portfolios each week.

These days, when Emily Jones ’19 takes a photograph there’s a lot going through her mind.

“[I’m] paying more attention to angles and lighting and working with shutter speed — knowing when and how to use these resources sufficiently and effectively. Also, I learned a lot about photo composition,” she says.

She’s learning it from a master.

Medford Taylor is internationally known for his photojournalism and nature photography. He’s published books and photo essays and freelanced across the globe for National Geographic, TIME, Newsweek and other publications.

One thing he’s never done — until now — is teach undergraduate students for whom introductory digital photography is an elective course. It’s an assignment he leapt into with gusto in the wake of a thwarted attempt to close Sweet Briar in 2015.

“I am excited and feel so fortunate to be on the faculty at this propitious moment in the life of Sweet Briar College,” he said last April, when his appointment was announced. “I truly believe that Sweet Briar is destined to be stronger and even more relevant than at any time in its one-hundred-and-ten-year history.”

The course introduces the fundamentals of digital image capture, composition and print production, as well as the basics of post-processing with Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom. To start, the students got acquainted with their cameras and went through drills to understand aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings.

Jones is a studio art major, so the class counts toward it — and she’s considering a career in photography.

Students experiment with studio lighting.
Students experiment with studio lighting.

“I wanted to take this class to improve my photography,” she says. “I had an intuitive understanding of my craft, but I knew I had a lot to learn about the composition of good photographs as well as how to use the tools of the trade — my digital camera, editing software, etc. Having the opportunity to study with a successful professional has vastly improved my skills.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Baylee Worth ’18, who signed up for a fun elective to “offset a bunch of classes” for her history and psychology majors. In reality, it’s stretched her comfort zone, she says.

Taylor focuses on teaching his students to “see” the extraordinary in everyday scenes. In the last class before Thanksgiving break, eight of his 11 students gathered around a large computer monitor in his office while he flipped through the online portfolio of a professional photographer. She’d gone to the Louvre in Paris and took a series of photographs that zoomed in on details of clothing in famous paintings, he explained.

“So there are ideas everywhere,” he said. “You can extract images from a whole. Again, it’s about seeing. It’s all about seeing.”

That doesn’t come naturally to Worth, she admits — and Taylor hasn’t shied from pointing it out in class. Every week, they critique assignment-based additions to their portfolios; they’ll compile their best images into a book at the end of the semester.

“I think I have gotten better since the beginning of the class, but don’t really think in ways that are conducive to arts,” Worth says. “I am experiencing another side of the liberal arts education that I am not comfortable with, but am learning from.”

And on that day, Taylor saw strides in the work she’d turned in for the class. With her classmates looking over Taylor’s shoulder, he clicked through her photos.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said. “You’re polishing them up. Baylee, you just improved your whole shooting portfolio one hundred percent. Good on you. And don’t stop.”

Some of the students' best work hangs on the classroom wall.
Some of the students’ best work hangs on the classroom wall.

That’s typical of Taylor, who is plainspoken and utterly passionate about photography. Teaching undergraduates who fit it into their busy academic lives is an adjustment.

“It requires the most discipline on my part to project myself on that level, but it’s kind of fun,” he confessed. “When they get it, when they come up with an image that I didn’t expect, something off the wall, I really appreciate that. My concept of good photography is, ‘Show me something I’ve never seen before.’ ”

And the students have delivered, including Skylar Peavley’s “far-out” images of dogs that are all teeth and whirling motion or her fellow students appearing like ghosts in black and white photos.

At the start of the semester, each student chose a theme for her portfolio, and the senior math major is building hers around movement.

Peavley has studied photography before, taking film classes in high school. Taylor’s course has made her be as careful with her digital camera as she was with film, she says, and it’s reminded her of the craft’s appeal.

“I’ve kind of fallen back in love,” she said.

Taylor prompted the group as he went through their week’s work.

“What would be the classical angle on this?” he asked, displaying a photo of a sundial, or “[What makes this] a good picture?”

He paused over Jones’ portrait of a classmate, an example of surreal photography inspired by Joel Robison. Jones has admired Robison’s work for a couple of years and she chose to research him to fulfill the class requirement of reporting on a master photographer.

The “selfie” depicts her friend standing in front of a giant cell phone. Jones uses software to manipulate her images, shrinking the subject or subjects relative to their surroundings.

“Up to your usual stuff, Emily,” Taylor decreed. “Good.”

Emily Jones' environmental portrait is inspired by the surrealist photography of Joel Robison.
Brea Marshall ’17 appears to tickle the keys in Emily Jones’ photo.

The critique over, the students moved into the studio, where Taylor gave them pointers as they experimented with using lights for their next assignment. Over the holiday break, they were to take an environmental portrait of a friend or family member.

“Don’t be bashful,” he told them. “The more you fill the frame, the more powerful it’s going to be.”

“Environmental portraits are fascinating because it’s a one-picture story. If they’re really good you can look at the one picture and it’ll tell you the whole thing right there.”

Worth photographed her beagle, nestled on the family couch.

“I love my dog, so I was extremely happy with how my portraits of him went,” Worth says. “Many others took pictures of their families, but I was glad I was able to enjoy the moment with them without being concerned about getting pictures. Especially when I have such a perfect model.”

That’s an outcome Taylor would take any day.

“I just hope after they leave Sweet Briar, they see photographs in a different way and appreciate them. I hope they’ll take some of this and keep taking photographs,” says Taylor, who’ll be back to teach another course in the spring.

He recalls two classes from college — music appreciation and speech — that had nothing to do with his major.

“Both of those things benefit me still today,” he says.