How can you put a letter or a number on something so fleeting as the content of a photograph?
This article originally appeared in the summer 1999 edition of Communication: Journalism Education Today.
by Jack Zibluk, assistant professor, Arkansas State University
Diane Arbus is famous for her disturbing photographs of everyday life and characters on the fringe of society. She often cropped out her subjects heads, feet and arms. Her work may hang in art museums worldwide, but what grade would she receive in a photography class? How can you put a letter or a number on something so fleeting as the content of a photograph? There is no one perfect method. Each has its strengths and weaknesses.
James Gordon, professor emeritus of photojournalism at Bowling Green State University, developed a system in the 1960s to try to give some structure to the process and mitigate some of the subjectivity involved. Similar systems are used elsewhere, including at Arkansas State University’s photojournalism program. In his system, students receive a numerical score from one to 10 in five areas: composition, negatives, printing, creativity/originality and cutlines or a written description of the photo. The student is then given an aggregate score. At Arkansas State, students have given the grading system uniformly high marks on annual student evaluations, fours and fives on a scale of one to five.
Gordon, too, had few complaints. “It gave them something they could at least understand. You couldn’t always eliminate my opinion but at least they knew what I was looking for,” Gordon said recently. He said he saw a similar system used at Syracuse University in the 1960s and it just ”evolved from there.” Of course, not one model fits every educator’s, or student’s, needs.
Curtis Steele, chairman of the art department at Arkansas State, gives two letter grades. “Two grades are assigned to each piece. First is how well the photograph accomplishes the assignment (“show motion,” “shape,” etc.) and the esthetics of the composition, including some technical qualities. Second is a technical grade that encompasses everything from focus (in camera) to final print quality including things like cleanly cut and square edges, unmarred print surface.”
Tom Hubbard, former professor of photojournalism at Ohio State, is also no fan of numerical grades. “I finally abandoned the form because a picture could accumulate hefty points and really not communicate much,” he said. “I went to a more subjective analysis. I decided that the strong points of any photo are subjective so I would analyze and reward those strengths.” Hubbard said he found the critique and subjective analysis method worked well with new technologies. “I went to color negatives and Photoshop about 1994. I was the first to completely abandon the wet lab. Students would shoot and have their film developed at a photofinisher. They would scan their negatives on a Polaroid scanner and “print” in Photoshop.”
”This was my grading system: Students would leave their photos on a server in the lab. They placed their photo in a folder they could write to but could not open. After the deadline, I would take them off on a Zip disk and take them home to grade. I would open the photo in Photoshop and also open MS Word. I would look at the image and make free-form comments and assign a grade in Word. I figured my system was close to a coaching session such as a newsroom editor might give. (It takes a pretty good monitor and ample memory to run Photoshop and Word at the same time.)”
Of course, computer-only grading has its pitfalls. “I had two problems I never could correct,” Hubbard said. “One was filenames. No paper or prints were handed in so there wasn’t the automatic name at the top of the paper. I needed their name and the assignment name in the filename. ”myphoto” didn’t give me much clue to who did it. The other was file size. I requested under a thousand K but often got 20MB files. Now, a 20MB file and Photoshop and MS Word WOULD choke my computer.”
With digital projects at Arkansas State, the instructor alters Gordon’s system, eliminating printing and substituting a technical grade covering exposure for the grade on negatives. Both Hubbard’s OSU program and the photojournalism program at Arkansas State offer students the chance to re-do work. “Most took advantage of this and learned the much more while re-doing assignments. There was student incentive because they seemed to think I was allowing them to get away with something. He told me what to do and improved my grade for doing it,” Hubbard said.
Despite efforts to assign letters and numbers to photos, some believe that you just have to go with your gut instincts. “After 20 years in the business I have never numbered photos I have seen,” said Ken Bizzigotti, a photographer with the Poughkeepsie Journal. ”Maybe its the old fart in me but I go by my first reaction when I see a photo. As you walk by the photo will make you stop and look closer. Good subject matter or a good photo will cause a reaction. That’s what it is all about.”
Three photo evaluation forms are available in PDF format
Photo Evaluation Form 1
(by Deanne Brown, Westlake HS, Austin, Texas)
Photo Evaluation Form 2
(by Jack Zibluk, Arkansas State University)