Interview with Lesley Punton,
Head of BA (Hons) Fine Art Photography (Acting)
Department of Fine Art Photography
The Glasgow School of Art
Text by: Funky He
The Photography Programme at The Glasgow School of Art has an international reputation for excellence. Established in 1982, it was the first programme of its kind in Europe to award a BA (Hons) Degree in Fine Art Photography and has produced successive generations of successful graduates, many of whom are now leaders in their field.
ART.ZIP: What makes you most proud of this programme and what is unique about it?
LP: It is the students that make me most proud of this programme. I suppose that this is always the case but it is the students who make the programme. Our students are really committed and they are come from very diverse backgrounds. The Glasgow School of Art is actually quite a small institution, hence the relationship you build up with the students is very different to the one you may build up in a large university, so is the ability to have a friendship with students. We work with them quite intensively over a four year period and actually you know them pretty well. You see quite well the journey they’ve gone on.
ART.ZIP: 關於格拉斯哥藝術學院攝影本科課程，最讓你值得驕傲的地方在哪裡? 這個課程有哪些獨特之處呢？
ART.ZIP: What criteria are you looking for in students who want to apply for this course?
LP: In terms of what makes entrance, for me as an artist, is the fact that this is a fine art course. It’s not a fashion course or an editorial one; it is purely a fine art photography course. That is one thing what we often have difficulty with. When we are recruiting people often don’t understand that straight away and obviously if students predominately apply for a fashion course, we have to reject them. But it is also really important to let students know that is what we do before they come here. It is not the other forms of photography are less in anyway, it just they are different.
All the staff who teach in the department are artists. They are all artists who have some connection with photography; some have very a clear specialism like Professor Thomas Joshua Cooper, who is quite well known in terms of his landscape and seaside photography. But the other staff have practices perhaps that originate in photography but actually diversify into other areas. And actually, it is what we see in our students as well quite often. We have got staff who work with film, installation, sculpture, and some photography. Personally, I predominantly work with drawing and texts but I do work photographically as well.
該專業所有任教的老師都是藝術家。他們的創作都同攝影有著一定的聯繫，有些教員在攝影領域頗有建樹，比如說擅長景觀和海濱攝影的托馬斯·喬舒亞·庫珀教授（Thomas Joshua Cooper），但也有些老師的實踐最初來自攝影，但後來延伸到了其他領域中去；他們中有人做電影、裝置、雕塑，一些則是攝影。從我個人來說，我的實踐主要涉及繪畫和文字，但同樣運用攝影作為媒介。
ART.ZIP: As far as we know most universities in England run a 3 year undergraduate course. What is the concept behind having a 4 year BA Fine Art Photography programme at the Glasgow School of Art?
LP: I don’t why exactly but according to the Scottish education system, we have 4 year undergraduate courses here. And the first year has traditionally always been a foundation year. It’s similar to the foundation year in England. Actually English students generally don’t need to do the four years but they might have done their first year in a different institution.
The first year used to be like a foundation course but it’s now become more specialised. Although it is still viewed as an opportunity to explore all the fine art subjects, students arrive with a specialism. Students might have projects are common to sculpture and environmental, painting and printmaking. There is one project that first year students have to do which is called the Body Project. Students are actually free to work with all the media that they want – hey don’t have to do it photographically. It is a chance for them to try out different things and to get feedback from a range of staff who they may not normally meet.
The very first project for students is actually a drawing project, but for photography students that drawing may take the form of cyanotypes and alternative processes – they can draw on the paper physically, use brushes or perhaps use pinhole photography where actual light leaks marks onto the paper. They don’t necessary need much skill but patience, time and focus.
ART.ZIP: There has often been a misguided perception that studying photography is merely about learning techniques. What is the importance of learning the history and theory of photography? And what percentage of research into history and theory is included in the programme?
LP: One day a week is dedicated to academic study which is run by the Forum for Critical Inquiry which used to be called Historical and Critical Studies. The end percentage depends on what you want to do at the end of the final year students have the choice to do an extended essay or dissertation. It can be between 15% and 20% of your mark.
The study runs one day a week right through the entire four years. In the first year, there are a lot more lectures on the history of art or on particular subjects. And in the second and third years, students would start to select their own subjects. But the idea of research actually comes from the studio practice as well. Research in the studio component is marked and becomes 20% of the grade. So that includes gallery, and museum visits or web links and students provide the evidence through sketchbooks and so on. But it also includes primary research.
LP: 我們每周有一天關於攝影史及理論的學習，這個課程是由格拉斯哥藝術學院批判性探索論壇(Forum for Critical Inquiry)所主持的，原先被稱作歷史和批判性學習(Historical and Critical Studies)。其所占總課程的比例約占15％到20％。然而這都取決於學生在畢業時的決定，到底是選擇項目拓展性論文還是畢業論文。
ART.ZIP: Can you tell us something about the final project in the last year?
LP: The dissertation is the theoretical component of the major work and that is about 12,000 words. And an extended essay is slightly shorter than that. It can be on any subject that the student chooses, and it is usually something the students are interested in relation to their own practice. But it can be absolutely anything.
When it comes to the final degree submission the presentation for the degree show – students can present any form that their work has evolved to take. I mean it is an examination rather than an exhibition. But how our students install the work tells us a lot about the quality of their practice. We encourage our students to exhibit as much as they can, right through the course, but particularly in the third and fourth years. We’ve got lot of project spaces where students can book, try things out and so on. So it’s likely that the final presentation will take the form of works installed in a space that has been allocated, which the size is about five meters square. Students might show finished photographs or they may propose a dark space to show film and video, because a lot of students are working with moving images. They may choose a mixture of media like photographs and sculptures. Or occasionally we may not see a photograph; despite this is a fine art photography course.
ART.ZIP: Apart from basic photography facilities such as darkrooms and printing spaces, what other facilities can students benefit from on the programme?
LP: The workshops based here are primarily photographic ones, but the technical support department across school means students can actually get access to any technical workshop area. If every single student wants to do screen-printing, there isn’t a way to do that. So we’ve got a proposal form that students can write a proposal for a specific piece of work they are making, and usually we try to fit that in.
There is an electronic media studio, which was in the fine art area but that has now moved to a new building. It has expanded to incorporate – the design school facilities as well, so it has become a large area. Hopefully it has same coverage as it had before. This studio includes film editing, DV cameras and so on. So the technical facilities are out there and the libraries are pretty good as well.
ART.ZIP: What is the size of a year group here at GSA?
LP: We have roughly about 104 at the moment across four years, and that includes two MA students as well. So it’s about 25 students on average every year.
One of the advantages of the Glasgow School of Art is, as a small institution that you can connect with other departments and you can also have a real sense that people are like a family. It does means it is difficult to get in, because it only 25 places. It is quite competitive.
ART.ZIP: Glasgow is a vibrant city with a legendary art and music scene over the last century. What can the city bring to the students studying here?
LP: Glasgow is an amazing city for art. Glasgow doesn’t look to London for recognition. Glasgow sees itself as one of the centres, there are numerous Turner Prize winners that comes from the Glasgow School of Art in proportion to its scale.
There is the chance to get your work seen – there are loads of buildings that are potentially usable as galleries spaces. There are lots of D.I.Y which goes on and it’s less easy to do that in London. Rents are getting very high but students here can get quite a lot of spaces for free and it is cheaper as well.
Glasgow is an edgy city. It’s a bit rough. It is a bit raw. It is not as gentle as Edinburgh, which is a very beautiful city. Glasgow has got dilemmas but it has a dynamic that Edinburgh doesn’t have. Edinburgh maybe has a festival but that is held once a year when students are usually are not here.
ART.ZIP: Do many of your students apply for the Edinburgh Fringe or Art Festival?
LP: We don’t see many people doing that because it is more theatre than visual art. But Edinburgh is a very good place that has loads of galleries there is rivalry between the two cities, but it only 49 minutes away by train.
ART.ZIP: 有很多學生會申請參加每年的愛丁堡藝穗節(Edinburgh Festival Fringe)或愛丁堡藝術節（Edinburg Art Festival）嗎？
ART.ZIP: What do you expect your students to learn from their 4 years of study?
LP: They will learn different things. Some will learn who they actually are but the most important part of any students development in any institution is to learn how to be an independent thinker. They may have learnt how to be artists and we hope that is what they have learnt. But they may also take different avenues maybe less directly related to visual art. They learn skills like problem-solving and independent thinking, and that independence is really one of the most important things they can have.
Fundamentally, they learn how to make art and how to enrich their own lives. It is important to talk about the contribution to the community but there is a great degree of self-realisation and fulfilment in making art.
ART.ZIP: How about the MA Photography course at GSA?
LP: We have an MA course and an MFA course. The MA is specialised and it lasts for one full year – that is – from September to September. We also have a MFA course, which spans two academic years – that is – from September to June, and then again September to June the following year.
I actually studied on the MFA course here. I have to say that I feel it’s quite a freedom to have that little bit longer than a traditional one year MA. The MA is multi-disciplinary and the aim is to specialise. Currently we run an MA Programme in Photography and Moving Image and also an MA in Print Making, Drawing and Sculpture – so there are various pathways for the MA. The MFA students tend to work across medias. They may come with a specific discipline, but often they change what they doing during the course of these two years.
ART.ZIP: What’s your advice to students who want to study photography at the Glasgow School of Art as a whole?
LP: It is really hard work and you just need to do it everyday. You have to love it, it sounds clichéd but if you come here, you have to work hard. You have to take it seriously. I think there is perception of art school that been something where people can get an easy degree. That’s possibly true in some institutions. To get a first class degree you have to do a lot of work and probably more than most other university students might have to do.
Students get access to the building from 9 o’clock in the morning to 11 o’clock in at night. You have individual studio spaces and that is one of our unique things for a photography course. Students have their own studios generally. And students can make their work and try it out and put it up on the wall. Students may share the studios during the first and second years but then they will have more individual spaces during their third and fourth years. Students can do many different things in their studio – sometimes it can be a production space, sometimes a thinking space, and sometimes a common space. Sometimes it comes an empty area because you don’t know what to do next. But it is a place you can go and have time, which is one of the most important parts of the programme as a studio based course.
About Lesley Punton:
Lesley Punton is a photographic artist. She studied at Glasgow School of Art in Fine Art from 1986 to 1990. Lesley continued her study at GSA and was awarded her MA in Fine Art in 1992. Lesley Punton was a full-time lecturer in Fine Art at Glasgow School of Art before becoming acting head of the BA Fine Art Photography Programme in July 2013 to present.