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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Glen Fishback, Photographer and Teacher

My internship project in the National Museum of American History Archives Center involves processing the Glen Fishback Collection. Over the past several weeks, I have looked through most of the boxes in the collection and gotten a sense of Fishback’s work. Fishback was a professional photographer in Northern California, active from the 1930s until the 1970s. He began his career as a newspaper photographer and then quit the job to open his own portrait and commercial studio. In the mid-50s, he sold the studio to work as a free-lancer and opened his own school of photography. Over the course of his career, he won ten first places in major photography contests, achieving the best competition record for a photographer. His subjects are incredibly varied and include his children, nudes, nature, the Far East, the Air Force, circus performers, and architecture.

Glen Fishback giving demonstration.  Photographer unidentified.  Silver gelatin photographic print, ca. 1950s.Glen Fishback Papers and Photographs, ca. 1930-1976, Archives Center, NMAH.

As I was processing the collection, one of the things that surprised me was Fishback's approach to teaching. He was willing to share the “tricks of the trade” in a profession that is competitive. He had no formal training in photography. He was a perpetual, self-described “senior in good-standing” chemistry major who learned photography after leaving the University of California two months before graduation due to health reasons. One of his motivations for teaching was to help amateurs avoid the mistakes he had made.

Before starting his school, Fishback first taught informally by writing technical articles for photography magazines, then teaching classes and hosting a traveling lecture series. One article that stood out to me was a 1953 article for Popular Photography titled “Can Picture Quality be Measured?” In the article, Fishback discusses his extensive research of analyzing thousands of photographs in order to prepare for his course, titled “Producing Successful Photographs.” This research led him to determine that there are at least 64 factors which contribute to the success of a photograph and that usually “the interest of any picture increased in proportion to the number of elements it incorporated.”  Examples of factors include: tonal contrast, originality, story-telling quality, isolation of subject, cute kids, pretty girls, family theme, and deep emotions. I find it interesting that Fishback was willing to quantify the evaluation of photographs in contrast to the usually vague judgment statements given in evaluations. Attendees of Fishback’s lecture agreed that his teaching style was unique.  One commenter called it “the most original and worthwhile teaching technique which has been developed in America in the last ten years.”

Glen Fishback and students at his school, ca. 1960s.  Photographer unidentified.  Silver gelatin photographic print.Glen Fishback Papers and Photographs, ca. 1930-1976, Archives Center, NMAH.

When Fishback started his school in 1960s, he continued the teaching strategy developed in his lecture series and articles. The curriculum was based on two key concepts: (1) Simplicity + Placement + Contrast + Emotional Impact + Imagination makes up the great majority of really fine pictures, and (2) all pictures are made up of various interest factors (his 64 elements).  Although Fishback wanted to simplify photography, he was very quick to deny that photography could simply be reduced to an equation. In the outline for his school, it states, “Art as a form of expression cannot be reduced to a formula, but there are certain logical concepts gleaned from experience which an artist or photographer can use as a guide. My so-called formula constitutes an orderly approach to the problem of creating a successful picture.” He was so adamant about this point that anyone wanting to reproduce his outline had to include this statement.  Fishback called for the photographer not just to rely on the formula or the camera, but to craft his own thinking skills in order to achieve successful photographs.

Like his lecture series, Fishback’s school was also unique. It was the only school at the time which taught photographers how to become free-lancers; it was open to both professionals and amateurs; and it combined the technical, aesthetic, and business sides of photography. It was also a family effort; Fishback’s wife and two children worked at the school. Fishback’s success at teaching is attested by the fact that many of his students went on to become professional photographers.

Laura Grant, Smith College Intern
Archives Center, National Museum of American History

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