What Photo School is about

Photo School with Pete Ashton

Photo School is the educational side of what I do. I’m an artist based in Birmingham who works with cameras and photography. This requires me to have a solid and in-depth knowledge of photography, both technically and aesthetically.

I have found that explaining photography to people brings great clarity to my understanding of cameras and hugely benefits my art. In turn, through exploring the fundamentals of the medium in my art I am able to bring multiple and fresh approaches to my teaching, so if one explanation doesn’t work for you I’m able to try another.

About Pete Ashton

I’m a Birmingham-based artist who works primarily with cameras and photography. I’m a Fellow at Birmingham Open Media, a centre for art, science and tech in Birmingham city centre where I do what’s currently called “lens-based art”. I also co-run the Birmingham Camera Obscura project with Jenny Duffin where we’re building and exploring 1000-year old cameras from before the invention of photography.

So it’s safe to say I’m pretty obsessed with cameras and think about them a lot, often in some quite odd ways.

Oddly, I’ve never felt comfortable calling myself a “Photographer”. That label harks to an age when photography was an elitist pursuit for those who could afford it. Nothing about that world appealed to me, and while I’ve dabbled in making limited edition prints and stood in as a wedding photographer, it was never for me.

But I was always obsessed with cameras and the images they make. There’s something wonderful about how a photo tells both truth and lies, illuminating the soul while eliminating the context. A little box that stores reflected light changed our world, and I don’t think we’ve really figured out what that means, especially as cameras become ubiquitous.

That’s why I call myself an artist who works primarily with cameras. And it’s why I’m not interested in selling prints or shooting your wedding!

Now, unless you hire me as an Artist, it’s unlikely any of this will come into my Photo School work. But it’s always there, fuelling my curiosity and fascination with how people figure out how to create with their camera, and my desire to help my students get there.

One of our first classes in early 2012.

How it all started

Photo School was started by myself and my friend Matt Murtagh in January 2012. We’d noticed that many of our friends were buying DLSR cameras with lots of functions but had no idea how to use them. The manuals were off-putting and they generally just left them on auto.

So we ran a class, using Cartier-Bresson’s approach to street photography as our framework, the upstairs of city centre pub as our classroom and the streets of central Birmingham as our workshop. Feedback was pretty good so we tweaked it, and ran it again, and again.

After a couple of years Matt got a teaching job at a real school, so I took on the bulk of Photo School, merging its development with my emerging artist practice. Photo School is now an extension of me, but would be nothing without Matt’s hard work in those first years. His influence runs through everything I do like letters in rock-candy.

From the outset Photo School was designed to keep costs to a minimum and to pay us a decent wage. Where possible we traded favours and services for venue space and haven’t spent anything on marketing or advertising, relying on word-of-mouth and Internet searches. Photo School is a slow-build enterprise, intended to be sustainable by growing within its means.