Photographic Education

Many years have passed since I was an official student at a college of art. I attended Ball State University in the twentieth century…

Many years have passed since I was an official student at a college of art. I attended Ball State University in the twentieth century. Let’s just leave it at that, shall we? But every day that goes by since then, I think about photography. I think about the photo not taken. I think about how I would apply the Zone System to the dramatic clouds over the western sky as I go into work. I see posts on Twitter about a zine just published by a photographer who spent some time over the pandemic making work by shooting out the car window as he drove through his part of the midwest. I think about photography every day.

My education at BSU was standard. I followed the rules, I tried to get good grades, I tried to complete work to the standards I thought my professors expected. I did not graduate magna cum laude, or any other combination of latin words which evoke a sense of superiority. I did okay. I discovered too late, when I didn’t care about getting a ‘good’ grade, and actually cared about what I was doing, that I created meaningful work. I went the extra distance to experiment with ideas and concepts on the cheap (hey, I was an art student after all), and found that the best resource I could find wasn’t the newest Nikon autofocus camera (ten bonus points to the first person to recall that a premium feature was that the camera could focus all by itself), but the grey junk between my ears. The brain, silly, not hair. That came much later.

When I was asked what my plans were for after college, I wasn’t sure. In my senior year of college I had an exhibition of my photography in my hometown. The woman from the gallery asked this question about future plans, aand I answered that I would like to teach photography in order to pass along the joy of what I had experienced in college. My mother was an art teacher in a local high school, there were educators and high school principals in my extended family, education and creative expression ran through generations of my family. My sister followed in my mother’s footsteps, and remains an art teacher in a local school to this day.

But I chose a different path.

I worked in desktop publishing when that was a thing. That job lead me to working in higher-education publishing, as a Photo Manager. I managed the photo program for college textbooks, which entailed hiring freelance researchers, performing photo research myself, editing and presenting photo selections for the books, working within budgets, paying the invoices… lather, rinse, repeat. In some little way, I was working with images that helped convey ideas. The primary viewer was a student. Over a couple of other jobs in the same vein, I worked on books and products which reached thousands of students. I learned about a number of different topics in order to know how best to illustrate the teachable topics through the photographic image. Nobody taught me how to do this specific function, but the foundation was there from my art background.

I had the good fortune to review a book published by Grant Scott this past year. The book is titled, New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography. Scott is an educator and photographer with decades of experience in the industry and in education. I was honored to be asked to review the book, and it sparked a renewed interest in me over the topic of photographic education. I got in touch with my friend and former professor at BSU, and I’ve mentioned a couple of times that I’d love to write about the current state of education for photography at the college level.

The state of the nation, so to speak, is not an optimistic one generally speaking. Many people in the academic world bemoan the current student of photography as one who already knows everything — of course. They have their iPhone, what more do they need to know? “How good am I? Just look, I have 2,500 followers on Instagram!” The technical aspects of the art, in some sense, are not as intensive to learn and master as in the analog photography world. I’ll catch hell for that statement, but just stay with me for a bit longer.

Scott mentions an important topic in his book: transferable skills. It’s one I felt I got while in college as well. Transferable skills are crucial for a higher rate of success in the future careers of photo students now. They might know the ins and outs of how to navigate the world of social media and their mirrorless digital camera, but how do they fare in the social world? If you cannot mine the wealth of skills needed to work with others, to flesh out the details of a project, ask pertinent questions, conduct non-linear thinking and apply the answers, then we are left with a bunch of information silos. Why do students bother to create meaningful work? They have to care about it. It needs to matter.

I recently pitched the idea of community outreach for getting high school students interested in learning photography in college by partnering with schools to relate the ‘why’ of photography. If early students of photography deal with the question of ‘why’ bothering to create work, to tell a story visually, to communicate in a visual way when the written way is not sufficient — maybe more students will become interested in studying photography in college. Maybe educators of visual communication can bridge the generational gap and encourage Gen Z students to explore the possibilities of a photographic education, and apply it to a wide range of career opportunities.