The best college for photographers

My daughter is about to start her fresh-man (fresh-person?) orientation at college. This “momentous” occasion prompted me to think about college in general, as well as my own experience in college. Finally that led me to this blog entry, considering which is the “best” college for photographers.

I studied the craft of photography in high school, with a great teacher, Mike Coppenger. Mike taught me much of what I know about the tools of photography such as lenses, metering, optics, chemistry, darkroom work, etc. He was a former commercial/ studio photographer, so my natural inclination was to follow him down that path.

Despite that, my mother made it clear that she had “higher” aspirations for me. She would simply not let me become “just a photographer.” It was not that she disliked or did not respect Mike, my teacher. (In fact I think she really respected him as a teacher and appreciated how focused he was and how he kept me out of the kind of trouble that too many teenage boys often got into.)

My mother was not terribly clear about how I was going to do something “more.” She told me how in her mind, the University of Chicago was the paradigm of a serious academic institution. The fact that I could neither get into nor afford the costs of attending the University of Chicago ended that dream pretty fast.

So, when I all but stumbled on the small private liberal arts college that I eventually attended, Pitzer College, she was thrilled. When we learned how much financial aid I qualified for, I was ready to go. At Pitzer I studied the liberal arts, meaning a range of subjects from political science to philosophy to anthropology to film history to…..

What I loved about studying the liberal arts was that I was really “learning how to learn.” I was learning how to develop in-depth projects on my own, how to write about them coherently and how to convince others to support those projects (academically/financially or both.) I was learning how to draw upon my passions and curiosities.

After a year of studying the liberal arts, I also started studying the history of photography. Eventually that became my passion, leading me to spend a semester abroad as a college junior, traveling from museum to museum researching the history of photography. Dreaming that up, organizing it, getting the various permissions required, as well as getting research aid and academic credit for that semester’s work tested all my skills as an organizer, writer and planner. I later had an internship as a college senior, at the California Museum of Photography at the University of California at Riverside. Organizing that post so I could get academic credit for the internship as well as having my time at the museum count as my work study hours tested all my skills at organizing, negotiating and marketing. As a self-employed photographer producing in-depth photo-essays, the skills I refined in college, which appear to have nothing to do with photography have served me unbelievably well.

It was not that my mother was so smart that she knew that Pitzer would lead me to where I am today. I do think she knew that my life would be richer as a photographer (and as a person,) if I developed skills above and beyond the craft of capturing what was in front of the camera. Now I see how my mother has been proven right by history. Digital imaging, as I have blogged about before, has all but negated the need for skill component that was at the core of what I had learned in high school.

What has continued to serve me well is what I learned in college, about the art, history and meaning of photography. If you study the history of photography and the career paths of many important photographers, you will find that many photographers who created significant bodies of work have backgrounds in other areas of study than photography. The study of anthropology, art history, political science, biology and other academic specialties have been the launching pads that spurred many photographers to go on and do important work.

So what is the best four-year college for photographers? In my opinion it is not a trade school where you study the craft of photography, nor is it a business school where you study marketing. (Though both skills are important and should be acquired in other ways than in an academic setting.) Similarly, the best four-year college for photographers is not a college where you study photojournalism or environmental photography. In those areas, as in most other sub-specialties within photography, the technical skill or craft can be learned in many other ways (in or out of the classroom.)

In the case of photojournalism, an academic setting is the best place to gain the knowledge of history, economics, foreign language or political science needed to cover serious international stories in any great depth. Similarly, to knowledgeably photograph environmental issues requires knowledge of economics, biology, public policy, and philosophy, all of which are best learned in an academic setting.

The skills needed to do most any specialty in photography are probably learned best through an internship, workshops, assisting, on the job training mixed in with practice, practice and more practice. Today, the web is an unbelievable resource for speeding up the process of skill acquisition, which is what learning the craft of photography requires.

You will note, I have not named colleges when I am talking about the best college for photographers. There are many good colleges out there that will teach you the skills needed to be a photographer, varying from trade schools, to diploma programs to full blown graduate schools in photography. Keep in mind that since photography is continually changing, technically and aesthetically, investing all of your educational efforts in learning the craft will only serve you well for a few years.

On the other hand, studying at a college, where you learn to think, learn to ask questions and learn to actualize your passions and curiosities that will last a lifetime. As my daughter starts her four years of college, all I can hope for is that she finds her college experience as rewarding and life shaping as I found mine.

3 responses to “The best college for photographers”

  1. Very well written – photography requires more than technical skills, but some experience and knowledge i’d guess. Part of it you can gain from studying ideally a totally different subject whatever it is. I think this is acutally true for most jobs which require creativity & judgement beyond just applying craftmanship.

    Your essay puts it together so well – brilliant!

  2. A few years back colleges of engineering discovered that their graduates could do the math, but weren’t very good at dealing with people or verbally explaining their ideas. So now almost all engineering colleges require additional “liberal arts” courses as part of their engineering degrees.

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