After spending last weekend at the 50th Annual Society for Photographic Education’s National Conference in Chicago, a sold out symposium attended by more than 1,000 photo educators and students, I decided to examine the question: What is the value of a photo degree? Here are the pros and cons.
Created in 1963 as photography was emerging as a course of study in art departments rather than strictly journalism programs, the Society’s initial conference was attended by such photographic legends as Beaumont Newhall, Aaron Siskind, John Szarkowski, Jerry Uelsmann and Minor White. Today, SPE occupies a unique role in the photographic industry as it promotes “a broader understanding of the medium in all its forms through teaching and learning, scholarship, and criticism.”
Held at the Palmer House hotel in downtown Chicago and hosted by Columbia College Chicago’s Photography Department and the Museum of Contemporary Photography, the conference highlights included keynote presentations by Magnum photographer Martin Parr, fine art landscape photographer Richard Misrach, and fine art portrait photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa. Daily programs offered over the three day conference included Lightroom Seminars by Julieanne Kost of Adobe, ASMP presentations by Peter Krogh, Richard Kelly and Judy Hermann, bookmaking tutorials with Blurb and a variety of talks on subjects ranging from the Garry Winogrand archive to mobile photography’s role in social activism. The exhibition hall featured a wide range of industry booths with major displays by manufacturers Calumet, Canon, MacGroup, Sigma and Sony.
During rare breaks in the conference schedule, I was able to sit down with photo educators Stan Strembicki, professor of art at the College of Art at Washington University, Jay Gould, professor of photography at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and Steve Benson, associate professor at Daytona State College to discuss the merits of a photo degree.
Pictured from left: Jay Gould, Stan Strembicki and Steven Benson.
- Peer criticism and peer-to-peer learning. “It’s hard to think about making work in a vacuum, without peers to push you,” said Gould. “Critique is incredibly valuable as you have to give someone feedback. I do believe in a certain competitiveness that student’s have and they see what someone is working on and they want to do better. It does seem to elevate everyone’s work as they are aware of a certain threshold.”
- Presentation skills and the ability to talk with visual literacy about why a photograph is successful or not. “Even though we are making pictures, we still communicate through words, we still have to describe them, we still have to work with art directors and use words to come to terms with what we want,” said Gould.
- The academic community and exposure to ways in which photography intersects with other disciplines. Good schools have regular photography exhibitions, guest lecturers and visiting artists. Many degrees will allow for experimentation in related disciplines like graphic design, film, and digital media. "If the interest is commercial photography, there are two primary paths — assisting, workshops and tutorials or an applied photography program like our's at Daytona State College," said Benson. "It is worth noting that your chances of getting better assistant jobs will be much easier if you have a formal education in the field."
- Guidance and mentorship by a professor or group of professors who often have multi-faceted careers in the medium ranging from fine art to photojournalism. “Art schools and educational programs teach us to be self-critical, they give us a methodology and guidepost for moving our work forward,” says Strembicki.
- The ability and freedom to experiment with formats, cameras, lighting and types of imagemaking beyond simply digital.
- The ability to problem solve as technologies continue to evolve. “We are in a rapidly changing technological environment and in that kind of environment, you have to teach people to be creative problem solvers just as you teach students within their own work to discern what is good and bad in you're their work,” said Strembicki.
- A network of alumni that are working on some level in the field of photography and creative arts. This can often be a gateway to an internship, assistantship or first job right out of school. "It is not absolutely required to have a degree to be successful career as a commercial photographer but it can help to open more doors," said Benson.
- A degree makes you more well rounded and more interesting as a creative individual. “We all want to work with people who are interesting to us,” said Gould. “We base things on portfolio but we also base it on ‘how can we connect with them, what is it like to spend a great deal of time working with this person?’”
- A college degree is expensive and photographic study costs money for cameras, computers, software and printing material that other disciplines don't require. Saddled with loans, it can be an expensive burden to manage when a young photographer comes out of school ready to launch a career.
- Photo editors at magazines don't care about your degree or where you went to school. They care about your portfolio and if your images will solve their needs and work in their context of their project.
- You can learn a great deal by working as a photo assistant in a major market and fill gaps in your knowledge base with workshops and seminars.
While not a required ingredient for success in photography, formal academic training can foster a robust technical foundation for aspiring photographers. Ultimately, the decision is a personal one but the financial investment in a two to four year course of directed study in photography can be intimidating and a significant hurdle to manage when kickstarting a photo career. Should you ever hope to teach photography (and many of the great photographers of the 20th century were also educators), an undergraduate degree is essential when pursuing advanced degrees like a Master of Arts in Photojournalism or a Master of Fine Arts in Photography.
So, do you need a photo degree? The choice is yours.
More information on the Society for Photographic Education can be found online here: https://www.spenational.org.