Over the past few years there has been a lot of negativity thrown at attending school for photography. While there is some sound wisdom and reasoning behind these arguments, I would have to say that I am extremely proud to have gone to Columbia in Chicago, and I think most of my friends that have done so would agree (those at other art schools as well). Now, I must admit that I didn’t even graduate, or spend four years there, but my photo school experience has been invaluable to my career. I don't believe a degree will make any difference in the photo world, and it all comes down to who you know, your character, and your portfolio.
You Don't Have to Spend $100,000
To save money, I spent the first two years at a local community college. I’m not sure why most people don't talk about this as an option to save money and still go to good school for a couple years, but most community colleges will offer a couple of photo classes that will transfer into a bigger school. This allows you to take some design and web classes that will become helpful in running your business later.
I transferred into Columbia my third year of school, and spent three semesters there. I had bad grades in school most of my life. Not because I wasn't smart, but I just didn’t care and class bored me. Columbia pushed me in a way that I had never experienced before, and through a combination of talented professors and peer competition, I ended up maintaining a 4.0 GPA during my time there. I probably worked an average of 60 hours a week on assignments and shooting which prepared me for what it takes to make it happen in the real world. I competed with other students to win critiques and stand out, which is also similar to what happens when you are competing for jobs in the real world.
Most importantly, the craft and art of photography were drilled into me very deeply. That is the thing about the art world in comparison to most fields, you are learning two separate things that are both very hard on their own. Art and craft. Learning to see, think, breath, relate, translate, and communicate as an artist, all the while learning a relatively complicated craft and skill set, and then bonding the two together until they are synonymous.
Have a Plan, But Be Willing to Change It
Going into photo school, I knew that I wanted to be a portrait photographer. Editorial was what I really loved, and I also knew that advertising was a good way to really pay the bills and fund personal work. I didn’t look at school as a way to get a degree and have someone recognize me for anything. It was just a tool to get where I wanted to be. Having a mindset that let me constantly evaluate school as a tool let me focus on my larger life goals and then fit what school offered into that plan, rather than just planning my life around what the school's statistics promised me upon graduation.
Aside from doing the required course work, I was constantly pushing myself to do what the next-level students were doing. Things like figuring out studio lighting on my own, and adding it into assignments a semester or two before other students were, and other various technical things that I wouldn’t have done for another year or so in school.
During my third semester there, I accepted an opportunity to start assisting and working with a film crew. I had utilized the school's resources and knowledge as much as I could in three semesters, and decided saying yes to a real world opportunity was better than sticking around for another year.
Art and Craft
There are a lot of great photographers that have never spent a day in school, and others who have master's degrees in photography. My point isn’t that school is necessary for success, but that it shouldn't be written off as a waste of time that holds you back from the real world. Look at it as a tool just like any other business investment, and see if it makes sense for you.
Photography is much more than just learning a craft or being an artist. So many people nail one and miss the other. How many photographers do you know that are brilliant creatives, but couldn’t light a backdrop and are living on beans and rice, or others that are amazingly technical image makers, but don't really have any images that define who they are as artists? As photographers, whether we go to school or not, we need to constantly be pushing ourselves in both our craft and artistic vision. We stand on the shoulders of many generations who have gone before us to make us who we are today.
The people that master both art and craft are usually the ones that stand out and are looked up to for years. Be it photo school or not, we have to be constantly pushing and allowing ourselves to be put into situations that make us better at both. Only you know where you truly want to be. Trust your gut and not just some other photographer's opinion and experience, or you'll end up spending a lot of time trying to emulate them and not be yourself.