You will find a lot of columns and articles on the web featuring photographers outlining the ways in which going to a photography school and earning a photography degree is deficient in preparing a (future) photographer for the realities of a career as a shutterbug. And those articles and columns make a lot of good points.
Art degrees do often fail to include well fleshed-out coverage of practical business practices, cultivating marketing savvy, maybe the necessary writing skills that can prove necessary for some kinds of photography work and the details of some practicalities you’d never consider. Practicalities like protecting your images from unlicensed use, fixing broken printers, dealing with unhinged customers and unscrupulous competitors and perhaps too little about navigating ethical quandaries.
In my experience photography seems to attract people with more solitary and/or self-sufficient dispositions. It’s not an art or career that requires all that much collaboration much of the time and more intangibly, Freud might argue that there’s something inherently isolating about the use of a camera. Whatever the case, I suspect that tendency is partially responsible for the popularity of downplaying the importance of an education in photography. There’s no question there are things you’ll need to learn for yourself but there’s a lot a foundational education can give you that you just won’t find elsewhere. Here are a few of them:
Profs with an Eye for Photography and Peers to Critique Your Work
This is a big one and can be more important than people realize. Even photographers with a great natural eye can almost always stand to improve some feature of their work - composition, light work, framing, whatever. Unless someone’s lucky enough to have a family and circle of friends who are in possession of a technical and artistic understanding photographic expertise far greater than the average person, getting their critiques and opinions can only help so much, if at all.
You may be compelled to explain or defend your choices and work which will force you to think about those choices and that work. You’ll have an opportunity to examine and critique the works of fellow students too- learning from their mistakes and masterstrokes. Being in a position where no one reviewing your work feels obligated to simply compliment it can take you out of your comfort zone but is absolutely necessary. Speaking of which…
Taken Out of Your Comfort Zone
I shot for a college newspaper and my first year virtually everybody on staff wanted to be a sports writer or photographer. I was the exception. A couple years later, no one did. All the sports guys had graduated or left the paper and the new crop had absolutely no interest in covering the athletes of our alma mater. There was even serious talk of abolishing the sports section altogether- everyone getting fired up about retuning the paper to focus on academics, news and politics- the things that mattered. Our editor, bless her heart, though not a sports fan by any means was wise beyond her years and brought us all back down from our ivory towers,
“We are going to have a sports page. A lot of people read it and the alumni like it. Amy, you’re sports photog.” She said in paraphrase. I was miffed but sulkily complied and found that while I was never converted to True Believer lifelong sports fan, I loved going to the games. Racing up and down the field or court for good action shots was a blast and the crowd’s enthusiasm was infectious. As often, it’s a class assignment for portrait or still life, wildlife or whatever that turns someone on to something they’d never have considered if not forced to try it.
The Shoulders of Giants
If you look at the paintings of Picasso before he got into cubism, Pollock before his abstract impressionism, or James Joyce’s writing before he began producing stream of consciousness masterpieces, you will find the work of men with a thorough understanding of and owing a debt to classic technique. Those guys didn’t begin their careers by producing the work we’re familiar with.
However high the evolution of their art took them and original as it was- they wouldn’t have reached those pinnacles without a boost up from the shoulders of giants. The probability is very slight that anyone becomes an Annie Liebovitz, Mick Ross, Chris Johns or a member of the Bang Bang Club without studying the work of Lumiere, Philippe Halsman, Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus or Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Tools of the Trade
Not unlike the differing perspectives granted by a community of aspiring photographers and the professionals teach all of you, chances are you’re not going to find yourself in another situation where it’s your job to try out a great variety of cameras, styles, equipment, have easy access to a darkroom for ‘free’ (tuition notwithstanding). A good photography program can be invaluable in helping you find the equipment that will best facilitate your success. As for that community I mentioned…
A Community of Photographers
This is a biggie. Both personally and professionally finding a group of like-minded, like-careered, likewise-neurotic (in my case) community of shutter-jockeys and forming connections with them is invaluable. Other photographers can refer you work or give you a heads-up on good leads for client-bases. Hanging out with other photographers helps keep you in the loop regarding new tech and gadgets, the aforementioned work situation, new techniques, programs, apps, gossip, what have you. As or more importantly- maintaining a circle of friends with whom you can go have a beer and decompress, confide in, or who will kick your as* into gear when you’re just not feeling it. For that alone, I will never regret my decision to get a BFA in photography.
About the Guest Author: Amy Cobb feels most at home behind a keyboard or a snapping shutter. She's a Jill-of-All-Trades media refugee turned blogger who, since jumping ship from the Fourth Estate, blogs on all things media and media-education-related. Most recently she's worked on cataloguing which school has the best photography degree. When not writing, Amy is doing her best not to torture the flora in her square foot gardening plots and she’s always at the beck and call of her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Snarls Barkley.