MFA-filter: photography or writing?
March 15, 2005 8:57 AM   Subscribe

MFA-filter: photography or writing?

So I'm a fairly middle-of-the-pack young writer, building a portfolio toward my MFA apps. I spent my undergrad years working under a number of very highly regarded poets (resisting the urge to name-drop here) who have written me excellent recommendations in advance and are supportive of my writing efforts. Opinion on my work so far is favorable. Some within my circle of writing friends are already starting to publish and I've always assumed that I'd follow them down that path once I'm ready.

Yet for the past couple of years I've found myself stalling for time, and have completely invested myself -- emotionally and financially -- into photography instead, with no formal training in it at all. I've been very serious about improving, and I've been doing so fairly rapidly and have even gotten a some pieces placed into a few shows here and there. I'm certain that I'm at least fairly competent by now. And if you asked me right now whether I prefer spending the day in front of the keyboard writing or out on the streets with a camera, I'd choose the camera any day the weather permits, just like I've been doing since I've picked up photography.

I still enjoy writing, and I'd be satisfied dedicating myself to either writing or photography. I'm much better prepared to pursue an MFA in writing, but my current momentum is in photography. However, is it actually feasible for me to pursue an MFA in photography without a BA in photography (or even anything related to the visual arts), without any connections, and without the equivalent of all the workshop experience I've accumulated as a writer (learned under many truly excellent working poets)? I'm become pretty astute at evaluating my own work as a writer, but I don't feel I've developed the same kind of critical faculty in photography yet, so how do I know that I'm not just fooling myself? (Samples: one/two.) Lastly, I'm pursuing an MFA for artistic reasons, not for career ones, so how would I go about finding an MFA program in photography that's not geared toward commercial photography and/or photojournalism? Or is it more sensible to treat photography as a hobby or a passing phase, and work on exploiting my contacts and experience as a writer to continue on the path toward a completing a writing MFA? (Either way I go on this, I feel that setting aside time for an MFA is vital to helping me define my own goals and aesthetics as an artist.)

I can see myself "settling down" into writing at a later point in life even if I leave it for a while, but I feel that it's now or never to decide on doing photography seriously. I won't be able to alway keep up with putting in kind of physical energy to be out there with a camera day-in and day-out (I do street photography), and my youth is already starting to pass me by...
posted by DaShiv to Education (16 answers total)
Robert Pinsky spoke of the difference between poetry and photography:

"The camera like the guitar is a product of what might be called external technology: we make these beautiful and productive artifacts with other artifacts, tools and machines and adhesives, etc. The poem is based on what you could call an internal technology: the medium is the beautiful and productive human body, its breath moving up the torso through the voice-box and out through the muscles and surfaces of the shaping mouth. The appeal of that individual scale, that internal technology, is distinct. In a world of ever more elaborate artifacts (this computer, for example), the appeal of the poem may become ever greater."

I think that either path would be fantastic for you. The answer is within you. Which would nurture you more? Sorry I can't address your more concrete questions, but I wanted to wish you luck.

PS - I got my BA in writing poetry, too.
posted by grateful at 9:25 AM on March 15, 2005

I think MFAs in photography can be overrated unless you want to teach. Usually at that point, you're able to learn more "from the streets" than you are from a professor, and with less cookie-cutter results. However, you got your BA in a non-photographic field, so it might be worth it just to have the time with the equipment.

In photography a degree isn't necessarily required. It's your portfolio that counts (unless, like I said, you want to teach). You're interested in documentary and street photography, an area where skill is determined not as much by taught compositional experience as it is by your previous exposure to these situations. What would you gain out of an MFA? Is it worth the two years you're paying for? Have you considered using the two years really delving into one career path in a real-world context to see if its really something you enjoy?
posted by still at 9:36 AM on March 15, 2005

DaShiv, we meet again.

My general response to your kind of question is to do what you want to do, not what is the most practical. I'll give you my artist history as a background. I have been drawing since I was about 4 years old (my mother teaches public elementary art). I always did art for myself and rarely showed it to many people until college. In college, I started taking art classes when I was a junior. I finished a BA in Philosophy, something I also really enjoyed and that was part of my basic way of understanding the world. I did not have time to finish a major in art, but when I graduated I started doing graphic design, because that is what interested me at that time. I did that for five years rising to the position of Creative Director before starting my own freelance company. Something was missing that whole time, rather like what 'grateful' describes - I decided I wanted the 'internal technology' of painting.

So I decided to apply to grad school in art, with many of the same questions you had - will anyone take me seriously? What about my lack of degree? Many professors told me I couldn't do it without the degree. Others said only the portfolio was important. I got accepted at the University of Michigan, where I am now, and have not looked back. Here, in our art program, there are BAs in: Philosophy, Biology, Engineering, English/Art/Women's Studies, Theatre, Biology again, and Architecture amongst the BAs in a variety of art disciplines. We are all in the same building and work together on projects if we like. We take the same classes so there is considerable cross-pollination going on. There were schools I applied to that were pretty skeptical of me, but my portfolio was not as consistent as yours is (it had drawing, sculpture, painting and design).

The English major by the way is also a photography student. Also, our photography program is decidedly not for photojournalism or commercial photographers. I think most state schools (I'm thinking of UM, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Syracuse, state schools that have well-regarded art programs (Midwestern bias, of course)) or art-only schools will be geared toward 'fine art' photography (for lack of a better term).

During the dotcom boom (when I was a Creative Director in a small company) I remember someone noting that you shouldn't start a business unless you were ready to run through a brick wall for that business. I think it's similar for an MFA, although you said it's not for career reasons. Which would you run through a wall for - photography or writing?

On preview - I think 'still's' comments are important. I learned a considerable amount about painting from doing graphic design. There's always an element of 'naturalism'? 'Keepin' it real'? that I want to maintain in my work... But I also think the stepping back that criticism (and that's what you get in an MFA program, constant criticism, for better or worse) provides can be very useful, too.
posted by Slothrop at 9:45 AM on March 15, 2005

In photography your portfolio counts more than you degree. No one is really interested in your education, just the kind of images you can produce. If you're a writer and a photographer you can always produce your own images for your stories and get paid twice. That's what I do.

You could also apply for both and see where you get accepted and then make your decision.
posted by trbrts at 9:47 AM on March 15, 2005

Yes, there are MFA photo programs with a fine art (rather than photojournalistic -- commercial folks tend towards trade schools and don't get MFAs) emphasis. Two that spring to mind are Yale and Bard. (Sorry, East Coast bias.) Recommendations are required, just like any grad app., so you will have to make some photography contacts. I wonder if CA has a school like ICP in NYC, where there are creative and technical workshops taught by working photographic artists?

I had a helpful portfolio review when I went for an informational interview at the Maine Photographic Workshops that really helped me assess where my work was and what I wanted to get out of an MFA.

I think MFAs are good for the field contacts and for the incubation. But personally, I can do incubation on my own. And more cheaply... though I do sponsor myself on field trips (complete with hotel stays) for the sole purpose of working on photo projects, and I don't limit darkroom time or any photo-related funding.
posted by xo at 9:55 AM on March 15, 2005

To clarify: a photography MFA would provide some formal grounding to building upon, which I already have and appreciate as a writer. I'm concerned that without a formal education -- and the peer review process -- my growth there will ultimately be stunted. Is this unfounded?

Thanks to everyone for their responses so far, and for the Pinksy quote. I'm not a particular fan of his poetics, but he often has insightful things to say about poetry.
posted by DaShiv at 9:56 AM on March 15, 2005

Yes yes, I do think that peer review is necessary for artistic growth. And I do think MFA programs offer this, but maybe the question is, are MFA programs the best way for you?

I get peer review at the aforementioned ICP, from studio fellowships, and from the artists in my social circle, so that's why an MFA specifically doesn't seem critical to my development right now. But for someone else, it might be the right collection of experience and influence all in one handy location.

What do you mean by formal education? Studying theory, criticism, technical elements, history? (My understanding is that most MFAs don't touch technical stuff, and some don't even do much theory.)

One more note: it seems that many photo MFA programs have gotten rather interdisciplinary over the years, to include multimedia and video stuff. (Yale is a noteworthy exception.) So you may also want to ask yourself if you're interested in pure photography or an expanded view that includes multimedia.
posted by xo at 10:17 AM on March 15, 2005

My dad was so obsessed with photography, he named me after a camera. Seriously.

It all started when he was a photographer for the university paper. He eventually graduated with a degree in industrial pharmacy but what he became was a professional photographer. Then he fell in love with cinema and got sent to the US to study cinematography on a scholarship. By the time he finally, finally settled down, he found himself spearheading an animation company with a huge client (HB), and that was what he did until he passed away. The moral of the story is, follow your passion. You never really know where life will take you, despite all plans and qualifications.

Another way of looking at this is to divide up your interests as fields to conquer. Like you, I am highly interested in writing. I've been employed as a music journalist, a copywriter, a copyeditor, and a feature writer but I feel like I've reached a plateau: I've established myself as a good writer and have nothing more to prove to myself or anyone. Much as I love wordsmithing, I do not want to do it for a living. I don't want to be tied to a desk, writing, writing. I want to be out there, living life, gathering experiences, savoring the full range of flavors and emotions the world has to offer, and maaaaaaybe I'll be a "real" writer when I'm older and have some great story to tell. Right now I am seeking to conquer IT starting from scratch (read: completely unrelated undergrad degree), but have been exploring enough about my other fields of interest to keep them alive and myself sufficiently knowledgable even if I don't intend to pursue them professionally.

I don't know if I and my dad are just lucky, but the one thing we have in common is that though we were never formally trained, the jobs doing what we love just fell into our laps. I think if people around you sense how much you love what you do, how much you put into your craft and have fun with it too, they gravitate towards you and you will be recognized.

Also, if there's anything I've learned about considering pursuing higher studies, it's that you have to absolutely love what you do. You have to be sure of it. You have to be prepared for the work ahead, regardless of what you bring to the table now.

So I guess what it really boils down to either way is: do what you love most.

Everything will follow. But even if it doesn't, you can always veer in a different direction, towards something that will fulfill you better. You never really get too old for that.
posted by Lush at 10:23 AM on March 15, 2005

What do you mean by formal education? Studying theory, criticism, technical elements, history? (My understanding is that most MFAs don't touch technical stuff, and some don't even do much theory.)

Yes -- I can probably pick some of this up at a local community college as well, but that probably won't be sufficient for me. It seems that there are some pitfalls ahead.
posted by DaShiv at 10:25 AM on March 15, 2005

I say: if you're going to go for an MFA at all, go in photography. If you've already been workshopped as an undergraduate poet, then I would put money down that more workshops will not help you improve. If anything, they will homogenize your style.

I say this because I was an undergraduate fiction writer, who workshopped, like you, with top-tier working fiction writers. And by the end of it I realized that I'd gone as far as I could in a workshop environment. Workshops in an MFA program, even if the program is great, are likely to be more of the same. Meanwhile, if you are serious about poetry, you can pursue it and read into it on your own.
posted by josh at 10:35 AM on March 15, 2005

It seems that there are some pitfalls ahead.
one rather uninformed comment - from what you say above it seems you're worried about technical skills. with the shift from film to digital i would guess that those are changing rapidly. so i doubt you're in any worse position than someone who did an mfa 5 (10?) years ago. the shift in technology, then, is a going to have a levelling effect in your favour. related to that - aren't you the guy with the (sweet) epson? if so, and i may be remembering badly, and this is just a gross, insensitive stereotype, tinged with jealousy, but might that not be an indicator of a personality inclined to put more emphasis than is, perhaps, strictly necessary, on the technical aspects? so maybe (and i say this with no authority whatever) you're overestimating the importance of technical training?
posted by andrew cooke at 11:07 AM on March 15, 2005

I would apply for a class at one of the photography schools where you can do your project but have access to an advisor and some students to bounce stuff off of. I like the recommendation of using the two years to start your new career rather than getting the degree.

I am a Bard college graduate, major photography. For the most part, students are so burned out by the time they leave the program it takes them a couple years before they pick up a camera again. Also, the program teaches you little about having a career, but, I will say it taught me a lot about seeing. Get access to someone who knows how to see and access to someone who can help you professionally. Make yourself work on a project.

Go for it! I'm jealous!
posted by xammerboy at 11:14 AM on March 15, 2005

If you are just doing photography for a hobby - why the need for the MFA? The Art Institute in North Beach has a great photographic art program and you can take a lot of the classes through their community education program. The focus is exclusively on photography as an art form. On the other hand - there are plenty of technical classes offered at the Academy of Art - but their focus is on Photography as a trade. Their focus is on making you ready to be a commercial photographer. Brooks in Santa Barbara also has really good workshops you might want to explore. Take a smattering of classes that focus on specific skills (digital it seems) rather than sharpening your darkroom abilities in an art school somewhere.
I would have loved to get an MFA in photography - but I couldn't justify spending that kind of time and money on something that had a very low proability of return on investment. If that isn't a concern - by all means - follow your bliss.
posted by Wolfie at 11:20 AM on March 15, 2005

maybe (and i say this with no authority whatever) you're overestimating the importance of technical training?

A perfectly valid critique. What concerns me is that I can name a goodly number of literary trends in the last century but have a virtually nonexistant understanding of the same historical developments in photography; I can make barely intelligent statements about maybe a dozen historical photographers when I should be able to speak more cogently about five times that number; I have only the most rudimentary understanding of the Zone system as a way of thinking about exposure; I have virtually no working vocabulary to use to analyze compositions and discuss them with others; and so on. I want to lose the feeling that I'm working from a fundamental position of ignorance and completely winging it out there.

A more experienced photographer told me that "what's scary about young photographers starting out is that they don't know what they don't know about." Compared to the way I approached writing before I was really exposed to it seriously in school, I can only begin to apply this to photography.

As for the Epson, it's just because working with digital is what I'm most comfortable with -- I'll be selling it within a year or two before it loses too much of its resale value. Until then, I'm working overtime to master as much of rangefinder handling as I can in my limited time with it (and it's been a very interesting and rewarding learning experience so far, on many different levels). I'm not as obsessed with the equipment fetish as it might seem; in fact, I'd be perfectly happy with a digital Canonet were one available, but the Epson's as close as it gets (to the chagrin of my bank account).

To those advising portolio reviews and advisors outside of academic programs: how would I go about making these contacts? It was so easy doing these things in a college setting...

By the way, I'm simply astounded by the number and thoughtfulness of the responses here. Thanks everyone!
posted by DaShiv at 11:44 AM on March 15, 2005

I can't speak to the photography MFA, but a writing MFA is most useful for giving you the time and opportunity to focus on your writing--and for developing connections with other writers. Is that what you want/need? In my opinion, the one thing an MFA program is unlikely to do is make you a better writer. I'd say to go for the photography degree, as you are likely to literally learn more, and keep working on the poetry. There is no grand rule that says you have to only do one thing at a time, and many of the best poets had other careers anyway.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 12:15 PM on March 15, 2005

I think the most important thing is for you to figure out what you want to do with your life for the next five or ten years. Once you do that, everything else will fall into place.

One thing to keep in mind is that if you think that you'll ever want an MFA in poetry, then right now is your best chance to get into a good program. After a few years your recommendations will not be as useful.

Finally, maybe you shouldn't think of this as an either-or proposition. You could look for a school that has good poetry and good photography. Then you could officially be in the poetry program, but take photography classes on the side. If then you decide that you really like the photography more than the writing, often it is not too hard to switch from one department to another - much easier than getting in off the street.
posted by epimorph at 7:13 PM on March 15, 2005

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