Photography: Liberal arts, art school, or real world?
June 20, 2005 5:11 PM   Subscribe

What type of schooling, if any, would be best for cultivating talent and securing a career in photography? I am a bit suspicious about the necessity of a college education for a career in photography (and in general), and am not crazy about the debt that accrues. Should I go back to school or drop out and dive head first into the fray?

I took my first year of college majoring in film at an art school in Manhattan; I didn't return because of cash issues. I took a semester off, then was accepted for the spring semester at a liberal arts college. During my time there, I decided that I was more confident in my photography than in my screenwriting, and changed my major. I also decided that a liberal arts school might not be my cup of tea.

Now I don't know what the hell to do with myself. Do I go back to the (fairly respectable) liberal arts school, where I have to take a bunch of classes that don't particularly interest me? Do I apply to an art school that would be more focused on photography, and would probably suit me better? Or do I skip all the schooling entirely, save myself the money, and start a career the best I can? I'm ambitious and confident in my talent, and prepared to have my dreams crushed in what I realize is a competitive field.

What do you guys think?
posted by anonymous to Education (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
What kind of photography career are you looking for? Are you trying to make money on pure art? Do you want to take pictures in a studio? Do you want to be a photo journalist? A wedding photographer? A PR photographer? I think the photo-taking field you'd like to work in and the type of job you're looking for will have a lot to do with the answer to your question.

I work at a small newspaper, and all three of our staff photographers have college degrees -- two have masters degrees -- that relate to their photography, though they aren't all photography degrees. One, for example, got his MA in "general studies" by spending more than a year living with fishermen and photographing them. I'd be very surprised to see anyone hired on our staff without at least a BA, but I don't think it would have to be in photography if they had other good experience.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 5:22 PM on June 20, 2005

There are a bunch of threads on this already - search the archives but the bottom line is that you can learn very little about photography in school you couldn't learn on the job. The part that stymies most pros is the business end of being a photographer. You are essentially a small business and you have to do sales, marketing, book keeping and HR. You can take the most amazing photos but if you don't know how to find people to buy them - or negotiate a contract or hire an assistant - you're not going to be all that successful.
That said - should your career as an art photographer not quite pan out (be realistic) it won't ever hurt to have a degree. It doesn't even matter what the degree is in - a lot of companies - mine included- won't even interview candidates without at least a BA.
If you're really interested spend the summer doing assistant work. You can see what the business of being a photographer is really like and go from there. Go to the industry association in your areas (EP, APA) and tell them you want to assist. Get cards printed and go to all their mixers. Introduce yourself and follow up. Put up a flyer at the local pro shops. Then when you get jobs - work your ass off and pay attention. I'd guess you'd know shortly if this is how you want to spend your days.
posted by Wolfie at 5:54 PM on June 20, 2005

College is always good to have under the belt if photography doesn't pan out as a career. It can be hard to make money at this. Also, if you want to be a photojournalist, the degree is extra important as you are essentially a journalist first. It will give you credibility with news media, and if you take the right courses,may help you to put the current events into context. History, politics and journalism (if your school has specific courses in this) would be good courses to take.
posted by caddis at 7:02 PM on June 20, 2005

My father was a photographer, a successful one, who both practiced it for many years, then taught it at a university.

He didn't have a university degree, or a college degree, or even a high-school diploma. He claimed he'd never sat for an exam in his life.

Just sayin'.
posted by Neale at 11:10 PM on June 20, 2005

Making money on pure art is the ideal, but doesn't seem likely.

Maybe you should take some marketing classes. They'll probably come in handy more than a photography course. These days, everyone and their uncle wants to be a pro photog because they just bought the new Gee Whiz digital SLR.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:12 AM on June 21, 2005

The best education is to take lots of pictures, start now. You need time and practice to develop your eye, understand lighting conditions and how to deal with them effectively, understand your development process (whether chemical or digital). School won't make you a good photographer, only dedication and practice can do that. School can introduce you to some good photographers to learn from (if you're lucky) and show you some of the more esoteric details and processes that might be hard to learn on your own. First and foremost, take lots of pictures and look at other people's work, for comparison and inspiration.
posted by doctor_negative at 9:27 AM on June 21, 2005

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