Special Report: Generation Next

By Jill Waterman

Plans Have Changed (2012): Andy Bloxham’s passion for storytelling is at the core of his work. In his Fictional Photography course, Bloxham teaches students how to brainstorm and conceptualize, how to think about dreams and turn them into stories, how to direct actors for emotional impact and how basic elements such as camera angles and lighting positions can become characters in a photograph.


Photography education is a rapidly evolving field, due in part to the technological changes affecting the medium. Another factor in this evolution is a changing of the guard among teachers. As older faculty members retire or programs grow, yesterday’s graduate students are moving into teaching positions, full of new ideas to advance the field and inspire the next generation of students.

While jobs in photo education are not easy to come by and teaching is no simple task, many photo students and recent graduates aspire to take on this role. For insights about the path from student to teacher, we talked to three photo educators who have already greatly affected the programs they teach in, even at the start of their careers.

West Virginia Wesleyan, Buckhannon, West Virginia
Assistant Professor Andy Bloxham creates a photo program from scratch

West Virginia Wesleyan (WVWC) didn’t have a photography concentration when Andy Bloxham was hired as assistant professor in the art department. This small, private liberal arts college, which is highly ranked for both academics and value, draws its student body primarily from West Virginia and surrounding states.

Bloxham, a Louisiana native, received a bachelor degree in psychology and a master of fine arts in photography from Louisiana Tech University (LA Tech). He began teaching as an LA Tech graduate student in 2007 and, in 2008, spent his final summer of grad school as a teaching assistant at the Maine Media Workshop (MMW). “I’ve been back there every summer since, teaching two or three workshops,” he says.

After receiving his MFA in 2009, Bloxham spent six months at MMW while applying for teaching jobs. “I didn’t get a position right away,” he explains. “I interviewed at a few places and was runner-up. It’s kind of hard when that happens, but you keep working at it.” He eventually returned to Louisiana and worked as a photographer in LA Tech’s architecture department. “I sent out 60 or 70 packets for teaching jobs that year,” he says.

After another round of interviews and a couple of offers in 2010, Bloxham accepted a full-time position as an assistant professor at Cecil College in Maryland. While at Cecil, Bloxham got some experience developing curricula, creating a course called Fictional Photography, which is heavily influenced by his own work as a photographic storyteller. He also expanded his horizons as a speaker, participating on a five-person panel at the Society for Photographic Education conference in March 2011. His contribution to the panel Breaking into Teaching focused on the importance of a teaching packet. That same spring, he learned about the WVWC faculty position. Bloxham sent off a carefully tailored packet, was invited to interview and accepted a job offer about a month later.

“One of the things WVWC was excited about was the potential of me teaching storytelling,” he points out. In addition to that course, Bloxham was tasked with developing the entire new photo concentration, which represented a big career move. “I’m prepping for one or two new courses every semester,” he says.

© Andy Bloxham

Art Department Face-off: As faculty advisor to the studdent-run Student Art League, Bloxham (second from left) directs a mix of art department majors in making a comical promotional video about the faces and characters encountered in each concentration of the WVWC Art Department.

To get a broad grasp on the context for building the curriculum, Bloxham e-mailed 10 to 15 colleagues across the country for a consensus from comparable schools. The courses he has developed in the past year and a half range from digital photography to analog darkroom, to photo history to a freshman seminar course called Contemporary Photographic Image Making. “Essentially that class is digital photography, but it’s also tailored to freshman life,” he says. “I’m the advisor for all these students, so I’m not only teaching them photography—I’m teaching them all the things they need to be aware of—what college is, what college means and how to get around.”

Bloxham’s long and continuing relationship with MMW has been extremely beneficial to his career as an educator. “I’m definitely jumping back and forth between the two different places where I teach and influencing myself with both venues,” he says. The contacts he has developed with other MMW faculty members—top names in the field—and the possibility to refer his students in West Virginia for summer positions or internships in Maine are other perks that make him an attractive candidate from an institutional perspective.

His experimental and playful teaching approach favors easy communication and an open-door policy with students. Bloxham describes an informal assignment that begins his digital photography classes each week, with each student presenting images they’ve found online. “It doesn’t have to be a famous photographer. It could be somebody with a crazy Flickr page,” Bloxham says. “Through their unique interests, they’re able to keyword search right into information and become a little bit of a media educator by sharing what they’ve found with the class. Students are learning exponentially off each other’s shoulders, and I get to be a student for 20 minutes, to see what they found and why they find it interesting.”

University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina

Full-time adjunct Eliot Dudik and the importance of a professional network

As a graduate student at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), Eliot Dudik didn’t initially plan on a teaching career; his primary goals were to network and develop his skills as an artist. It wasn’t until a professor urged all students to “go through the motions of preparing to teach” that he began considering it as a career option. But networking did play a role in Dudik securing his current position as a full-time adjunct at the University of South Carolina (USC), with photo department head Kathleen Robbins.

Located on a 218-acre campus in the state capital of Columbia, USC’s photo department is contained within the College of Arts and Sciences, which occupies an 85,000-square-foot space. Photo department facilities include a fully equipped digital lab, a lighting studio, a classroom with print finishing and display areas, two black-andwhite darkrooms and film-developing area. Dudik first met Robbins at the 2011 Society for Photographic Education (SPE) conference in Atlanta. She was already aware of Dudik’s photography, having seen his self-published monograph
Road Ends in Water, produced for his graduate thesis. “When I first saw it, I thought, ‘How amazing that this guy published a book while a graduate student,’” says Robbins. “So I was intrigued pretty early on, before I even knew Eliot.”

Shortly after the conference, Dudik contacted Robbins before making a trip to South Carolina and suggested they meet for dinner. During their conversation, she invited Dudik to lecture to her students, and he learned Robbins would be taking a sabbatical in the fall. “Shortly after my USC lecture, I contacted Kathleen to ask if she had a sabbatical replacement,” Dudik says. Although other applicants were being considered for the position, Dudik submitted a packet and was hired in fall 2011.

“They keep me very busy at USC,” Dudik says. “During my first semester, I taught three classes and ran all the labs.” Since then, his course load has averaged four or five classes per semester, plus management of the art department’s student gallery. He has also organized an annual portfolio review, which brings in area professionals to meet with advanced photo students. “As an adjunct, you’re trying to accumulate experience and other achievements both inside and outside school. I’m just trying to lend a hand wherever I can,” he explains.

© Eliot Dudik

End of the Road: The image “First Snow in Twenty Years” from Dudik’s graduate thesis project Road Ends in Water a collection of large-format landscapes from the South Carolina low country, which he self published as a monograph in 2010.

USC’s growing photo department has developed innovative courses to engage students from other parts of the university, fueled in part by Dudik’s past experience and interests. He joined forces with the Southern Studies department to teach Photography in the Rural South. His Bookmaking course attracts students from across the university and a History of Photography class, which Dudik teaches in the Art History department, had its start in an online course he developed for SCAD. “Kathleen was very excited that I’d written that class because USC had never had a history of photography class before,” he says. Dudik also teaches Introduction to Photo for Nonmajors to a diverse mix of students in a 100- seat lecture hall.

Dudik makes use of a variety of interactive tools in the classroom, from Facebook to Flickr to Skype. “Quite often each class will have its own Facebook page where we can post articles, notes and reminders,” he says. “It’s a good way to get a message out to a large group at once, and we can have some fun with it too.” Skype enabled his Southern Studies class to interact with a wide range of regional artists. “I recently started using Flickr for my 100-student class to submit all their work,” he adds.

As a teacher, Dudik tries to strike a balance between high expectations and empathy for issues in students’ lives. “I treat my students like artists and hold them to the same standards as in the outside world, but when something does come up, I can talk with a student one-on-one,” he explains. “I love teaching one-on-one, and I get to do that a lot with students outside class.” Yet, since adjuncts receive a set fee for each course, student advisement, volunteer duties and preparing for classes is unpaid.

“An incredible amount of time goes into teaching, not only in the classroom but also outside,” Dudik sums up. “I teach all day and then prepare for the next class. I try to impart to students everything I know, over the course of my time with them. I try to provide things I learned after my undergraduate degree so that they already have that knowledge when they walk out, go to graduate school or go on to be a professional. It’s surely a different experience from what I had as a student.”

Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University, Boston, Massachusetts
Full-time adjunct Ben Sloat emphasizes the tools of analysis

While a graduate student in photography at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA), Ben Sloat had many opportunities to teach, from undergrad classes to summer programs to continuing education. In the ten years since he began teaching in Boston, Sloat has been an adjunct faculty member at SMFA, Massachusetts College of Art and Design and the Art Institute of Boston (AIB), where he has been a full-time adjunct since 2006.

A private, not-for-profit art school located in Boston’s Kenmore Square neighborhood, AIB is one of four colleges within Cambridge, Massachusetts–based Lesley University. As a small school with less than 600 students in one building, AIB offers a level of intimacy distinct from many other area schools. The photo program, which makes up about half of the school, is structured and rigorous, with a foundation level and many requirements, but according to Sloat, there are a variety of different ways for students to engage.

“AIB’s photo program is very much about having the ability to be successful in a variety of different photo worlds,” he explains. “There’s a really strong emphasis on contemporary discourse in conceptualizing one’s art, but we also provide the tools to be successful commercially. That emphasis on versatility is key. Photography is uniquely suited to have one foot in the commercial world and one foot in the fine art world.”

Sloat has recently been very involved in the development and evolution of AIB’s full-residency MFA in photography program, which debuted in 2011 as a complement to its existing low-residency MFA in visual arts. Christopher James, AIB’s photography co-chair and MFA in photography program director, “has been really thoughtful about allowing me to produce my own classes,” Sloat says. One such offering is Sloat’s graduate-level seminar “Photography as a Cultural Practice.”

This course is representative of Sloat’s overall educational approach, which is heavily influenced by his undergraduate major in international politics. “It’s about a concern with the world—how do you understand the world of photography and image making and respond to issues that are occurring?” he explains.

When putting these ideas to work in the classroom, Sloat emphasizes the tools of analysis. “Students might feel that they’re being exposed to a lot of information, but it’s how they take that information and analyze it that’s most important,” he says. “Going deep into things to uncover layers and assumptions and context: They need to learn this, and school is the ideal place for it to happen. And when this does happen, it’s an incredibly powerful, freeing gesture.”

Image © Ben Sloat

Night Lights : During a 2009 Fullbright Faculty Fellowship in Taiwan, Sloat lectured and traveled widely in Asia. Above, his image from a series of nighttime Beijing cityscapes, where police lights add colors and shadows that are at once alluring and alarming.

While Sloat believes it’s important for a teacher to speak in his or her own voice, it’s also essential to understand how students communicate. “You’re not going to get through to students unless you speak a language they respond to,” he says. As an example, he points to an SMFA photo history course he took with Jim Dow, a professor who “made history look incredibly exciting, narrative and active. In other classes, you’d memorize dates and recognize slides. I don’t think a student is going to respond to the very suffocated model of being taught at, being made to memorize and respond. That’s not learning; its just an exchange of concrete, factual information.”

As Sloat points out, today students have immediate access to whatever he mentions in class by Googling the subject on their iPhones. “So a minute after class, they have some knowledge about it. However, that knowledge is very perfunctory,” he says. “A lot of contemporary media demands simplicity, and it’s up to me to get in deeper and challenge simplistic ideas, provide the shades of gray and show students how to hold simultaneous divergent ideas, accepting both.”

“We’ve seen a huge shift in the concept of what photography does in a very short amount of time,” says Sloat. “It’s those practices and the expansion of how photos are made, how you look at photos, how you share photos, what the value of that is, what the history of photography is and what the future of photography could be that is really fruitful. Perhaps that’s where my generation will take photography.”



PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue



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