Special Report: Positive Role Models

By Jill Waterman

BRIDGE PORTRAIT: During the first Spirit Level workshop in 1996, students from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, the Lahti Institute of Design in Lahti, Finland and the École d’Arts Appliqués in Vevey, Switzerland pose on the Charles Bridge in Prague, Czech Repubic, with teachers Arno Rafael Minkkinen (top right) and Timo Laaksonen (middle right). To avoid tourists, the group stayed up all night, assembling for the portrait at 5 a.m., just as the first light came into the sky.

University of Massachusetts, Lowell, Massachusetts
A Small Program with International Reach

Photo © Arno Rafael Minkkinen

STARTING FROM SCRATCH: UML professor Chehalis Hegner inspects a print in the darkroom with a group of Photo 1 students.

In the former New England mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts, the celebrated fine art photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen heads a small but active photography department at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell (UML). Housed within the school’s College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, photography is situated in the same building as the graphic design department.

Minkkinen teaches with an intuitive approach, encouraging self-direction in his students. Instead of assigning projects with individual due dates, he offers what he calls considerations, “a series of things to think about,” he says. “I’ll write an essay on a very broad topic and post some pictures with it.” Given half a semester to work on three considerations, the students bring them in “when they’re ready.” Another concept he works with is called the Power of Three. “One photograph can always win a beauty contest, but are you a photographer?” he asks. “Two photographs are always going to be compared. But when you take that third photograph, you begin to formulate an idea, things start to percolate. The third one confirms there are many more to come.”

Minkkinen’s focus on the development of photographic ideas forms an interesting parallel with the recent evolution of UML as a whole. While the school has a strong regional emphasis, with many students who transfer from area community colleges to complete a bachelor of fine arts degree, a new chancellor, Marty Meehan, has sought expanded opportunities in the past five years—with a mission to build connections between departments, grow larger and get more international. “The art department stands poised to be part of that expansion,” says Minkkinen. “I think we’re now looking at that perspective saying, ‘Where’s that opportunity for us?’”

Originally from Finland, Minkkinen has always maintained contact with photography programs in Europe, and he travels there regularly for international exhibitions and lectures about his work as well as to hold workshops and visiting faculty appointments. While this sometimes cuts into his UML classroom schedule, Minkkinen feels that his travels benefit both UML and his students in the big picture.

“Through the books I buy and share, I can show what’s going on in Europe, especially in contemporary photography,” he explains. “Staying late after class to compensate for the lost time and making up classes are other ways to justify the travel. Finally, going out there and bringing our name out will hopefully advance the reputation of our program, which is also a major benefit to our students.”

One valuable aspect of Minkkinen’s international status is a collaborative workshop program he founded—and later developed with a former colleague from Finland—in which select UML photography students set out on foreign adventures with students from two other schools. The program, Spirit Level, started in 1996 and has been running sporadically ever since. Minkkinen named the workshop after the bubble on a camera that identifies a balanced view. “The intent is that everybody is equal, teachers included,” he explains.

Four workshops to date have taken groups to Finland, Russia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Switzerland, as well as to Italy and Mexico, in conjunction with different European schools. Up to 30 students work in a fixed location or travel by bus, creating and evaluating their work en route. Following each workshop, a large exhibition is held at each host school, offering students an international venue for their resumes.

“From day one of the trip, just from meeting up and talking, you could tell that everyone was there to be friends and wanting to share their experiences, have a good time and make great work,” says Austin Trigg, a UML student who attended Spirit Level IV in Florence, Italy, in 2010.

“After that trip, I started to see more potential in the photographs I could create,” he adds. “It kind of opened my eyes to make work that was more significant to me, but trying to reach others as well, to get them to change their view on how they see and interpret photographs.”

Photo © Arno Rafael Minkkinen

FINAL CRIT: Austin Trigg presents his work during a senior studio review in UML’s University gallery.


Web site: <www.uml.edu>
Degrees Offered: BFA degree in design or fine arts, both with a concentration in photography
Length of Program: Four years undergraduate
Total Student Population: 15,376
Size of Department: 213 students
Tuition: In-state: $11,297; out-of-state: $17,350
Other Expenses: First-year student services fee estimated at $200; room and board, $9,520; fine arts fee of $175 per semester

Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona
A Large University Focused on Community and Process

Photo: © Ken Howie

FROM FILM TO FRAMES: Exterior view of the Step Gallery, one of five campus galleries where students can exhibit.

Regarded as the largest public university in the United States, Arizona State University’s (ASU) main campus occupies 642 acres in Tempe, Arizona, an inner suburb of Phoenix. While the school as a whole may be huge, ASU’s photography program has a decided community feel, according to Mark Klett, noted landscape documentarian and regents professor in the photography department. “Even though there’s a large number of students, they have their own organization and clubs, and they tend to hang out. It’s pretty cohesive that way,” he says.

Housed within the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, ASU’s photo department has an enrollment of between 200 and 250 undergraduate majors and eight to 15 graduate students. Six full-time faculty members and two to three part-time adjuncts are supplemented with a variety of guest lecturers, some brought in with department funding and others through the student-run Photographers Association. “We call it the photo club for short,” Klett says. “They raise their own money through auctions and other activities, and they literally choose people they want to bring in amongst themselves.” A recent partnership with the Phoenix Art Museum allows the club to hold public lectures at the museum, “which makes the money go a long way,” Klett adds.

Students can enter the department from two different trajectories—core art studies at ASU or matriculation to the school from a community college. ASU has articulation agreements with many local schools, but more significantly, “almost everybody teaching at a community college in the Phoenix area is an ASU graduate or even graduate student,” Klett explains. “We have a good relationship with all the instructors, and they tailor a lot of their classes to what we’re doing.”

All photo students are required to pass a portfolio review for admission to the major, and community college students are encouraged to take at least one ASU class first. The photography faculty places a strong emphasis on process, and they are particularly interested in students who think about their own relationship to the medium.“What we do really well is address how people work,” says Klett. “That’s something our faculty understands because we do it.”

Instead of just getting work out there or getting ahead, the teaching philosophy is geared to making work over the long haul. Students are encouraged to get beyond the work itself, to look at the decision-making process, identify stumbling blocks and address motivation and the drive to keep going for the long term. “It’s a different way of training,” says Klett. “It involves a lot of mentoring, exposing your own practice and looking at other people’s methods.”

As a major research university, ASU has a strong standing in the sciences and an interest in bringing different disciplines together. An interdisciplinary course Klett teaches called Phoenix Transect looks at Phoenix and how the city is changing to create a complex portrait. “We address everything from geography and place to social issues, so it’s wide open to people with different kinds of approaches,” he says. “I’m trying to bridge a gap between science and social stuff that overlaps with what photographers do.”

ASU graduates have achieved success in a wide range of endeavors, from Guggenheim fellows Byron Wolff and Michael Berman to such notable alumni as Mary Virginia Swanson and Darius Himes. The program also has a very high placement ratio for teachers, with many recent graduates who are successful in pursuing teaching careers.

Bucky Miller, a senior in the photo department and head of the student photographer’s association, has found ASU’s photo community to be an educational high point. “The most important thing I’ve gotten from school is access to a welcoming community of photographers from several generations— both instructors and peers,” Miller says. “Before coming to ASU, I never expected teachers to go out of their way for me in the way I’ve experienced. It’s influenced and strengthened my understanding of the medium in a relatively unique way.”

Photo: © Jeff Ignaszewski

ALL ABOUT THE PROCESS: Professor Mark Klett (far right) teaching photography process on location.


Web site: <www.asu.edu>
Degrees Offered: Bachelor and master of fine art degrees in photography
Length of Program: Four years for undergraduate, three years for masters degree
Total Student Population: 72,254
Size of Photography Department: 200 to 250 undergraduates; eight to 15 grad students
Size of School of Art: 1,202 students total, 1,072 undergraduates and 130 grad students across 13 disciplines
Tuition: Undergraduate, in-state: $658 per credit; $4,604 for seven or more credits, Out-of-state: $909 per credit, $10,904 for 12 or more credits
Tuition: Graduate: in-state: $694 per credit; $4,855 for seven or more credits, Out-of-state: $993 per credit; $11,917 for 12 or more credits
Other expenses: variable per student

Bard College, Annandale on Hudson, New York
A Liberal Arts School That Balances Depth of Knowledge with Breadth

Photo: © Peter Aaron/Esto

Bard’s historic Stone Row, part of the original campus that now houses upper college students.

A private liberal arts school located 90 minutes north of New York City, Bard College offers three independent photography programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Undergraduate students progress through a set curriculum over their first two years of study, beginning with instruction in analog black-and-white. “We still believe in the importance of learning with film and chemistry,” explains photo program director and pioneering color photographer, Stephen Shore.

Bard’s liberal arts framework requires students to pursue courses in eight different areas of study, including humanities, social sciences, English literature, foreign language, math and computation, laboratory science, studio art and art history. “If you were a physics major you’d have to take an analytic art class, but also a practicing art class, just as my photo majors have to take a laboratory science class,” says Shore. “Ideally you want to have room for people to be able to discover a passion that they didn’t know they had.”

Photo courses are typically structured so that new material, either technical or visual, is presented during the first five weeks of the semester. The last ten weeks are focused on critique or “what you can do with that knowledge,” Shore explains. “What’s important is how that new material is integrated into a student’s work, how that new knowledge changes their possibilities.”

Shore points to Bard’s nine photography faculty members as the program’s greatest strength. Committees of three faculty members review each student’s work at the end of sophomore year, before they declare a major and request admission into the upper college. Then, as seniors, students work on an independent project with a faculty advisor of their choosing.

Facilities and equipment at Bard are plentiful. In addition to black-and-white darkrooms for both 35 mm and 4 x 5, the school has color facilities with a processor, a group digital lab with a dozen workstations, plus three advanced digital labs with large-format printers for seniors. They also have a full array of cameras for student use. “I’m a big believer in the idea that the format camera you use has a huge impact on the work that you do,” says Shore. “Where other schools would let you sign out a 4x5 for three days, at Bard, students sign it out for a semester. We have enough cameras to supply all our sophomores, juniors and seniors.”

Another perk for Bard photo students, which offers them a practical learning experience, is the recent renovation of a campus building as a home for the photography magazine BlindSpot. “Bard’s president, Leon Botstein, is very entrepreneurial and is always interested in seeing what further connections Bard can make with other institutions and activities,” says Shore. “And it’s been a great relationship.”

Besides offering select photo students the opportunity for a year-round internship to work on the production of the magazine, “Blindspot’s editor, Dana Faconti, helped last year’s seniors in producing their catalogs,” Shore explains. “Thanks to this assistance, it didn’t have to just be a simple catalog of a show; students could take the work and rethink it in book form.”

Shore describes a learning environment among students as being like “a mini history of photography, with students influencing one another, which changes over time. They’re influenced by what they see in the city, and they’re influenced by each other,” he says. “The younger students will see a senior project that takes photography in a direction that’s unexpected to them, and then I’ll see a couple of other works the following year that take off from that point. Then a few years later, half the seniors are doing work like it, and then something else comes up,” he adds.

Yet, at its core, learning at Bard emphasizes self-direction and a balance between depth and breadth. “I think there’s a certain pace at which a person can progress,” Shore says, “and maybe they can progress better, faster and with more depth by taking a photography class with a course in 19th-century British novels and a sociology class, rather than taking a documentary course and a class in studio lighting.”

Photo: © Pete Mauney

(left) Professor Stephen Shore discusses work with a student during a classroom critique.


Web site: <www.bard.edu>
Degrees Offered: Bachelor of art degree in photography and two MFA programs (Bard interdisciplinary summer, low-residency MFA in the arts, ICP/Bard MFA in New York City)
Length of Program: Four years undergraduate; Bard MFA, three summers; ICP/Bard MFA, two years
Total Student Population: Approximately 2,000 undergraduates, 320 graduate students
Size of department: 75 undergraduates, 36 graduate students
Tuition (undergraduate): $42,476 annually



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Obituary: Photojournalist Marc Riboud, 93


PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue



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