Special Report: Total Immersion - Intensive Workshop Programs That Take Learning Photography and Media to New Heights

By Jill Waterman

Students work intently in the Radio Room at Salt. “Radio demands an economy of words,” writes Salt radio assistant Emily Kwong in a blog post from 2013. “Each word bears a time stamp, so you cannot afford lengthy, flowery introductions. Just cut to the heart of the matter. Get to the good stuff.”

Learning by doing often trumps classroom study and bookish pursuits as a worthy educational approach. Add top-notch instructors, an inspiring setting, an open-ended schedule and easy access to materials to the mix, and you have all the elements provided by the schools featured here. What’s more, these laboratories of learning are readily accessible to a wide range of pupils, from current students and recent grads to career changers and avocational enthusiasts. In “Total Immersion,” we investigate three distinctive communities in which to study photography, new media, career training and/or craftsmanship—each one offering students an intensity of purpose and incisive vision that regular academic programs can lack.

Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, Portland, Maine
Documentary Storytelling with a Dynamic New Media Mix

A view through the window of Salt Institute’s street level gallery with the Salt logo displayed on the glass. © Alana Kansaku-Sarmiento

On the rocky coast of Maine, Salt Institute has offered a fully integrated new media education to documentary storytellers since 1973. Salt’s 15-week spring and fall semesters allow students to concentrate on two specialties—new media, “which everyone studies,” and another subject selected from radio, writing and photography tracks. “Students produce discrete projects within each specialty,” explains Executive Director Donna Galluzzo.

Total enrollment is less than 30 students per semester, with tracks generally averaging five to ten students and one instructor per specialty. The workload is intense, with students working on four simultaneous projects that require extensive fieldwork. “People have a couple of weeks to find stories,” Galluzzo notes. “And some of our students travel four to six hours for a project, which can be a very grueling schedule over four months.” She adds, “When you think about the bookends of opening up and looking for stories and closing down, that leaves about eight or nine weeks for the embed and fieldwork, which is a very ambitious pace. The final weeks are extremely intensive, with editing and production, printing and prepping for a gallery show.”

Photography students produce visual narratives of their choosing, and new media projects generally run five to eight minutes, incorporating a range of elements from still photography to 35mm DSLR video to audio recordings to text blocks to interactive media elements. “We want students to leave with a really great portfolio of four completed projects and as many tools of the trade as possible,” Galluzzo says.

One of the program’s most challenging yet essential aspects is determining which stories to tell and how to best tell them. “Students do come with ideas, but they need to learn how to verbalize a pitch. It’s a bit of a trial by fire,” Galluzzo explains while reeling off a wide variety of questions that need to be asked.

As a former Salt student herself, Galluzzo calls the program “a great experience and a whole new glimpse of Maine. Obviously that’s true if you’ve never lived here, but even if you have, you’d be discovering new parts of the state.” Yet she admits that coming to Maine in February can definitely be a bit of a challenge. “But the great thing about the winter-spring semester is that you’re discovering people who lead a very hardy life,” she says. “If you’re living in northern Maine during those months, you’re resourceful and creative. That’s when you’ll really meet people with character.”

A recent addition to Salt’s infrastructure is dedicated student housing “because it can be a little challenging to find an apartment in Portland for a semester.” One small building has three units and ten bedrooms, and another has eight bedrooms, both within a six-minute walk from the school. Additionally, Salt has longstanding relationships with locals who rent rooms in their homes. “There’s one gentleman who usually rents to two students,” says Galluzzo. “I think he’s rented to more than 40 students over the years.”

Last year, Salt expanded its curriculum to include five-day summer intensives. Galluzzo notes, “Our pilot program was very successful. We started out with new media but will be expanding to the different tracks this summer.” This program is intended for a different type of student, she explains. “Some people want to take these skills back into their workplace, while others are figuring out if they want to jump into the longer semester system.”

Salt is currently working on accreditation plans and “is talking to various colleges and universities in very different ways, not just about a relationship where students can gain credit,” Galluzzo explains. “We’re starting in our own backyard with schools in Maine to see what kinds of new relationships we can develop. By 2015, we’ll likely have some new partnerships, collaborations and more unique relationships in place.”

Web site: www.salt.edu
Length of programs: 15 weeks
Total program size: Approximately 25 students during spring and fall, 15 or less in summer short courses
Size of photo track: Varies, from five to ten students per semester
Age range: Averages mid-to late-20s to 50 or more
Tuition: $9,850 per semester; summer courses typically $1,000 per week, plus $500 for housing. Financial aid available.
Other expenses: Housing, $2,400 per semester; food and basic photo gear, extra
Academic credits: Credits are often transferable through host-consortium agreements. Salt is currently pursuing accreditation as an avocational workshop program.
Potential outcomes: Great preparation for internships, advanced degrees and freelance work

Rocky Mountain School of Photography, Missoula, Montana
Intensive Career Training in Three Parts

A rainbow rises from atop the rolling hills near Missoula, Montana, making this location an idyllic spot for a photography fieldwork session. © Ben Reed / Rocky Mountain School of Photography

In the heart of Big Sky Country, Rocky Mountain School of Photography (RMSP) has been offering intensive career training for more than 25 years. The school also offers a variety of weeklong programs, photo workshops in National Parks and weekend events in different cities nationwide “to help people to get to know us,” but RMSP’s core is its Summer Intensive “because it’s very different from any other program out there,” says founder and owner Neil Chaput de Saintonge.

Career training is divided into three sections: Summer Intensive (SI), which runs for 11 weeks, four one-week Pro Studies (PS) sessions and Advanced Intensive (AI), which lasts for six weeks. From June through mid-August, SI students receive a technical foundation in photo studies, visual studies, lighting, output and image editing, with each week building on the week before. “There aren’t individualized tracks in SI; we’re trying to get everybody to the same place,” says curriculum director Marcy James. “We help students to build their base, find their voice and think about what they like to do,” she explains. “Often, people will come here thinking they want to do landscape photography, but they find out they love shooting people, or the reverse.”

RMSP is situated in the heart of downtown Missoula, in the midst of restaurants and bars, community activities and plenty of fieldwork locations. The school’s six classrooms can accommodate 30 students each, but classes are kept to a maximum of 25. Lighting classes are held in two newly renovated studios and are broken down to smaller groups of 12 students or fewer. “We try to focus on experiential learning, so students aren’t just sitting in the classroom all the time,” says James. To accomplish this, each course has an associated lab, with assistants to help students apply the concepts they learned to their own images.

After graduating from SI and a week’s break, returning students embark on up to four one-week sessions with different instructors. “These classes are almost like mock internships,” says James. Coursework is split into thirds, with one part specific to a genre (portraiture, documentary, wedding, architecture, advertising, and so on), one third shooting, and the last part on how that instructor runs his or her business. Students are exposed to the photographer’s own process and get to see how an individual’s workflow shifts from the basics. “The critiquing also gets a lot more intense because you’re critiqued from the perspective of what a client would want and what a client would say,” she explains.

The third section of career training, AI, covers three areas: business and marketing, portfolio development and emerging technologies. According to James, a valuable component of the AI curriculum is the practical skills that professionals teach students about how to run their own businesses.

In portfolio development, students choose from categories of retail, commercial, fine art or documentary and are assigned a mentor to help them build a portfolio. “The instruction gets more focused on what the student really wants to do and who their clients are,” says James. “Everything gets a little bit more intimate.”

Emerging technologies refers to video, which has been part of the program for about five years. During the first three years, “students would come kicking and screaming,” says James. “They did not see the point, but within the past two years, we’re starting to see AI graduates getting jobs because of their video work, instead of their still work.”

Throughout the program, the students are asked to evaluate their studies, the results of which are taken very seriously. “Every class, every teacher, every aspect gets evaluated,” says James. “At orientation I always tell students that the curriculum they’re going to experience has a lot to do with the students who came before them, because we believe that our students, both current and alumni, are integral to helping us think of ways to make improvements and strengthen our programs.”

Web Site: www.rmsp.com
Length of programs: Career training, 11 to 22 weeks of intensive study from early June through late October
Total size: Up to 100 students annually
Age range: 17 to 70-plus
Track size: 12 to 25 students per session with an instructor and assistant
Tuition: $8,000 to 19,000 depending on courseload
Other expenses: $5,000 to 12,000
Academic credits: No credits or degrees, but students receive RMSP certificates of completion for each course.
Potential outcomes: Career options include portrait, wedding, food, product, stock, architecture, documentary, nature, fine art. Some students pursue assisting, digital tech and retouching work. A few become photo educators.

Penland School of Crafts, Penland, North Carolina
Workshops and Long-Term Residencies in a Rustic Mountain Setting

A student sets up for a portrait using a 20 x 24 view camera during a workshop on wet-plate tintype photography taught by Monty McCutchen. © Robin Dreyer / Penland

Founded in 1929 as a crafts cooperative in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Penland has developed into a vibrant artists’ community. “Many people with various connections to the school have come here and decided to settle,” says Communications Manager Robin Dreyer. “It’s a great benefit to have lots of people in the area who are practicing artists.”
According to Dreyer, “Workshop offerings are eclectic and change annually because we don’t have standing faculty or a linear curriculum. We book different instructors every year, and the content depends on their interests and expertise. We’re equipped to teach any kind of photography, and we do run the gamut,” he explains, “yet there’s a definite emphasis on materials and hand processes.”

In summer, the school holds five sessions of two-week workshops (12 full work days), one two-and-a-half-week session and a final session of one week. Spring and fall offerings include extended eight-week workshops concurrently with one-week classes.

Penland’s photography facilities are ample, yet the school recently completed the design stage for a dedicated photography building. “What we are after is a studio where we can teach any kind of photography that has ever been practiced, so it’s going to be a very flexible space,” says Dreyer.

Penland’s student demographic is very broad, and “a lot of classes are open to people with varied skill levels,” Dreyer notes. “The classes are small, and the instructors are very generous, so there’s a lot of one-on-one instruction.” One valuable benefit of this is that less experienced students learn from both the teacher and the more-experienced students. “But it also cuts the other way,” Dreyer adds. “People frequently say that more-experienced students have been inspired by students with a little less preconception about what they’re doing.”

In addition to workshops, Penland offers two types of long-term residencies across all disciplines. The Core Fellowship (CF) is a two-year work-study program, housing nine artists on campus with partial board. The fellows work for the school approximately 20 hours a week and take workshops from March through mid-November. The Resident Artist (RA) program provides an apartment and studio to seven to eight artists for three years, with a highly subsidized rent of under $200 a month. Artists work in a common studio complex, but RAs have no responsibilities to the school beyond holding an open studio in each session.

Both CF and RA programs have a competitive application process, with an autumn deadline. “These programs are a really special opportunity because we teach so many different areas with so many instructors,” says Dreyer, noting that up to 270 instructors cycle through over a two-year period.

All the workshops coexist in a very open atmosphere. “We have 15 studios running simultaneously in the summer, so if you’re taking a photo class and want to check out the book studio, it’s right next door,” explains Dreyer. “And if you need something made from a different medium, it’s generally possible to find someone to help you make it.”

Penland’s extensive scholarship program subsidizes the cost of workshops for more than 300 students annually. One unique aspect of this is a partnership program with art departments at 120 leading colleges and universities nationwide. The schools receive an offer letter in December, and 20 participating schools are selected from the responses received on a first-come, first-served basis. Each school recruits one student, who can attend a free workshop of his or her choice, cofunded by Penland and that institution.

“These partner relationships are partly about finding really good students, but they’re also about creative ways to make our programs accessible,” says Dreyer. “We are heavily subsidized by fund raising but still not accessible to everyone, and we’re acutely aware of that. We’re just always trying to find ways to make our programs more accessible.”

Web site: www.penland.org
Length of programs: One, two or eight weeks, plus two-year visiting artist and three-year artist residencies
Total program size: 140 workshops per year serving more than 1,300 students
Size of photo track: Seven to eight workshops annually
Tuition: $557 weekly; many scholarships available
Other expenses: Room and board from $523 per week, plus cost of individual production materials
Academic credit: No degrees offered but college credit available through Western Carolina University
Potential outcomes: Skill enrichment, artistic inspiration, motivation and networking



PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue



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