Since launching this blog, the main questions I’ve been getting are “Why are you going back to school?” and “How did you decide on SVA?”
Both questions have answers but the answers are personal.
Why Am I Going Back To School?
My reasons for going back to school are pretty basic: I feel a bit like a child having difficulty expressing his thoughts. I have questions. I wasn’t fulfilled by what I was doing or what my photography was doing. I found it more enjoyable to work slowly with a large format camera and some Kodak 160nc than I did to run around with a digital camera meeting daily deadlines. I found myself more interested in trying to document something personally interesting instead of considering what others might be interested in seeing.
I think going back to school is like going to see a marriage counselor or a therapist. I want to have clearer lines of communication between my brain and my photographs. Two years of school for an MFA isn’t for everyone. Many of the photographers I most admire don’t have MFAs and I wouldn’t presume to tell anybody else that they should do what I’m doing or that it’s the right thing to do.
I’m hoping that the answers to the questions I have will come through building upon different areas of my photography:
1. Strengthening my technical skills. I look at work by Barry Frydlender, Gregory Crewdson or Andreas Gefeller and I don’t have a clue how they do it. I’m pretty oblivious when it comes to lighting or post-processing.
2. Strengthening my understanding of contemporary photography and the theory behind it. One of the courses I’m taking:
Contemporary Criticism with Richard Leslie: This course is designed to examine both general and specific areas of critical discourse. The first project is to examine the distinctions between commonly used terms such as “history,” “analysis,” “theory,” “criticism” and “critical theory” in broad, but grounded, terms. The second project is to delineate the concepts of modernism and postmodernism by tracing the development of specific methodologies such as formalism, Marxism, semiotics, literary theory, structuralism and poststructuralism, deconstruction, feminism and psychoanalysis. This mix also provides location of emerging discourses in cultural studies, and issues of imaging and representation. Understanding the issues as an interrelated history of ideas will be emphasized.
That’s some heady stuff!
3. Strengthening my images and the ideas behind them through rigorous critiques with a group of equally curious peers and instructors including Penelope Umbrico, Collier Schorr, Shimon Attie and Liz Deschenes.
I think that being a part of community where the basic intent is to study “new theories, contexts and techniques of an evolving, creative medium” is pretty damn exciting.
How Did I Decide On SVA?
Before I get any angry emails of disagreement, I want to clearly state that I don’t think there is a best MFA program. An amazing education can be had at any number of schools and depends on so many variables.
Home Sweet Home: I live in Brooklyn. I love New York and after spending the past few years traveling I decided I wanted to stay close to home. I am also recently engaged and my fiancée works in Manhattan. So, right off the bat, that narrowed the list down greatly. No schools in California, Arizona, Chicago or even Boston.
Then There Were Three: I looked online at various school websites and talked to people I know who had attended various MFA programs. I decided on three schools that were of interest to me: Yale, Columbia University and SVA. All three are either in New York or within a manageable drive. So, I rented a car and went and sat in a crit at Yale. Then I went up to Columbia (where I had studied as an undergraduate) and went to the open studios there. Then I went to an open house at SVA. The three programs have similarities but are also very different.
Commonalities: All three schools have amazing faculty and there are overlaps between the faculty members. (note: Just because a person is a world-renowned artist doesn’t mean they are going to be a great teacher.) All three school are graduating students putting out amazing work. All three schools are also graduating students who are not putting out amazing work. An MFA wont suddenly make a successful, ground-breaking artist out of you.
Differences: Columbia, Yale and SVA are also very different beasts:
At Columbia you are not in a Photography MFA program. You are in a Visual Arts MFA program. Your critiques are with painters, sculptors and other visual artists. There are only 4 or 5 photography students admitted each year.
At Yale you are in a Photography MFA program. There will be about 8 other photographers in your year with you.
At SVA you are in a Photography, Video and Related Media MFA program. There will be about 40 other students in your year with you.
I met some amazing students at each school, photographers I’m sure I’ll be crossing paths with for years to come as we grow and learn.
Final Decision: I only applied to one school, SVA. Like I said, each program is different and has a different feel and I decided I didn’t want to compromise on what would be a two-year relationship that would impact the rest of my life.
I loved my undergraduate experience at Columbia and Thomas Roma, who runs the photo MFA department, taught me as an undergraduate and is someone I greatly admire and credit with stoking my passion for photography. I decided, however, that I would benefit more from trying something different for graduate school. I also wanted to be able to take a variety of technical courses that Columbia doesn’t offer such as lighting. An advantage of Columbia is that you can take pretty much any class offered at the university from calculus to Sanskrit. But I really wanted to have an immersive, no holds barred photo education.
Sitting in on the critique at Yale was amazing. To be in a room listening to photographers like Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Tod Papageorge discussing students’ work is inspiring. The students there (including Lucas Foglia, David La Spina, Justin Leonard) are really talented photographers and were very welcoming. But Yale is in New Haven and would have meant buying a car, renting a house there and being away from home four days a week. I also wanted to be in a larger, more varied body of students and with only 9 students per year there can only be so much variety.
I went to the open house at SVA and it just felt right. I liked that there are a lot of students there. For me, more students means a bigger network of influences and feedback. The faculty is amazing and the alumni I know who went there had nothing but good things to say about their experiences.
So, I applied to SVA and I was fortunate enough to get in.
ULTIMATELY ONLY ONE THING WRITTEN ABOVE MATTERS:
“I went to the open house at SVA and it just felt right.” My SVA might be your RISD or Pratt or SAIC. There is no best school or best education. There’s only the best school and best education for you and only you can decide where and what they are.