Why an MFA? Why SVA? (For Me)

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?

Rachel Hulin over at A Photo Blog asked me why I decided to go back to school in a recent interview and here’s what I told her:

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.

Last Peace Demonstration. Barry Frydlender
Last Peace Demonstration. Barry Frydlender
Gregory Crewdson
Gregory Crewdson
Andreas Gefeller
Andreas Gefeller

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.

4,786,139 Suns from Flickr (Partial) 1/14/09 2007-2009 4" x 6" machine prints (detail of installation). Penelope Umbrico
4,786,139 Suns from Flickr (Partial) 1/14/09 2007-2009 4" x 6" machine prints (detail). Penelope Umbrico
The Brothers (A.M & M.) 2003. Collier Schorr
The Brothers (A.M & M.) 2003. Collier Schorr
Shimon Attie
Shimon Attie
Moire 3. Liz Deschenes
Moire 3. 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 FogliaDavid La SpinaJustin 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.


“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.

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9 Responses to Why an MFA? Why SVA? (For Me)

  1. Mr. Claus says:

    Hi James,

    I have been an avid follower of your blog the last couple of months, fun and informative stuff you are posting.

    I am in the middle of applying for an MFA in photography myself, but am still rather uncertain over which school might be the best for me on the long run. I live oversees, so just renting a car and checking out some schools is not an option.

    On my current list are Yale, SVA, ICP/Bard and SFAI. Do you have any opinions or know anything about the reputation of the last one?

  2. chelsea d. says:

    i just found this blog and immediately read every word posted thus far! as someone contemplating an MFA within the next 2 or 3 years i really appreciate your analysis of different programs. thanks for all of the interesting details – i look forward to following your experiences…

  3. Chris says:

    Thank you for such a thoughtful response — very helpful and has provided me the clarity about this that I had been looking for. I appreciate your unique perspective because I hadn’t really thought about it like that. I now have a much better understanding about the pros and cons of each. I prefer your approach! Thanks!!

  4. Chris says:

    Hi James,

    Thanks so much for all the info on your blog.

    I was wondering if you had any concerns and/or opinions about studying photography in an MFA program that is exclusively photo-based (or lens-based as I think SVA may call it) versus more common MFA programs where you are grouped with other disciplines(painters, sculptors, etc.)and may have the benefit of those perspectives on your work and opportunity to explore areas where disciplines may overlap. I’ve been weighing those differences for some time now and would be curious to hear your thoughts on this.

    Thanks again,

    • Hey Chris,
      Thanks for showing an interest. I do have opinions about a lens-based MFA program versus a more interdisciplinary program, but don’t place too much stock in them as my opinions are biased towards what I want for my work and my own strengths and weaknesses.

      I don’t know the specifics about too many programs so I’m just going to stick to looking at two of the programs I checked out:

      The program I’m in at SVA is called an MFA Program in Photography, Video & Related Media.
      There are about seventy students in the program. Having been here only one week, I haven’t met everyone but those I have met include people working with still photography, video, multimedia, light, text, sculpture. Right now is a very wacky, wild and exciting time for lens-based art.

      Columbia University offers an MFA in Visual Arts and, as you know, if you go you’ll be surrounded by painters, sculptors and all sorts of artists. I may be off by one or two, but I believe that there are only 3 or 4 photographers admitted each year.

      My background is as a photojournalist/documentary photographer. I am in school as an artist, but when I step back out into the world, I am probably going to still need to depend upon corporate, editorial and commercial work to pay the bills if I want to support myself by taking photos. Having an MFA isn’t going to suddenly make me a successful artist overnight. During my two years at SVA I will be in theory and photo history classes but I can also take lighting classes and digital imaging classes. These classes will not only improve my skill set for obtaining work in the real world but will also give me more options for self-expression in my art. There is still so much for me to learn using photo and video and I want my two years to really focus on my weaknesses. Each semester there are visiting photographers and videographers who come and talk. Also, with only lens-based students attending the program, there are lots of fun cameras and scanners and printers (oh my).

      At Columbia, with only four photographers per year, there isn’t the same availability of technical photography courses, but you can learn to paint and sculpt. The visiting artists at Columbia might not include any photographers for a semester but instead might include world renowned artists working in other disciplines.
      Is that good? bad? That’s up to you to decide for you and your development as an artist. How do you identify yourself? Who and what are you influences? Where do you want your work to go?

      Columbia has graduated some amazing photographers including Leigh Ledare and Tanyth Berkeley. SVA has alumni including Shai Kremer and Matthew Pillsbury.

      Leigh Ledare
      Leigh Ledare

      Tanyth Berkeley
      Tanyth Berkeley

      Shai Kremer
      Shai Kremer

      Matthew Pillsbury
      Matthew Pillsbury

      Take a look at your work and the artists who influence it. Imagine being in a crit and think about what sort of feedback would be most helpful for you. What do you want to learn?

      If you’re open, you’ll learn in either type of program. I just decided that for my work, my background and where I see myself going in the future, a lens-based program makes more sense to me. The work I am producing right now has a lot to do with issues of truth in photography, representation, the role of photojournalism in the world…my own photo baggage.

      The questions I have are going to be best answered through being in a lens-based program.

      What questions do you have about your work and where can you best answer them?

  5. Dalton says:

    Thanks, good to know. I don’t have any plans to do an MFA any time soon, but I have been curious about their program, as well as SVA’s. I’m looking forward to your reports!

  6. Dalton says:

    Hey James – I am curious to know whether ICP/Bard was ever on your list. I don’t know how their program rates compared to the others you looked at, just curious.

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