Visual Arts MFA vs Photo MFA

I received the following question the other day and I think it’s a great question that lots of people have so it’s getting its own post:

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?

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2 Responses to Visual Arts MFA vs Photo MFA

  1. Amy Stein says:

    This may or may not be relevant but Tanyth Berkeley started out in the SVA MFA program and transferred to Columbia after her first year.

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