Way back when in December I spent a few hours with the University of Hartford Limited Residency Photo MFA Program while they were in NY for their Fall week together. I was lucky enough to sit in on a panel discussion between Alice Rose George, Marc Joseph Berg, Richard Renaldi and Jörg Colberg all about photo books. I had a few questions about the limited residency program and some of the students (and program head Robert Lyons) were gracious enough to answer them…(don’t forget to click on the photos to see the artists’ websites)
Enjoy! – James Pomerantz
Best thing about a limited residency program?
You do not have to stop your life for being part of the program. A limited residency program attracts people who come from more diverse professional backgrounds and who are used to independently work on their projects.
For me it’s the freedom. Without a traditional class structure, there are no limitations to where I can go, what I can shoot, and the types of projects I can take on. It also allows me to carry on as a full time mother of my four-year-old daughter.
Students receive the time they need to digest and integrate what they are learning and experimenting with in terms of imagery, presentation and ideas. The program allows individuals to pursue projects across a multitude of locations…..while simultaneously providing a community in which to present those projects that fosters dialogue, thought and change.
Worst thing about being in a limited residency program?
You do not get the same social exposure as in a regular program and sometimes I miss peer feedback on a daily basis. And it is a little strange to be on the other side of the planet while being in the same program together.
Not enough time in “residence”…..staying on track with one’s work.
What is most important thing you’ve learned so far?
This could easily a ten-page essay. But there’s a quotation I came across recently from Stuart Davis that is relevant to the program as I see it: “Everything new and great already exists – has always existed. We need to make our connection with it.” In this program, we are focussed on creating a book as our thesis project; we talk constantly about storytelling and the multiple forms of narrative. And all of that boils down to connecting deeply with our own work, and saying something that will be meaningful to ourselves and others – not just upon the first viewing, but over time and through repeated viewings, as meanings change and evolve for the photographer and the audience. Merely doing something superficially different won’t cut it with me any more, nor will it for any of my fellow students.
To listen to critical feedback, challenge assumptions and make changes a fluid part of the program.
Why get an MFA in a photography program that hasn’t existed before this year?
With other programs, I knew what to expect; Hartford was a mystery, and that excited me. I was drawn to Robert’s innovative vision for the program, and I like the idea of being part of something new, contributing to what could feasible become a quite eminent MFA program. Yet, at present, the Universty of Hartford doesn’t have a reputation for photography. Perhaps there’s some risk involved, but I’m cool that. Really, I made the decision based not on what I thought would look good on my CV, but rather, I based it on what I truly thought was best for my artistic development.
Can you tell me a little bit about the community of the program? How often do you all meet in person? How else do you communicate? How often are you looking at each others work?
We meet face-to-face three times a year: Summer (two weeks), Fall, and Spring (one week each). Summer is always Hartford, CT. This Fall was New York, the Spring will be Berlin. It’s an international program. Officially we have two conferences with our thesis advisor each month, plus a group crit once a month, convened via Skype and PDFs. Unofficially, we communicate with each other nearly daily via a private Ning network, Facebook, and email. We also try to Skype with each other periodically. The way we’ve all connected is incredible. That first two-week period in August was intense, to say the least, and we all bunked together in a seminary near the University of Hartford. Because only a few of us had cars, we depended upon each other utterly for rides to class, trips to eat, and expeditions to do laundry. Then there was always an evening gathering that lasted late into the night.
The community that is established in this program is dynamic and extremely close. The 24/7 aspect from the initial summer session helps to forge close friendships and alliances with the peer group. Outside of the regular schedule meeting sessions some students meet bi-weekly with others who are in close physical proximity. There is also a specific student social network group that communicates frequently with one another and then some skype others on a regular basis to discuss and show work.
Any artists’ works you’ve been exposed to in the program that have particularly moved you?
We got to meet up for an artist talk in Justine Kurland’s living room and that was spectacular. She is full of life. Her photos and her dedication to her vision are genuinely touching.
Any readings that have stuck in your mind?
I am currently digesting Words Without Pictures, which I’ve recently finished. To my mind, it’s like a news report of where photographic thinking is today. At least much of photographic thinking. An incredible document. I’ve also just begun Alain Badiou’s Being and Event, which is philosophy, because I think it’s important to keep up with the latest dense European thinking. Very slow going, but I makes me exclaim out loud when I get it.
Murakami for some strange reason.
Ben Shan’s The Shape of Content. As soon as I finished it, I bought a bunch of copies and gave them out to my artist friends.
What sort of person would be best suited for a limited residency program? What sort of person should avoid it?
The ideal limited residency student would be someone who has a life they must carry on while they also pursue their degree. That’s who it serves best. This kind of program demands a great degree of self-direction and discipline, rather than relying on a weekly schedule of deadlines with lots of conversation in-between. To me, we have plenty of interaction with each other and with our instructors, but to some other people it might feel a bit lonely and isolated. It’s probably the program for an artist who is capable of carrying on their work on their own if they weren’t in graduate school.
for limited residency, i think you have to be at least something of a self-starter. because you don’t have constant contact with faculty and students, you must take some extra responsibility for moving your education forward. also, you must be flexible. that may be why the model is so appealing to people like me, who are a bit older and have more experience in the work world, where there is mentorship, but it’s up to you to make the most of it.
i don’t know if anyone should avoid limited residency per se, but i do think a person who needs more structure would be less amenable to it. a conventional program does have the benefit of constant contact and more frequent deadlines for new work and crits, so that will help move people along if they are the type who might need a push, or help in breaking through creative blocks.
Who are your biggest non-photography influences (painters, filmmakers, musicians…)?
My first biggest influence outside of photography would be poetry, specifically the poetry of the modernists (Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Max Jacob), the poetry of the San Francisco Renaissance (Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, etc), and the poets John Ashbery, Edmond Jabès, Paul Celan, Michael Palmer, and Norma Cole.
Many of these poets composed (or compose today) in sequences of poems, or in the book form, rather than the individual poem. And that has deeply informed my interest in the photographic series and the photobook as compositional units. I also have a primary interest in the lyric, rather than the narrative, and in the possibilities of making (apparently) disjointed meaning and composing with disparate elements, rather than picking a subject and representing it in a more linear, logical fashion.
Brancusi, V.S. Naipul, Naguib Mahfouz, Fellini, Art Pepper
I’ve often said that i want my photographs to feel like a wilco song. but there are just tons of artists whose combination of creativity and discipline inspire me, from dylan and the beatles to van morrison and willie nelson and neil young, to rickie lee jones and laura nyro, the velvet underground and fleetwood mac and patti smith, on to r.e.m. and the smiths and then grant-lee buffalo. currently it’s gillian welch, the national, lucinda williams, the hold steady, pj harvey, the avett brothers, neko case, and ok that’s probably enough.
The painter who is most influential on me is pierre bonnard; his composition, particularly in interiors, is just breathtaking. i’m also deeply into the portraits of alice neel. and my two other favorites work(ed) in abstract: joan mitchell and cy twombly.