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Grad School Alternatives


Henry Horenstein

Henry Horenstein

In the last issue, I wrote about reasons to go to graduate school in photography. Here, I want to talk about alternatives, if you’re not ready, didn’t get in, or are too broke to go.

First, I’d like to share a comment I received in response to last issue’s article from Richard Zakia, professor emeritus at Rochester Institute of Technology. Dick writes from retirement in North Carolina:

An interesting and sobering article on grad school and MFAs. One of the reasons I would give for going to grad school is to further your education. Too often we focus narrowly on getting a job.

I agree. While there are, for sure, good reasons to be concerned about your career, graduate school should be, first and foremost, about learning and growing as a photographer/artist. Easy to say when you’re not facing tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, I know. Still, it’s the creative life you’re choosing, so doesn’t it make sense to focus on the creative aspect of it all, and try your best to keep practical matters at bay, at least for the time being?

I know that graduate school is the obvious choice-maybe the obvious dodge-for some who can’t decide what to do next with their lives. Recently, I had a conversation with a former student who was interested in graduate programs. She showed talent in our class, worked hard and is a terrific individual. The problem is that the class was Photo One. She was at the very beginning of her journey as a photographer, and already she saw graduate school as the natural next step. What about Photo Two, Three, Four?

My student is not that unusual, though. I get a lot of similar requests from other students who put the cart before the horse. And I imagine this must be true at schools elsewhere. I wonder if students applying for graduate programs in chemistry have taken only one chemistry course? What about students of English? Mathematics? There are a plethora of applicants for photography graduate school slots, for sure, but it seems odd that so many candidates don’t have the background needed to get the most out of the graduate school experience.

I’ve had a few students, including former art majors, who have taken a totally different turn. A recent (excellent) student decided she wanted to go to medical school. To apply, she’s had to fill in the gaps-take organic chemistry and a variety of other prerequisites. With photography, the stakes aren’t as high; you won’t harm people as much taking their picture as you might on the operating table. Still, gaining the necessary background skills seems like a reasonable requirement.

So what can you do to fill in the photographic blanks? How can you improve your skills and perspective and get yourself ready for the most productive graduate school experience, if and when you finally do decide to go?

There are a number of options. You can choose to teach yourself; read, surf websites, go to lectures and do work on your own. In some ways this is a nice option, but it’s the rare individual who is truly disciplined enough to sustain this kind of self-education. There’s much to be said for community-in terms of support, networking, knowledge-sharing and even competition.

Perhaps the most obvious next move is to take some extra classes. This can be a very low-impact step-one that doesn’t necessarily require moving, spending a lot of money, or even making much of a commitment. You may be able to arrange your work schedule, too, so it won’t adversely affect your work-a-day job.

You can almost always find a school or community center near where you live, where you can take classes part-time, either as a special student or in a continuing-education program. (There will be more choices in urban areas, of course.) Usually the most productive use of time and money is to take a class that focuses on a specific skill. If you can find a teacher who inspires you creatively, all the better.

Although learning specific skills is often the main reason to take classes, they can provide a number of other benefits, too-most notably a community of people with a shared interest in photography. You can critique each other’s work and share knowledge-an exhibition worth seeing, a lecture worth hearing, where to buy cheap memory cards, what grad schools to consider.

Classes also may give you access to costly equipment and studio space, and they will likely keep you “in the game”-motivated and focused on your creative work. It’s all too easy to let your focus drift when your main concentration is somewhere outside of photography.

Photography workshops offer another part-time educational option. There are dozens of workshop programs, in a variety of locations in the U.S. and abroad. They all vary somewhat, but most are held in the summer and most in places you’d want to go anyway-for vacation, if not for learning. Most workshop programs are a week or so long and very intense, with formal and informal meetings from early morning to late evening. Some teach specific skills, such as platinum printing or advanced Photoshop techniques, while others are more crit-type class, where you shoot, produce work and discuss it in a group setting.

Workshops offer many advantages-one of which is the wide variety of teaching talent. For example, many otherwise busy professional photographers teach in workshops, but not in traditional school settings. So, in a workshop setting you might be able to study with some of your favorite working photographers-notables such as Mary Ellen Mark or Jay Maisel.

Almost all workshop participants have an excellent experience, and, for some, workshops can even be career-changing. There are downsides, though, one being their relatively high cost. Another potential downside is that some of your fellow workshop participants may not be as committed to their work as you might be to yours; there are those who even derisively call workshops “art camp.” And because of the intensity, the experience can occasionally turn negative, especially if you find yourself with a teacher you don’t like. So, before you commit your time and money, ask around or Google advice from past students about particular teachers and workshops.

The Photo Review (not to be confused with the estimable Photo Review, a Philadelphia-based photo organization) is an interesting sidetrack, though not exactly an alternative to workshops. In these short sessions (usually 15-30 minutes each), you present your work to a variety of professional teachers, photographers, editors, curators and so forth. This is not so much a learning experience-though you may learn a lot-as a blitzkrieg of feedback, criticism and professional advice.

Most agree that a review can be a daunting experience, so steel yourself. Many people find, though, that they get an enormous amount out of such sessions; a select few even get offered shows, have work purchased, or get published, as a result. And where else can you sit down with a curator from a major museum or a publisher of photography books, and show your work one-on-one? Nowhere.

Some photo reviews take applicants on first-come basis. For others, you have to submit a portfolio and be accepted. Local review sessions can be quite affordable, but the larger, national ones are fairly expensive. And that’s before any additional expenses that might come with getting yourself to the review locale, such as airfare and a hotel.

In future issues, we’ll write more about different workshop and review options. Next issue, though, we’ll return to the subject of graduate studies and hear from a current student who chose to go to grad school after years working as a photographer and teacher. Stay tuned.


There are many fine workshop programs, some of which are local and modest. These are some of the best-known destination programs:

Maine Media Workshops
70 Camden Street
Rockport, ME 04856

Anderson Ranch Art Center
PO Box 5598
Snowmass Village, CO 81615
970- 923-3181

Santa Fe Photographic Workshops
PO Box 9916
Santa Fe, NM 87504

Palm Beach Photographic Center
55 NE 2nd Avenue
Delray Beach, FL 33444

Toscana Photographic Workshop
Casella Postale 931
Bologna Centro
40124 Bologna Italy
+39 051 644 0048

Photo Reviews

Photo reviews are a fairly new trend in the photography world, but there are already several that have been active for years. Some are large, formal events, catering to an international audience, while others are small and locally-based. Here are some of the best known:

PO Box 3353
Portland, OR 97208

1113 Vine Street
Houston, TX 77002

Review Santa Fe
PO Box 2483
Santa Fe, NM 87504

powerHouse Books review
37 Main Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201

Henry Horenstein, founding publisher of www.teachingphoto.com, is author of several books, including widely adopted texts: Black & White Photography, Photography (with Russell Hart), Beyond Basic Photography, and Color Photography. He has taught at Rhode Island School of Design for 25 years. You can see his work at www.horenstein.com.

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