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Grad School Contradictions


Mark Morelli returned to school last year, as an MFA student at the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University, in their low-residency program. A working photographer for the past twenty years, Mark decided he needed a change and entered the MFA program with enthusiasm, which was soon tempered by experience. It’s not uncommon for grad students to have mixed feelings about their journey, and we thinks teachers should listen with care. The sentiments and opinions expressed here are strictly Mark’s own, and not those of www.teachingphoto.com. But we think he makes some very good points. ― Henry Horenstein

"Chelsea, MA," 2008. Copyright © Mark Morelli.

“Chelsea, MA,” 2008. Copyright © Mark Morelli.

At the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt) last spring, I listened as a well-known and respected fine-art photographer moaned that he had “sold his soul to the devil” and was now doing editorial work. This comment goes directly to some of the contradictory feelings I’ve developed during my year-and-a-half back at school—feelings that both confuse and anger me about art schools.

His statement perpetuates the all-too-common notion that working as a photographer is shameful, worthless, and must be dismissed out of hand—a notion that is not only incredibly condescending, but irresponsible, because it fails to alert art students to the realities facing them when they graduate. These are realities students should know: that unless their parents continue to support them, or they have a substantial trust fund or a wealthy partner/spouse, they will have to make a living when they leave—and to do so taking photographs is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s not a sellout or a compromise; it’s a reality.

Furthermore, to say that working as a photographer is a sellout is disingenuous, or simply uninformed. In practice, fine-art photographers also are working photographers, and ultimately have almost as many constraints as other working photographers. These constraints involve meeting the demands of the contemporary art market, which includes collectors, gallery owners, curators, and museums.

After making the above statement, our esteemed photographer allowed that editorial work was difficult, and that he had actually learned a lot working with different assistants and lighting people—and that perhaps commercial work could inform his personal work. These are excellent points, but ones too rarely covered in art schools.

"Chelsea, MA," 2008. Copyright © Mark Morelli.

“Chelsea, MA,” 2008. Copyright © Mark Morelli.

The connection of the fine-art world with the commercial world is another often-avoided subject. The fact is that much, if not all, high-profile contemporary art is heavily driven and influenced by what sells in the market. Further, what sells in this market is driven and influenced by the patrons, who in turn influence the galleries, who are then influenced by museum curators, who want to show work that is bought by these (usually) wealthy patrons.

I am not naïve enough to be surprised by this artist-gallery-museum-collector network; I just want the discussion to be out in the open. The commercial nature of the fine-art world should be addressed, not avoided, in the art-school discourse. If you didn’t know better, you would think it was only theory and higher ideals that drive the contemporary art world.

For example, let’s examine the work of Gregory Crewdson. His most recent project, “Beneath the Roses,” was underwritten by his gallery (Luhring Augustine), his book publisher (Aperture), and a museum (Mass MoCA). The production of his photographs resembles an advertising shoot, working with a crew of forty or more assistants, including lighting and production designers, as well as a director of photography. In addition, there is a tremendous amount of pre- and post-production work involved. The 32 photographs are produced in an edition of six, and sell for $70,000 per print. Fine art? Commercial?

If Crewdson is selling his prints for these staggering prices, maybe it’s about time art schools include a discussion of the print size in relation to its commercial value. The reality is that the larger the print, the higher the price a gallery can charge a collector. People can talk all they want about the need for a photograph to approach the grandeur of painting (but aren’t some paintings small?), Baudrillard, and the spectacle of large work, but the bottom line is still financial; pictures are generally worth more when they are big. What began as artistic theory to explain large-scale work has evolved into cliché to justify commercial concerns.

"East Boston, MA," 2008. Copyright © Mark Morelli.

“East Boston, MA,” 2008. Copyright © Mark Morelli.

Another constant in the art-school discourse is “get uncomfortable” — that somehow you have to keep changing and exploring in what you do and how you work. That’s an interesting idea, but it’s also simplistic (sometimes even insulting), implying that students have never changed, experimented, or felt uncomfortable with their work — that they’ve worked the exact same way forever and have never tried anything new. Maybe they have done all of that and decided that a particular style or way of working is what suits them—what they want to put out there—for better or worse.

At the same time, art students are encouraged to get uncomfortable, many contemporary artists whose work is championed have been doing just the opposite— essentially working the same way for years. Bernd and Hilla Becher have been photographing vernacular architecture in the same style since the late 1950s (Bernd died in 2007). Crewdson has been working on the same motif for the last ten years. Tina Barney has been taking portraits of the wealthy in the U.S. and Europe since the mid-1970s. Cindy Sherman has been photographing herself since the late 1970s. Larry Clark remains fixated on teenagers, photographing this same age group since he was one in the 1960s.

By the way, I’m not convinced there is anything wrong with working in a similar vein or on a similar idea for a long time. Rock-and-roll Hall of Famers Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley played the same songs forever and they still sound great. But it seems like there’s a different standard for students and the artists they’re supposed to admire. Furthermore, by telling us to work “differently,” teachers are saying that the work that got us successfully accepted into graduate school is now invalid. I don’t call that teaching; I call it contradicting.

Furthermore, it seems as though in our postmodern world, any photographer working before 1970 is either old-fashioned or irrelevant, thus outside of the discussion of influence (except for the few considered timeless—Walker Evans, the Bechers, Clark, and others). As a result, any street, documentary, portrait, or humanistic photographer is forgotten or simply considered unworthy. To be valid or relevant, you must somehow reference Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Sontag, or Baudrillard.

"East Boston, MA," 2008. Copyright © Mark Morelli.

“East Boston, MA,” 2008. Copyright © Mark Morelli.

But I wonder if the very reliance on postmodern theory as the only reference point has gotten stale and become irrelevant. In reviews of the most recent Whitney Biennial (2008), two reviewers spoke to the sameness in contemporary work.  In The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl wrote of the Biennial, “It is full of busy ingenuities that smack of art school … Two decades of academic post-modernizing have trailed off into embarrassed silence.” Jerry Saltz in New Yorkmagazine wrote, “This show comes at a restless, disconnected moment. Institutional critique has become an institutional style, and the socio-artistic movement known as ‘relational aesthetics’—that is, art that’s all about your own relationship to being in public with it—has gone mainstream. Most in the art world want more than that. They’re longing for art to be more than just a commodity or a comment on art history.” Saltz continues, “… much of it simply looks like what art looks like these days.”

I’m not sure why older photographers are no longer valid, but I definitely think that scope of references helps to create work that “looks like what art looks like today.” If the only artists deemed significant are “contemporary” or from our recent past, we will continue creating work that only references itself — an artistic endgame.

As the late painter Elizabeth Murray said, “What upsets me is the amount of art today that seems more and more conceptual, more closed, less about real life, more and more about the art world, making of art, art strategies, for the sake of other artists.”  She goes on “Or it’s merely ideological. …which you look at and it’s like reading the newspaper about some horrible thing; you say, ‘This is awful,’ but you’re not renewed by the experience.”

Some more of my work:


"East Boston, MA 2008." Photo © Mark Morelli.


Mark Morelli received a degree in journalism from the University of Rhode Island and has worked as a professional photographer in the Boston area for over twenty years. His work has been published in numerous publications including: the Boston Globe, the New York TimesVanity Fair, the Boston Phoenix, the Los Angeles Times, the Detroit Free Press, the Village VoiceAdvertising Age,American TheatreSwing Magazine, the San Francisco ExaminerTechnology ReviewUSA Today, and the Providence Journal-Bulletin.  His work has also been exhibited at galleries, universities and schools in Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut. Visit his blog.

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1 comment to Grad School Contradictions

  • Joe Baltz

    Mr. Morelli–just a note to compliment you on the interesting essay “Grad School Contradictions”. I teach photography at an inner city high school in the midwest and spent several years slugging my way through night classes for a grad degree in photo. Our thoughts and experiences match perfectly–you just say them in an eloquent and thoughtful manner. thanks again. Nice job!