Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Formal Education

In response to an email I received this morning...

I read the profile page on your website. Your education and work experience has no relation with art and photography but you have a successful fashion studio. I'm curious what you think about people doing art/photography school.

Right now, I'd say I'm at the crossroad of life. I am 21 years old and took a year of community college. None of the classes interested me until I took an intro photography course (thank you art credit requirement). I felt this is what I want to do so I've been reading tutorials and blogs ever since. I thought to myself that I should get a degree in business since being a professional photographer it has more to do with business than photography in my opinion but when I look at requirements for retail/commercial photographer jobs they want a degree in art/photography, Capture One and medium format experience.
I'm not sure if I should get a degree in business or photography. How about no degree at all and just take workshops than open up my own studio when I'm ready.

I'll take a moment right now between shooting (video) to answer your questions in this email since these answers might be valuable to other photographers on their journey.

You can arrive at the same destination with different vehicles. Basically yes, you can become a successful photographer without attending art/photography school.

I don't know a thing about art school or photography school as a student. I can tell you about getting an MBA, or a Masters in Psychology, or a Bachelors in Economics. But I don't know squat about the formal education you'd receive from art/photography school as a student.

Interestingly however, I do know a thing or two about art/photography school from a professor's perspective as a result of teaching at NYFA. The classes are very broad but not particularly deep. My own class on "Multimedia for Self-Promotion" covered many topics that could have been standalone courses during the 16 week semester. For example, I cover Search Engine Optimization in 3 hours. That's hilarious. If you could learn everything there was to learn about SEO in 3 hours, people wouldn't be getting paid a lot of money for SEO work.

From a monetary perspective, going to colleges/universities/graduate school is like buying a title/degree purchase that gets you into a certain affiliation/network. Most professors would agree that the knowledge you'd gain from school to school is roughly equivalent. Textbooks are usually the same and while the quality of the professors can vary, they usually teach and deliver the same material.

So what's the difference? It's the value of the brand name you buy. It's like buying Coke instead of buying the supermarket-branded Cola. I mean, it's basically where your tuition goes. Rarely does it go into getting better teachers. Your tuition goes into an endowment fund. The managers of that endowment try to increase the value via various investments. The endowment typically goes into increasing the brand value of that school. Like increasing the its place on the annual US News & World Report rankings. They know that more brand value equals better the students, and better students equal better alumni and alumni network, and better alumni equal better brand value and around and around we go.

Because just like a modeling agency, you have to understand that most schools are businesses. And they are not in the business of charity. They exist to make money for their shareholders. A nice fat profit. I can tell you from experience that they might charge you $17,000 a semester to go to that school. But they probably pay their professors $25/hour. That's how I know they don't reinvest much money into better teachers.

But there is value in a brand. For example, there is tremendous monetary and social and perceived value in being a part of the Harvard network. As a general rule of thumb in this game of life, you want to be a part of as many exclusive networks as possible. So buying yourself into those networks can be an excellent investment.

So when you're considering plopping down $17k per semester on art/photography school (FYI that's NYFA's MFA tuition), you should consider that it might open a door otherwise closed to you. You might take a class with a professor who is himself an accomplished photographer. That professor might get you an internship under a famous photographer. Interning under that famous photographer could single-handedly launch your career. The photography MFA students that took my class are now entering contests and doing exhibitions as a result of NYFA's affiliations, network and connections. Does NYFA place them in a specific job? I don't think so. But they are leveraging the resources that NYFA provides to gain exposure and meet the right people. The rest is up to them.

And that's pretty much the sum of it. You get a good launchpad. The rest is up to you.

The rest is still up to you.

I had an amazing class of MFA students last semester. Each was driven to succeed (on his or her own terms). With or without NYFA, I believe that they wholeheartedly strived and strive to become successful photographers. I happened to have an entire class of students that came from other countries. They were here specifically to get their MFAs and further their careers. They were already artists and will continue to be artists. In fact most of them went to art school in their country of origin. This was just another rung on the ladder.

My conclusion is that any formal education system is a systematic way to prepare average people to become useful members of society. Art/photography school strives to be a little more specific in its preparation but I fear that leaves much to be desired in the depth of the knowledge that you would want to attain. Primarily you go to these schools for the membership to a club and the title to your name/resumé. You don't go there to gain specific skill sets. You will leave better than you came but you won't be a specific tool to the industry without real business experience.

On the track, they say "There's no replacement for displacement". That's equally true of academic versus real-world (business) experience. School is great preparation but it's just preparation. You'll never truly know anything without executing on that preparation. And even though those listings for retail/commercial photography jobs say "Art/photography degree, Capture One and digital medium format experience required", they also want you to have actual work experience. They will ask what campaigns you've shot and who've you worked for or assisted under, etc. They rarely hire someone straight out of school. It's why apprenticeships/internships are important in this line of business at least.

School is a great recipe for the masses. But it's mostly a cookie-cutter solution. You have to figure out for yourself if it's the right path for you. Ask yourself, are you a formal education type of person? Do you excel in academic classroom environments? Do you like rules and structure? Do you have the money to make this investment? If so, then formal education might be right for you.

But if you get bored easily in a classroom environment. You hate tests. You like independent study. You think school might be holding you back. You don't like rules and structure. You are self-motivated and you don't need someone to crack a whip. You are confident you can make the same connections without being affiliated with a brand name art/photography school. You learn better on the job. Then maybe formal education isn't a good fit.

I'd evaluate a business degree with the same underlying philosophy. You aren't really learning business as much as you're buying a title and joining a club. If you really wanted to learn business you can easily buy textbooks and subscribe to Harvard Business School's case studies and get the same education. Besides business is better learned as an experience.

At the end of the day though, the destination is the same. You want to become a successful photographer. While the road for each individual is different, the requirements don't change. You will need good business sense, an incredible ability to learn, and you will need a ton of heart.

There is no right answer.

I'd be doing both of us a disservice if I didn't mention that workshops don't fall under the category of formal education. They're mostly academic but they're a better bridge between academia and the real-world. Mine at least tend to teach real-world tools and draw from real-world experiences. More like what you'd learn in a trade school. The group classes are very intense and pack a lot into a 2-day affair. The 1-on-1 workshops are tailored to what you need at this point in your journey. Both require that you are internally driven and can evaluate your own situation. And unlike school, you can not be a fly on the wall and just sit back and observe. They require you to really get your hands dirty in practical applications (read: lots of shooting).

But again, there's no right answer. You just have to choose what's the best answer for you. Cheers!

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