Photographic Higher Education in the United States

Nancy M Stuart. Focal Encyclopedia of Photography: Digital Imaging, Theory and Applications, History and Science. Editor: Michael R Peres. 4th edition. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2007.

That crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral, that is what Robert Frank has captured in tremendous photographs taken as he traveled on the road around practically forty-eight states in an old used car (on Guggenheim Fellowship) and with agility, mystery, genius, sadness, and strange secrecy of a shadow photographed scenes that have never been seen before on film.

Jack Kerouac, Introduction to The Americans

So began the introduction to Robert Frank’s book first published in this country in 1959 heralding the beginning of photography’s “golden age.” Photography critic and curator, Jonathan Green stated “almost every major pictorial style and iconographical concern that will dominate American straight photography in the late sixties and throughout the seventies can be traced back to one or more of the eighty-two photographs in The Americans.” Kerouac, whose book On the Road was published in 1957, wrote the introduction to Frank’s book thereby, according to Green, linking photography to the “beat” generation and freeing the discipline from political or visual constraints as part of the anti-establishment movement.

Edward Steichen’s Family of Man exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City four years earlier brought photography into the general public’s consciousness, but Frank’s book helped launch a revolution among young, politically disenfranchised, liberal thinkers throughout the country by showing a less than glamorous America. Photography, if considered an art at all, was considered a radical art at the time. Therefore, student demand for photography programs and workshops grew steadily in the sixties and the seventies in part to answer their demand for relevance in higher education. By 1980 there were photography and history of photography programs at universities in every state. One member of the board at the George Eastman House described photography’s popularity on college campuses by saying, “they are wearing cameras like jewelry.”

Enrollments were expanding at universities in all programs due to the perceived social and economic necessity of higher education combined with the “baby boom” after World War II. However, the interest in photography was impacted by the confluence of additional factors, including an expanding market for art and the formation of The Society for Photographic Education in 1963. In addition, the mechanics of photography became democratized with the introduction of Kodak’s Instamatic camera designed by Frank A. Zagara of Kodak in 1963. Because the camera was easy to load with a 126 film cartridge, the photographer was ready to shoot for a $15.95 investment. Many students of photography in the 1960s and 1970s experienced making pictures for the first time through a Kodak Instamatic camera when they were younger. Between 1963 and 1970 over 50 million Instamatic cameras were produced. Photography came to be seen as both a common visual language and a revolutionary art.

Few disciplines have the distinction of functioning as a commercial product, an applied science, and a studio art discipline. As a result, Kodak’s 1960 Survey of Photographic Instruction reported that photography courses were found in science departments, journalism departments, art departments, and architecture schools. “The tendency for photography to become increasingly important in the non-photo courses is also growing. It is more and more frequently recognized by science, medicine, art, and other departments that photography is a tool without which the graduate is not really adequately prepared.”

The 1964 report Photography Instruction in Higher Education by Dr. C. William Horrell, Associate Professor of Photography at Southern Illinois University, indicated a total of 25 degree programs in photography graduating a total of 143 students per year. It also documents that photography was taught in 28 different departments or academic areas and covered 57 different approaches or types of photography courses. He felt that this was a reflection of the broad application of photography to many different disciplines and its relative newness as a college subject. The highest frequency of departmental location in the 310 schools surveyed was journalism with 99 schools (31%) reporting photography instruction within their journalism department. Art was second with 47 of the schools (15%) and audio-visual education was third with 38 schools (12%). Of the 310 schools surveyed only 22 reported (7%) having a department of photography. The remaining 104 schools reported photography offerings in departmental locations as wide ranging as Physics (20), Science (7), Police and Correctional Science (3), Engineering (2), and Liberal Arts (1).

The overwhelming impact, however, was the addition of photography majors within the university’s fine art departments. Keith Davis notes the rapid change in the departmental location of the nation’s college level photography courses:

In 1964, such courses were twice as likely to be found in departments of journalism as in departments of fine art. The number of fine art photography courses doubled between 1964 and 1968, and doubled again between 1968 and 1971. By contrast, the number of photography courses taught in journalism programs declined in these years. While this overall expansion of photographic education was clearly a positive sign, the shift from vocational training to self-expression prompted some to question the purpose of these new programs.

The proliferation of photography programs at the college level occurred during the later third of the 20th century. The annual Higher Education Arts Data Services (HEADS report) published by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD) lists 109 colleges with photographic BFA degree programs in 2004–2005. According to the report there are 5118 students majoring in photography at the undergraduate level and 645 students at the graduate (MFA) level. This data would not include the equally numerous students enrolled in community college programs, proprietary (for profit) vocational institutions, or non-degree granting programs and workshops.

National Influence on Photographic Education

Some photographers who learned their skills in this era actually attribute the medium’s popularity to Michelangelo Anto-nioni’s 1966 film entitled Blow Up. The movie chronicles a hip young professional photographer’s attempt to solve a murder mystery detected through the repeated enlargement of one of his photographs. Though undeniably influential to young males in the 1960s, the movie is just one of many examples of the medium’s appeal to popular culture. Other influences came from the popular press and the expanding number of galleries featuring photographic exhibits.

Though it may seem contradictory to photography’s popularity, it was also a time when classic picture magazines like LIFE and Look were being supplanted by television images as a source of news. What the demise of these magazines in the early 1970s caused, however, was a release for photography from its role as objective witness. Just few years later, a surprising surge in new magazine production including Smithsonian, Quest, and Geo featured photography as beautifully crafted still images. The rising cost of television advertising prompted many firms to return to print-based mediums, but the loss of the image’s utilitarian function allowed photographic illustrations to be appreciated for their artistic merit.

An expanding art market for photographic prints was in part a function of the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 1965. Bruce Davidson received the first photography grant in 1968 for his work East 100th Street, a documentary project focused on a New York City neighborhood. At the same time, the Guggenheim Fellowships in photography were awarded at an increased pace of 181 fellowships during the 19 years between 1966 and 1985, up from 39 fellowships awarded during the prior 19 years.

Time-Life issued their successful Library of Photography venture in 1972. Seventeen beautifully printed volumes were published about the history and art of photography. They were considered collector’s items by serious amateur photographers including those bound for college studies in photography. In the same decade major magazines including Newsweek, Esquire, and Rolling Stone did cover stories devoted to photography. Photography was modern, artistic, and hip. Galleries were showing photographs at an increasing rate, particularly in New York City where in 1968 no less than 24 photographic exhibits were on view during a one-month period. An article reproduced in the journal Image in 1971 reports on a visit to Lee Witkin’s Gallery in New York City where sales of photographs were “booming even with price tags from fifty to one hundred and fifty dollars per print!”

Cultural critic, Susan Sontag published a series of essays on photography in the New York Review of Books starting in 1973. The series was critical of the medium but served to legitimize photography as a subject worthy of consideration. The essays were later revised and published as a book, On Photography, in 1977. In this book Sontag examines aesthetic and moral problems raised by the authority of the photographed image in everyday life. The book considers the relation of photography to art, to conscience, and to knowledge.

The literary world applauded the book and Davis considered its publication a landmark event in the cultural history of photography. “Sontag changed the way the medium was perceived in at least two important ways: she confirmed its intellectual worth and expanded its critical audience.”

While photography was welcomed into the art world, academia was showing an interdisciplinary interest in it. In 1975, Wellesley College sponsored a series of lectures around the theme Photography Within the Humanities featuring lectures by Susan Sontag, John Szarkowski, Robert Frank, W. Eugene Smith, Irving Penn, and Paul S. Taylor. Author Keith Davis states “many academic disciplines—including art history, American Studies, English, anthropology, and philosophy—suddenly took an interest in the photographic image.”

Another factor increasing enrollment in colleges across the nation is that the “photography boom” was preceded by the Baby Boom. Returning WWII veterans fathered a population explosion that resulted in 76 million births necessitating major expansion of housing, schools, and services nationwide. At the same time the Servicemen’s Re-Adjustment Act (GI Bill) was financing the college education of returning military personnel increasing the perception of the necessity of a college education. The expectation of a college education placed on the Baby Boom generation combined with the possibility of studying something as “fun” and current as photography caused enrollments to soar in the new photographic departments.

The confluence of the amplified demographics of college-aged individuals, the critical and cultural acceptance of photography as an art form, and the increased expectation for the attainment of higher education combined to escalate the enrollment in photography departments across the country.

Early College Level Programs in Photography

With the advent of any new technology and its requisite new tools, inventors themselves tend to provide the first instructions. Soon after the announcement of the daguerreotype process to the French Academy of Sciences in 1839, L. J. Mandé Daguerre published detailed instructions for each camera he sold. Forty-five days after the first public demonstration of Daguerre’s invention, formal instruction in picture making was offered at the Stuyvesant Institute of New York City. By 1856, the University of London was offering a course in photographic chemistry. Shortly following were courses in Berlin, Dresden, and Munich all introduced between 1863 and 1888. The speed at which the news traveled and courses were formed was indicative of the great interest in this new process.

The California College of Photography at Palo Alto, California, in the early 1900s was one of the earliest schools in the United States dedicated to training professional photographers. On the east coast, Clarence H. White began teaching photography at Teacher’s College at Columbia University in New York City in 1906. In 1914 he opened the Clarence H. White School of Photography, and taught at both schools concurrently. White was associated with the Photo-Secession movement endorsing a revolt against the pseudo-impressionistic in photography on the grounds that photography must depend on its own unique capabilities rather than following the lead of painting.

Walter Gropius founded The Bauhaus in Weimer, Germany, in 1919. The program promoted the concepts of experiential learning, sound craft skills, and breaking down barriers between “fine art” and craft. Though not a photographic school, the students were encouraged to use photography in design, applied technology, and experimentation. Regular courses in photography were started in 1929. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian painter, photographer, and graphic designer taught a foundation course starting in 1923 and, later, founded the New Bauhaus in Chicago after activities at the Bauhaus in Germany aroused the suspicions of reactionary political forces that brought about its closing in 1933. Moholy-Nagy was the first photographer to become a principle motivating force behind an American institution of higher learning believing that, “the illiterate of the future will be the person ignorant of the use of the camera as well as the pen.” Lacking financial support from the founding organization, The New Bauhaus closed in 1938 but was opened again in another location in 1939 as the Chicago School of Design. Its final name change came in 1944 as the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology. It has produced numerous graduates, many who became photography professors in the expanding programs across the county.

Henry Holmes Smith was hired to teach the first photography course at the New Bauhaus in 1937. Later, Smith taught the first History of Photography course for a fine art department at Indiana University at Bloomington in 1947. He started a small graduate program in 1952 that influenced the future of photographic education through graduates like Jack Welpott, Jerry Uelsmann, Betty Hahn, Robert Fichter, and Van Deren Coke, who became important photographic artists and teachers themselves. For all his success, however, Smith felt that the administration did not hold photography in high esteem, causing problems in program development. Smith was a one-man department until Reginald Heron was hired in 1970.

Not far away, at Ohio University, a camera club’s enthusiasm was so contagious that a course in photography was added to the curriculum of the College of Fine Arts. Ohio University was the first university to offer both a bachelor’s and masters’ degree in photography inaugurated in 1943 and 1946, respectively. This program was also the first to combine photography with other disciplines such as art history and design.

The San Francisco School of Fine Arts had courses conducted by Ansel Adams, Minor White, and others since 1945. Though not a degree granting school, the influence of the courses was significant. In addition, painters Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko taught there during the same era. The school was “aided by the mature students just out of the armed forces and the support of the G.I. Bill, there was undeniably a most stimulating assembly of teachers and students at this West Coast school during the decade after the end of World War II,” according to Van Deren Coke’s article.

Rochester Institute of Technology (then the Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute; RAMI) offered evening courses in photography as early as 1902. Eastman Kodak Company’s Director of Training and Personnel, Mr. Earl Billings, founded the School of Photography at RAMI as a two-year work-study program in 1930. The first class consisted of twenty-four students. The first two teachers, Frederick F. Brehm and C. B. Neblette were reassigned from Eastman Kodak to the school on a part-time basis. The program changed in 1936 due to high enrollment numbers (30-40 per class) and the industry’s inability to immediately absorb all the graduates. As a response, a three-year program was introduced with the first year being full time and the second two years being work-study. A student could opt for two full time years, eliminating the work experience.

By 1959 there were 400 students in the School of Photography earning a bachelor of science degree. A bachelor of fine arts degree was added in 1960 and a master of fine arts degree was first offered in 1969. By 1979 over 1000 students were enrolled in the school’s comprehensive selection of photographic programs.

The Society for Photographic Education

In the interest of formalizing their educational commitment, a few dedicated educators led by Nathan Lyons organized an Invitational Teaching Conference at the George Eastman House in November of 1962. During the three-day event it was unanimously decided to establish a permanent organization. Twenty-seven men participated including Beaumont Newhall, Minor White, John Szarkowski, Aaron Siskind, Clarence H. White, Jr., Henry Holmes Smith, and Jerry Uels-mann. Attendees represented institutions from locations as diverse as Ohio University, University of Minnesota, Kalam-azoo Institute of Art, Rennsselaer Polytechnic Institute, Philadelphia Museum College of Art, the University of Iowa, and the University of Florida. Only two attendees came from organizations other than a college or university: Museum of Modern Art and Eastman Kodak Company.

In the proposal for an association, presented by Henry Holmes Smith, the following goals were articulated: the organization would be built around the group assembled as its first members, they would collect and disseminate current teaching practices and principals of photography, act as an advisory group for school administrators interested in establishing photographic courses at any level, assist all organizations attempting to collect examples of photography, provide information as to current curriculum practices in schools that teach photography, help teachers advance their own skills, serve as a clearing house for teaching positions, establish a voice for teachers in relationship with the photographic industry, issue appropriate publications, and undertake cooperative efforts with other photographic groups. The original members were focused on their individual challenges in the classroom, and there is no mention of promoting scholarship within the discipline. The founders also did not seek to limit membership by setting standards or issuing licenses. Photographic education as proposed, was broadly located from primary to secondary institutions as well as post-secondary institutions though no attendees of the first meeting taught below the university level.

One of the attendees of the teaching conference was Professor Charlie Arnold from RIT. He recalled teaching in the early 1960s when the Society for Photographic Education (SPE) was in its infancy and articulates one reason it may have been needed.

SPE happened when everybody was up in arms to throw everything out the window and do everything different. The students wanted courses and they didn’t want grades given. They wanted to choose any one of fifteen different courses. They wanted courses about unbelievable things. I mean, it was just mayhem but it was interesting mayhem.

Arnold and Ralph Hattersley had just introduced a BFA in photography at RIT. “Doing everything different” would be an alternative to the applied science program already established.

Topics discussed during the weekend conference included: Photography and General Education, The Needs of the People—Photo Instruction—Who Wants to Learn and Why?, The Place for Photography in the University Curriculum, Creative Photography for Advanced Students, A Function of the Teacher As Critic in the Arts, and Interrelationship of Image and Technique. The subjects reflected the particular perspective of each panel’s chair and reflected the diversity of questions surfacing in the new programs of photography.

Keith Davis refers to this first conference in his photographic history An American Century of Photography and states that the motivation for the conference was based on expanding the audience for serious photography.

The desire to expand the audience for serious work dominated the talks at the 1962 conference. Everyone agreed that the medium suffered a woeful lack of informed criticism and was viewed superficially by most art museums and members of the public. To this end, a deeper understanding of visual literacy—accompanied by a refinement of critical terminology and methodology—was deemed essential. How was the photographic image related to the science and psychology of perception? How were the meanings of photographs derived from a larger context of social thought and cultural value? Such complex issues dominated thinking in the field, but resisted definitive analysis.

The first annual meeting of SPE was held in Chicago in 1963.

The organization had an important impact on the working lives of photographers who, in increasing numbers, were beginning to use the medium as an expressive form. With the growing number of photography programs at the college level, for the first time photographers had an option to doing commercial work to make a living. Additionally, the academic calendar afforded many burgeoning artists the time needed to pursue creative work. Nathan Lyons spoke of the significance of this particular development:

… there seemed to be a need to get the teaching of photography into college curriculum so that the same advantages that art programs have would be there for photographers. It would open up job possibilities and I think people underestimated the significance of getting the SPE started and helping to grow the educational field so that photographers didn’t have to work commercially to do their own work. And, that, I think was an incredibly significant development for the field in the 60s.

Today, with over 1800 members, SPE’s stated mission reads in contrast to its earlier goals:

The Society of Photographic Education is a non-profit membership organization that provides a forum for the discussion of photography and related media as a means of creative expression and cultural insight. Through its interdisciplinary programs, services and publication, the Society seeks to promote a broader understanding of the medium in all its forms, and to foster the development of its practice, teaching, scholarship and criticism.

Photographic education continues to transform itself through digital technology. The lines between traditional disciplines are blurring as new programs emerge in time-based mediums including multimedia production, film and video, animation, and Web design. New fields are forming as specialized skills are needed in information technology and communication design. Photographic imaging continues to play a primary role in all forms of new media. The tools are changing but the talent of seeing can still be enhanced through education and training.