Amid changing technology and an increasingly difficult business environment, schools and teachers who are training tomorrow’s pros have their work cut out for them as they struggle to push forward while creating a foundation built upon the past
There’s no denying that the digital era has been a boon in the field of photography. There have been more advancements over the last decade than in the entire history of the medium, leading to more possibilities for exciting and dynamic imagery than ever before. For young photographers, the relentless pace of technology has also led to a learning environment where schools and colleges are struggling to keep up with rapidly evolving technologies. Ironically, as media and even the definition of photography change, the path to the future may be based on the traditional teaching methods of the past.
Photographers have seen an enormous shift over the past two decades in the way they approach their business. The arsenal of a Hasselblad, a quiver with a range of lenses, a Polaroid back and several film backs that would last for years has become a rarity rather than the norm. Now, a professional must have loyalty to a brand of DSLR camera body and associated lenses, where the body, software packages and media must be constantly updated, sometimes as often as every 18 months. To continue existing in the fast-paced world of digital photography, the professional photographer’s workflow had to change, the expense structure had to include equipment upgrades instead of film stock, and a wide array of new technologies had to be learned, absorbed and maintained. But each photographer found his or her pace, picked a brand and learned the tools that they needed to continue to compete.
The photographic educator, on the other hand, never had the luxury of choosing a single path in the midst of this transition because the educator can’t know what road the students—the future photographers of the world—will take. Beyond the fact that each student has the ability to choose a different path from another student, many of these paths will be obsolete within years, and many others will emerge; the potential knowledge base necessary for the vast array of photographic careers is infinite.
It’s an educational problem that may be unique across all disciplines and one that every institution with a photography program must face. Photographic programs need to fully understand the ever-evolving industry and technologies because they’re simultaneously looking forward, looking back and staying grounded—the students depend on it.
Speaking with several of the leaders in photographic education, there’s a strong sense that the future of film, digital and mixed-media education is adaptive. No two programs are run the same anymore—whereas, in the past, the basic tenets of photographic education hadn’t changed significantly for nearly 100 years. Things are changing quickly now, and it’s becoming increasingly more difficult for educators to shape programs that fit the growing demands of students while simultaneously pragmatically preparing them for the jobs that will be available as the industry also shifts.
The first challenge for modern photographic educators is looking forward. Before the onset of digital photography, programs were reviewed, renewed and revised perhaps once every five years. The programs didn’t need to be altered very often because the baseline technologies had evolved at a snail’s pace for a century. Granted, new papers, films and processes came along, but for the most part, everything “new” was perfecting an element of what was already established. Faster films were created. Smaller grain was developed. Richer papers were introduced. Every evolution took time to discover, create and develop, and once introduced, could easily be tested and evaluated by photographers to see if the “latest and greatest” tools were beneficial and desirable. In this day and age, there’s no telling what new tools and advances might be introduced in the next iteration of Photoshop, not to mention no way to truly understand, master and implement every tool that was released in the last version.
Bill Gratton, the MAC Group National Manager of Educational Markets, has been around the country and has seen hundreds of iterations of photography programs at the college level. During his career, he has been able to work with all sorts of educators and programs, and has seen the advantages and pitfalls of moving into a digital photographic education.
“A lot of the educators right now are just trying to teach what they know, which unfortunately, with the changes in technology having been so fast, is essentially old technology,” Gratton explains. “But at the same time, you’re trying to teach them, the students, what’s going to happen in the future; and again, this stuff is changing so quickly, that it’s really hard to do.”