Graduation is quickly approaching (T-minus three days) and I'm suddenly looking back at four years of RIT. There is no great way to communicate the sum of my experiences, but know that I am better for them.
In the last four years, it seems like the classes have gotten progressively smaller, as students find different paths, and the idea of not going to school for photography becomes more logical, than illogical. However, I'd like to respond to the number of times I've heard "you don't need to go to school to be a photographer."
You don't. This is difficult to say after four years of struggle, trial, error, and mistakes.
However, what you gain in four years in school, is equivalent to what you may experience in a lifetime. Look at it as taking sips of Kool-Aid, versus inhaling the powder straight to the nose.
Four years in school, provided a "safe place" to experiment with both technical and illogical ideas. I won't go as far as to say that its a free floating space to try out anything, you're still bound by the demands of classwork and deadlines. However, school provided the environment to where if I wanted to try something, I could.
It provided the most concentrated space for ideas and backgrounds. Literally within reach, are students who work on all sides of our industry. Scientists who have gone so far as to build their own cameras, and understand the minutia of color science, digital processing, and print output. Thinkers, who explore ideas of not just the printed image, but the cultural context, and human impact. Doers, who have dealt with incredibly difficult environments, stories, and realities all within a 24x36 frame. Painters, of ideas that show me the most aesthetically beautiful ideas in a reality much beyond my own mind.
Within a stones throw, RIT provides the next generation of amazing scientists, engineers, environmentalists, activists, and creators. I had coffee this morning with a student who is leaving on co-op to engineer micro-controllers to optimize fuel efficiency in rocket boosters. "Something like the Prius' hybrid drive but in zero gravity." This is all within a two minute walk from where I spend 12-18 hours a day editing and printing.
So no, you don't need four years and a bachelors degree to be a photographer. However, to be a thinker, someone who realizes that the world is much bigger than the bounds of their viewfinder, and to nurture your own personal drive and vision - school is invaluable.
That's not a blanket statement in any way whatsoever, there are bad schools out there to just make money. And school didn't "make" me into the person that I am, but it surely did grow it, and raise my expectations.
So here's the parting notes, or I guess advice.
- Expect more, from yourself as well as your educators. The greatest regret is that I wanted to learn something, or had a curiosity, and waited to late to indulge it. Demand more, even if it challenges you.
- Stand up for yourself. Be cautious about knowing when you're right or wrong, but nothing infuriates me more when someone allows them to be passed by, and then wants to blame fate. You control fate. Fate dictates the outcome.
- Work hard. That seems like a no-brainer, but work harder than you think you can work. Its one thing to produce a product that is good enough to standard, but you become so much more when you want to do something that is better, cooler, greater, or even weirder - than what everyone else is doing.
- Be a good person. Really. Even if it means biting your lip when you think you know better. Being humble takes you further than being a dick.
So that's that, four years.
Immediately following graduation, I'm packing up my small world of Rochester and joining the crew at Scheimpflüg full time, with a whole new bundle of adventures to unfold. Inevitably with more lessons to learn too.
footnote: Even if you have a degree from one of the nations most prestigious photography schools, it means very little in the grand scheme of things. Assuredly, someone who didn't go to school is a harder worker, and probably smarter than you in one or two ways. So tuck your ego, save yourself, and be humble.