Executive Director of Photography James Wood talks about the school's extensive facilities, its international student body, and how the BFA program teaches young photographers to build professional portfolios.
For more information about Academy of Art University, and to see photos and videos of the campus and student projects, visit the school's profile.
PhotoVideoEDU: What is distinctive about your program?
James Wood: We’re the largest commercial art school in the United States, and we’re a portfolio school. Our photography program is based on building individual portfolios. There are a few other schools like that, but I think it separates us from the photo schools that are academic or trade schools, because they're very general and we're very specific.
Our program isn’t about taking a little bit of this and a little bit of that, so that you get a degree in photography. It’s about getting a degree in photography specializing in something. We have very specific areas that our students can build upon. For example, just in the area of portraiture, we’ve got editorial portraiture, environmental portraiture, people illustration, and fine art portraiture. We have a very specific, personal portfolio-building program, so the end product is a professional portfolio.
About half of our photography students are in our online program and half are on-campus.
PhotoVideoEDU: What kinds of students does the program attract?
James Wood: We’re an open enrollment school, so you don't have to have a portfolio to get in. Most BFA students come here right out of high school. Many of them have had high school photo classes, and their dream is to do either documentary or fashion photography. When they get here and see everything else that’s available, they start branching out. Occasionally, students decide not to be photographers and go into another area. There are 17 other departments they can go into. They can transfer some of their credits into another area and just keep going.
We have students at this school from 100 countries. I didn't know there were 100 countries, but we’ve got them. Many of them are from Asia. We also get a lot of students from Norway. Some of them are sent here by their governments on scholarships, so they've already qualified as top students before they come here.
Our students are really ready to work. They’re serious, because we’re known as a professional school. We’re not an academic school that just happens to have an art department.
PhotoVideoEDU: What kind of campus does your school have, and what is student life like?
James Wood: I think the school owns more real estate than any other single entity in San Francisco. We’ve got more than 40 buildings. We're kind of spread out, but we’ve got buses to take students back and forth. We have the second largest bus company in the city.
I'm sitting in the office of the very first building the school had when it opened in 1929. It was the French consulate before that. It’s a little Tudor building at the base of Nob Hill, and serves as our main photo building. The photography department occupies one four-storey building and has locations in three additional Academy buildings. The studio in one building is large enough to photograph cars. All the tools are here to produce anything you can imagine.
The school has a whole department that just puts together activities. They do camping trips, whitewater rafting trips, movie nights, dance classes, aerobic classes—there are constant activities. Photography students have things like pizza folio night, where they bring their portfolios and have pizza.
We have everything in sports, too. We’ve hired top coaches for almost every sport you can imagine. We're the only art school in the NCAA. The school recently bought a hotel that has an Olympic-size swimming pool in it. We have the best soccer team anywhere, because we get people from all over the world, and we’ve even had two Kenyan runners. And they're all artists, which is amazing. Other schools don't like to get beaten by our school.
PhotoVideoEDU: Does the program have required courses or final requirements?
James Wood: Yes, you’re required to graduate with a portfolio. All of our classes are really built to service building a portfolio. We balance concept classes with technical classes, so students learn about ideas and how to execute them. If you're a documentary photographer, then your portfolio will consist of photo essays, and if you're a fine art photographer, you’ll have a gallery show and put together a book. Advertising and fashion students will put together websites. Everything is tailored for areas of specialization.
At the beginning, everybody takes the same history and foundation courses. Then after the foundation, students get into their areas of specialization. There are also some general course requirements similar to other schools’, because we’re an accredited school.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do your students do internships?
James Wood: They’re not mandatory, but students can choose to do one. They’re mostly done in the commercial photography area. I think we've got at least a dozen each term.
An internship replaces one class, with three credit hours. Interns spend time at a studio and are graded by the people they work with. The photographer who owns the studio or business almost always gives them assignments, too, so it's a fully accredited situation. I do not farm out labor. I’ve got to know the people our students do internships with, and they have to be high-quality photographers.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do you hold special events for photography students?
James Wood: Every class is allotted a budget for guests, so there’s a constant flow of great guest speakers. For instance, last night in the portfolio class, we had somebody from one of the top repping companies. We have photographers, and art buyers, and other people who can talk about the business of photography. We also have big evenings with famous photographers. Arnold Newman was here, Mary Ellen Mark, James Nachtwey—you name it.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do your students get opportunities to show their work?
James Wood: They’re part of the school’s annual Spring Show. It presents the best work from every department, and we have about 200 images on the wall. We fly people in for the Spring Show. We’ve had people from Rolling Stone, PDN, and Photoinduced. Reps from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other places come as well.
We've got several galleries that exhibit and sell student work. The school recently bought The Cannery, which will also have galleries.
PhotoVideoEDU: What areas do graduates of your program go on to work in as professionals?
James Wood: We’ve got a lot of fashion photographers. They’re all over the world in major cities. There are advertising photographers, and a lot of editorial photographers. A lot of our fine art graduates work in galleries or teach while continuing to do their fine art work. Graduates in documentary photography and photojournalism are kind of spread out in magazines, newspapers, and online.
Our employment rate for graduates is somewhere around 86%, and I think most of the remaining 14% are the ones who disappear into South East Asia or somewhere else far away.
PhotoVideoEDU: Could you name a few distinguished graduates?