School of Professional Photography Program Director Bill Robbins talks about the school's long tradition of hiring working professionals to teach, its emphasis on business, and its balmy oceanside setting.
For more information about the Brooks Institute Professional Photography Program, and to see photos of the campus and student projects, visit the school's profile.
Photograph © Ralph Clevenger.
PhotoVideoEDU: What is distinctive about your program?
Bill Robbins: The first thing is the faculty. Brooks has a great tradition of hiring working professionals who have either distinguished themselves in their own business or found a niche in other areas. All of our faculty members are outstanding, and they're recognized in their particular areas.
Our emphasis is on business, so we have required business classes, along with an emphasis on the technical and on critical thinking. Students are challenged in terms of how they think as photographers. That’s where Brooks has changed over the last ten to 15 years. The tradition of the school was to give a technical type of training. Now students get that technical foundation the first year. In today’s marketplace, the reason why somebody hires a photographer, especially in the advertising and commercial areas, is how the photographer thinks. That has become just as powerful as understanding how to light and expose an image.
The variety of electives we have is pretty incredible too, with courses such as the food class, where students are in a workshop atmosphere with a food stylist.
I think the size of the school is also a really positive asset—the size of our classes, the ratio of students to instructors, and the fact that it's not part of a large conglomeration campus.
PhotoVideoEDU: What kinds of students does the program attract?
Bill Robbins: The average age of the students is probably about 22 years old, and the mix is a little bit more than 50% female. A lot of the students are working part-time jobs.
There's a big variety among the students. We get some who come here right out of high school and already have the vision that photography is what they want to do. That’s maybe 20% of the incoming group. We get a lot of people who transfer from two-year junior colleges. And we get a good amount of people with prior degrees. There are some people we give advanced standing to who have not really had any formal education. Based on their portfolio, their maturity and background, and what they've done with their own photography, we let them take an advanced placement test, and can waive certain classes for them. There are also students who come here with absolutely no photography background at all. There's no portfolio requirement to come into this school. What I've seen is that those people come here because they’re pursuing a dream. They can come in not understanding anything about photography, have an amazing turnaround, and become incredibly successful at it.
We have a good number of international students. Oddly enough, there are very few students who come from the Santa Barbara area. So most of our student body is made up of people who are coming from across the United States and the globe.
PhotoVideoEDU: What kind of campus does your school have, and what is student life like?
Bill Robbins: There are two different buildings that make up our campus, and they're about nine blocks apart right in central Santa Barbara. The Mason Street building is a block from the beach, and there's a pretty good surf break there. So a block from school, you can actually go out and do some surfing.
There's no real structured housing, so students find other groups of students to live with. There's not a lot of commuting from outside areas because of the location of Santa Barbara.
Campus life for students is pretty intense. They're taking four to six classes each semester, and some will require them to put in quite a bit of time for production. So they’re immersed in it 24/7. I think that's why our students end up being able to do the kind of work they do.
The weather stays very consistent throughout the year here, so it's great for shooting outside. And since Santa Barbara is 100 miles from LA, we’re not far from a lot of the activities that people might want to do there. But Santa Barbara has its own unique landscape.
PhotoVideoEDU: Does the program have required courses or final requirements?
Bill Robbins: Students have to take four business classes, as well as general education courses, in addition to the core in photography. The core classes include both required and elective classes, and some of the electives can be taken in other programs, such as visual journalism, graphic design, or film.
Students in the Pro Photo program are required to take a capstone class that includes a grad review. Grad review panels are made up of two faculty members and one or two outside professionals. Students have to bring in a portfolio that's specific to a target audience and present the work. Then they have to explain, through the interview, how they see themselves moving forward. If they don't pass the grad review, they don't pass the capstone class.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do your students do internships?
Bill Robbins: It’s not required, and I don't think I would ever want it to be required. We want to send people out who are a good match with a particular company. Some of the internships are paid, but most of them are not because they’re receiving credit. Students can receive three, six, or nine credit hours for an internship, depending upon how many hours they’re working per week.
Many of the internships come from the faculty, faculty connections, and alumni. We have internship relationships with professionals, advertising agencies, and repping firms all over—not just in the United States, but outside of the United States. And then, a student might come up to a faculty member and say, "Do you know so-and-so in New York? I'd love be able to do an internship." If we don’t have an established connection, the people here in career services make that connection. Students have to show that they can maintain a certain GPA to do an internship through us, and they have to write a proposal up. It’s something we encourage students to do.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do you hold special events for photography students?
Bill Robbins: We have guest speakers. We’re affiliated with ASMP and APA, and we have a guest speaker every month through ASMP. APA LA also does events for our students, like a recent all-day business workshop.
I started an event series in 2011 called Creative Burst. We have them three times a year. We wanted to get the students to turn off school and just go out and shoot pictures, and get back in touch why they came here. So, for example, for the first one we started off with one of our instructors giving a presentation on creativity, and then gave the group an assignment to go out and shoot. That's how they spent Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, and then we met back up Sunday afternoon. They all got to show their work and we concluded the whole thing with a pizza dinner.
We have another event series called Pick Our Brains, and it's for the students to get together with the faculty for an evening. We talk about the courses that are going to be offered in the upcoming semester. It's our way of trying to help students plan ahead.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do your students get opportunities to show their work?
Bill Robbins: At our Cota Street building, we have a gallery called Gallery 27, and a student show goes up there at least once a year. The gallery is quite well attended because it's in the heart of Santa Barbara.
There's an annual student show that the public is invited to, to buy the work, and we encourage all of the students to get their work into other shows outside of the school, whether it's at coffee houses or galleries here or elsewhere.
We also encourage students to get their work into things like the International Photo Awards. We have students whose work has been published in Archive, CMYK, and other publications.
PhotoVideoEDU: What areas do graduates of your program go on to work in as professionals?
Bill Robbins: Our program is divided into three main categories: commercial, advertising, and wedding/portrait. Within each one of those categories, there are all the subcategories.
Students on the advertising track often wind up having an internship while they're here that leads to a full-time position as an assistant. Then they progress in their careers, and become the shooter of their own business. Other students in that same advertising path leave here and never assist. They just start getting work and building themselves up.
The wedding/portrait people may wind up getting full-time salaried positions with portrait studios or wedding photographers. They become a second shooter on staff or work freelance. We've had some students who wind up getting full-time positions in Internet companies, where they're photographing products that go online.
We've also had students do internships at places like advertising agencies while they’re here, and then go to work as art buyers or photo reps.
PhotoVideoEDU: Could you name a few distinguished graduates?
PhotoVideoEDU: Does the program have any important new developments on the horizon?
Bill Robbins: One of the evolving shifts is the video component with HDDSLRs. We've just started a new elective course that’s being taught for the first time, Video 2.0. We’re also giving our students more understanding of layout and design. We have a new course called Art Director’s Point of View that incorporates layout, design, and shooting concepts. Students come up with layouts and designs as if for a magazine spread or an ad.
We’re giving them these tools because you have to be able to think differently in today's marketplace as an emerging photographer. You can go on YouTube and learn how to light, so why would you go to a photo school? What it boils down to is, when you leave Brooks Institute you will be a supurb photographer who thinks in a different visual manner.
Another new development is that we're just starting to send a group of students to do a semester abroad in Paris. They're going with our fashion instructor, and they’ll take a fashion class in Paris. They’ll also be taking a course on the history of photography in Paris. That will be an amazing class, because the birthplace of photography is in France.