LIU’s Daniel Mirer and Thom O’Connor talk about the program's focus on conceptual practice in art, its blend of a traditional campus setting and access to New York City, and the one-on-one attention its students receive.
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PhotoVideoEDU: What is distinctive about your program?
Daniel Mirer: We emphasize conceptual practice in art. We do teach a lot of technical skills, but it’s all about how to use them in creating art work, how to be a conceptual artist, and what to do with your photographic career. Not only are the students learning skills, but they’re gaining an ability to exploit those skills to work commercially and then make the artwork they want to make.
Thom O’Connor: The program is not gigantic, so students have the opportunity to develop a sense of camaraderie rather than just competition. They share their work and their ideas, and the faculty can work one-on-one with students when they’re doing projects. On the other hand, it’s large enough that we have a good cross-section of interesting students from a lot of places.
The professors here are all working professionals and working exhibitors. We continue to show and develop our own work, and we bring that spirit to the classroom. We all want students to be fully involved in a work environment and an exhibit environment. Every day we go into the classroom there’s a new idea from a student, and that’s what we’re encouraging.
PhotoVideoEDU: What kinds of students does the program attract?
Daniel Mirer: They have to be visually oriented, but they’re not all great photographers when they start. We often have students who start out as two-dimensional artists or sculptors and then become more interested in photography. It’s the vision they have when they come into the program, more than any technical skills, that sets it apart. Our students are interested in new and unusual work. We wish to work with people who are high cognitive thinkers, and who make a sincere effort to learn a skill set that they can apply to their unique interpretation of a photographic medium.
We have students from New York State, the East Coast, and the West Coast, as well as China, Korea, and Japan. Most are college age. We’re also seeing a large jump in graduate students, people who have been out in the field working for a number of years and are coming back for their MA or MFA.
PhotoVideoEDU: What kind of campus does your school have, and what is student life like?
Daniel Mirer: The photography program is at LIU’s Post campus, which is the main, original campus. It’s typical of 1940s or 50s university settings, with a lawn and a quad and beautiful old buildings. We’re in a forested area of Long Island, set back from the expressway, so it’s rather quiet.
There’s a dorm complex here, and there’s a program for off-campus housing. Generally what happens is that students decide to live on campus or find housing in the area. We also have a lot of students who commute from campus to their family’s home.
Campus life is in many regards that of a traditional university. There are many after-hours activities. There’s a pool and a rec center. There are always plays and movies and entertainment. The university actually spends a lot of money to keep students active and proactive in campus organizations, sororities, frats, and whatnot.
Thom O’Connor: It’s not a seriously heavy fraternity and sorority school, but their presence is there and the people in fraternities and sororities are very interested in community service and activities. You wouldn’t call this a party school. I’d call it a school with a number of great social activities, some of which are parties.
We share space with the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts. Every week during the year there are two or three big performance events with celebrities and bands and orchestras.
Another thing about this campus is that it’s about one hour from Manhattan. We encourage students to take that one-hour train trip to see all the great museums and galleries and all the other design features that you can find only in Manhattan.
PhotoVideoEDU: Does the program have required courses or final requirements?
Thom O’Connor: Yes. The final senior show is a two-semester process. In the fall, the students get together and decide what bodies of work they’d like to produce. They need to produce new work for their senior show, which will normally encompass between 12 and 20 images that are anywhere from 8x10 to 60x45 inches. They have to show that they have produced a body of work that’s coherent and visually exciting, and presented it in a new and interesting way.
There’s also a series of digital-based photography courses they need to take, as well as a significant number of courses in what might be considered more traditional photography—4x5 film camera, black-and-white film development, silver gelatin printing, studio lighting, location lighting. Photography majors also need to take an alternative process course. So we give students a well-rounded education, not just the latest digital tools. They get a working history of photography and technology, and each major student has to do that whole series of courses.
Daniel Mirer: That also correlates to their photo history class. They see how photographers in the past, as well as contemporary artists, apply multiple strategies into practice. They also have to take art history, English, science—the typical core curriculum for any student. But the emphasis is very soon on art-related education.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do your students do internships?
Daniel Mirer: Yes, that’s one of the requirements before they graduate from LIU. They have to do at least a year with one or two internships. There’s an office here at LIU that they coordinate with, and Thom and I assist them as much as possible. We advise on the internship, but it must go through the internship office because they’re receiving credit. It must follow specific guidelines. Interns can’t just sit around and get coffee. They have to be active participants.
Thom O’Connor: Generally the internship gets done in the summer between their junior and senior years, and then it will oftentimes carry through to the fall semester of their senior year.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do you hold special events for photography students?
Daniel Mirer: We’ve been running visiting artist programs at the graduate level, and that’s open to all students. Students from other courses come and sit in for our guest lectures. We also have a photo club that was developed by the students themselves.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do your students get opportunities to show their work?
Daniel Mirer: Yes, in addition to showing their work at the end of their four years here at LIU, they can show work in a student gallery and a larger gallery in the Hillwood building. Students have the opportunity to exhibit their work in the hallways and classrooms throughout the semester, and we have glass cases where we feature students.
We’re beginning to realize as the program is growing, and as the medium itself and the student body are growing and changing, that hanging and displaying work is becoming more and more relevant. In fact, it’s almost equal to learning the basic programs and theories of photography. The idea of hanging your work and how one image flows into another is becoming central to their education.
Thom O’Connor: There are specific courses that are aimed directly at producing a show, so we may have five or six students in a course whose entire semester is taken up with producing an exhibition that they will hang. We’re continuing to increase the amount of wall space we can show work on.
PhotoVideoEDU: What areas do graduates of your program go on to work in as professionals?
Thom O’Connor: There’s a broad gamut. Many open up their own studios and businesses. Many also work in corporate environments, either producing images or working on displaying images in exhibitions. We have students who end up working in fine art environments, as museum and gallery preparators. Some have taken up work in event photography and weddings. Long Island University–Post has an equestrian program, and we have photographers who have graduated and then gone on to become equestrian photographers.
Many of the students who graduate from the photography program at LIU are self-motivated to be entrepreneurial within the photographic industry. Most of all this program is producing talented and proactive artists whose main job is to challenge the meaning of the visual representation of photography. The photography students who leave this program understand their role as well as their responsibility as visual producers and take on their position as artist with due diligence.
Daniel Mirer: We also have graduates working in postproduction and as ad buyers. And I meet a lot of students who graduated here and are also teachers themselves.
PhotoVideoEDU: Does the program have any important new developments on the horizon?
Thom O’Connor: We were saying just the other day that we need to add to their educational load more involvement in web design and presentation. Our students need to have a web presence. We’ve been doing a basic series of workshops on web design, but I think we need to do more with that.
Daniel Mirer: We’re also trying to emphasize thinking about motion, and the Final Cut Pro and Premiere Pro programs. That’s kind of where we’re moving. We do have a whole separate department for that, but it’s not necessarily photography in the traditional sense. Our job as educators is to give the students as much experience as possible, not only in the applied but in the technology and software, so that they can make aesthetic decisions.