School of Photography Chair Blade Gillissen talks about the OCC program's blend of commercial and fine art education, its sunny Southern California campus, and its large and diverse student body.
For more information about Orange Coast College, and to see photos of the campus, visit the school's profile.
PhotoVideoEDU: What is distinctive about your program?
Well, to start with, our faculty and staff are second to none. They are all experts in their fields and have a true passion for teaching. We are a vocational program, but we also have a very distinct fine art track through our program. Half of our faculty comes from the commercial world, and half of them come from the fine art world. On the fine art side, we bring in exhibiting artists, and on the commercial side, we have working photographers.
A lot of other programs are either fine art or commercial. We have—and do a great job with—both.
We're also one of the largest programs around. We’ve got about 1,300 seats in photography each semester, which makes us one of the largest programs in the area. While bigger isn’t necessarily better, it does have its advantages. For example, we have well over a million dollars in high-end gear that our students have access to.
Most students studying fine art photography tend to transfer to a four-year institution. We’re a two-year college, so what we do is we prepare them for that. We have what we call a transfer model curriculum in art. The idea behind it is that students can take two years at the community college level and when they transfer over, they're transferring as a junior. Then on the commercial side, we have a 41-unit certificate that is basically 100% vocational photography.
We also have scholarships for students. Some are for students who are going to stay with us, some of them are for students who are leaving, and some are for students that are just in basic photography. Some are for art photographers; others for just commercial photographers. If students are interested in that, that's all listed on our website.
PhotoVideoEDU: What kinds of students does the program attract?
Blade Gillissen: A really wide mix. We're a community college, and we have an incredibly diverse population. We have students that come from fairly low-income areas, and then we're right next to Newport Beach and Laguna Beach, which I think are some of the wealthiest areas in the nation. So we have a really diverse mix as far as income goes. With gender we're about 50/50. And our students are incredibly diverse in age. While most are in the 18-25 age bracket, we also have a pretty big influx of older students who are here to retrain or simply have always wanted to study photography. I feel this gives our program a nice age mix, with a great blend of life experiences and interests.
PhotoVideoEDU: What kind of campus does your school have, and what is student life like?
Blade Gillissen: The campus is amazing right now. We have new buildings that make me want to be a student again. The facilities have never been better. We just put in a brand-new 45-station digital lab. Our campus is a commuter campus, but it has a lot of amenities. We have an amazing gym, there's a Starbucks on campus, and there's a cafeteria and several places to eat. I think those things keep students on campus.
PhotoVideoEDU: Does the program have required courses or final requirements?
Blade Gillissen: We have a 41-unit photography certificate and an 18-unit digital tech certificate. Or you can get an AA in photography, which adds general education to our certificate program.
Most students who go on to four-year schools will get their AA before moving on.
There are two capstone classes. One is art photography; the other is professional digital technique. In both of those classes, students produce a finished portfolio or assignments that they can use for their portfolio. We also have a class called Special Projects that most of the students take near the end of the program. The students taking that course work individually with a faculty member to develop a portfolio. If they want to go on to a four-year school, they work with art faculty, and if they want to go into the commercial market, they work with one of our faculty who specialize in the area they’re interested in. It's not just a generic portfolio; it's really fine-tuned to exactly what they're interested in doing.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do your students do internships?
Blade Gillissen: We strongly recommend doing an internship, but it is optional. Damian Tsutsumida runs our internship program. He puts students together with nonprofit organizations. It's a one-stop shop for the nonprofit charity, and it gives our students an incredible amount of experience. They're working with the Komen Foundation doing Race for the Cure based in Los Angeles and Orange County, the Illumination Foundation, which typically works with low-income families, and SIMA, which has a surf industry charity. We have an Introduction to Professional Photography course, which is a four-unit, second semester course that students have to complete before being an intern.
We still do a traditional internship program as well. We place a lot of interns with working professionals and companies. Some students find a company on their own. We make sure that it's the right environment for the student.
Students can get from one to four units of credit for an internship, depending on how much work they do with the company in a given semester. Usually they start off as unpaid interns, and if they're good at what they do, the company ends up giving them some sort of paid stipend. But that's between them and the company. On the nonprofit side, they never get paid when they're working.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do you hold special events for photography students?
Blade Gillissen: At least two or three times a semester, we'll have someone come in as a guest lecturer. We're also part of MOPLA, the Month of Photography in Los Angeles. That’s every year in April. We have a guest lecturer come in and show work, and then we have a show in the gallery.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do your students get opportunities to show their work?
Blade Gillissen: Absolutely. We have a student gallery and two galleries for visiting artists. We do three to four shows each semester in the student gallery, and then we also have an annual student show that uses all three of our galleries. We also have the Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion, which is a really large gallery where there's an annual student show.
PhotoVideoEDU: What areas do graduates of your program go on to work in as professionals?
Blade Gillissen: I find that it really depends on the economy at the time when they graduate. Six or seven years ago, we had an incredible number of students going into architectural photography because the housing market was going like gangbusters. Companies like Lennar would build new homes in southern California like crazy, and they needed photographers to shoot their model homes. Real estate agents were hiring architectural photographers too. Then the bubble burst on real estate, everyone quit building houses, and the photography market sort of switched back to what I call the “gold standard," which is weddings, portraits, and some commercial work.
We're nicely located between L.A. and San Diego, so students can take advantage of both of those markets. And a lot of our students end up working here in Orange County, especially if they're going to do portraits or weddings.
PhotoVideoEDU: Could you name a few distinguished graduates?
We have an alumni page on our website where you can see more of our graduates.
PhotoVideoEDU: Does the program have any important new developments on the horizon?
Blade Gillissen: The thing I'm most excited about right now is our new split certificate program that will combine still photography and video courses. More and more in commercial work, people want you to be able to shoot both video and still.
I'm also really looking forward to campus improvements that will come from a state bond for $700 million. I think it's really going to transform our campus, and make it a hard place to beat for an education. One of the things we've been looking at is bringing in some student housing. Hopefully within five years or so we'll have student housing, especially housing geared toward international students.