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Featured Photography Program: Rochester Institute of Technology


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BY PhotoVideoEDU staff January 26, 2012 · Published by PhotoVideoEDU

Therese Mulligan, Administrative Chair of the School of Photographic Arts and Sciences, talks about the breadth of RIT's programs, its uncommon technical specializations, and where the school's graduates end up.

For more information about Rochester Institute of Technology, and to see photos and videos of the campus and student projects, visit the school's profile.

PhotoVideoEDU: What is distinctive about your program?

Therese Mulligan: It’s a school of photographic arts and sciences, so that in itself is unique. We have a Bachelor of Fine Arts program with four different tracks: Advertising Photography, Fine Art Photography, Photojournalism, and our newest track, Visual Media. But we also have two Bachelor of Science programs, which award degrees in Biomedical Photographic Communications and Imaging and Photographic Technology. The biomedical photography program is the only one of its kind in the nation, and imaging technology programs are very rare. Our Imaging and Photographic Technology program goes back to the very root of photo studies at RIT that started more than 100 years ago. We also offer a highly ranked MFA program in Imaging Arts, with a concentration in fine art photography and moving media.

RIT was founded as part of an effort to educate a workforce in Rochester for all the industries that were in the town at that time, including companies like Kodak and Bausch + Lomb. The school grew out of industry-related initiatives, but by the 1940s it had evolved to take on its current form and include the diverse programs that it has today.  

We’re very sensitive to the evolution of technology, and so we sensitize our students to it. Our facilities are peerless. But each one of our different disciplines also speaks to the needs of that discipline in the larger visual culture. 

PhotoVideoEDU: What kinds of students does the program attract?

Therese Mulligan: We attract very high-quality students who have a passion for photography, and we take 180 freshmen annually across the BS and BFA programs, and approximately 10 students into our graduate fine art program. We like them to have an understanding of pictures and of picture making, with a good conceptual base. They come with all different skill levels. One thing we look for is that they’re inquisitive, they're curious, and they want to learn. That's paramount.

PhotoVideoEDU: What kind of campus does your school have, and what is student life like?

Therese Mulligan: RIT is located about ten minutes outside of Rochester in an area called Henrietta. We have a total of 17,000 students who go to school at RIT, so we're quite a large private institution. There are six schools in the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences, and one of them is the School of Photographic Arts and Sciences. Our building is called Gannett Hall. It's one of the very first built on campus when RIT was moved from downtown Rochester out to Henrietta in 1968. We have more than 600 students with approximately 475 working towards a BFA degree, 125 for the BS degree, and 25 students pursuing an MFA.

Most freshmen come to us right out of high school, and they have to live on campus at least their first year. There are floors in our dorms called "specialty houses," and there's one called Photo House. That's where a lot of photo students in their first, and even second, year live.  It’s a great student organization, and just celebrated its 40th year in October.  

Western New York is very rich in culture. Rochester is home to five private universities and colleges, as well as the Eastman School of Music, which is a great conservatory. Rochester has a lively music scene too, with a world-class philharmonic and a very popular summer jazz festival. We’re also surrounded by some of the most beautiful country, including the Finger Lakes just south of us. So it’s a great area if you're interested in culture or you're interested in nature. You just have to put up with that pesky thing called snow.   

PhotoVideoEDU: Does the program have required courses or final requirements?

Therese Mulligan: Our students take two years of foundation courses in photography, including our lynchpin course, Materials and Processes. They take upwards of 16 shooting classes in four years of study with us, and they begin shooting from day one of their first term with us.

In the first year, we really spend a lot of time talking about how to take pictures, what pictures mean, and the tools required to do so. In the second year, students working on the BS degree and the BFA degree begin very different curriculums. BFA students take what are called "Elements" classes, which teach them about all the basic elements that go into different areas of photography we teach. For example, they learn about the element of narrative in photojournalism. So they understand the nature and the qualities of different fields. Second-year students also take a class called "Career Seminar," where our alums and practicing professionals come in and talk about the fields that they’re in and what they do. Students pursuing a BS degree enroll in Careers and Professional Practices, Applications of Scientific Photography, and Human Vision and Perception, as well as a course in the fundamentals of publishing. In addition, they're enrolled in year-long mathematics and science courses.

As a complement to the photography curriculum, students also get a very strong university education. They take courses in the humanities, in liberal arts. They also have to take a business course, and some of our disciplines require more than one. We’re accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD), so second-year students also take classes in an area called "Foundations." Foundations courses include drawing, 2D design, and a new 4D course about time-based media that explores stop-action animation, video, and sound capture and production.     

Students have to pass a final portfolio class or complete an applied-science project to graduate.

PhotoVideoEDU: Do your students do internships?

Therese Mulligan:
Yes, that’s a very strong aspect of RIT. Our students get hands-on, real-world experiences, as well as opportunities to study abroad. We have someone who works with them and teaches a career seminar that all of our BFA students take in the second year. She helps them with internships, and what we call cooperative education, or "co-ops." Students who earn a BS degree are required to complete at least one work-study block, and last summer we had nearly 35 students in co-ops.

Co-ops are paid positions that are arranged through the school. Students apply for the positions they want. Our students have done co-ops at places like Martha Stewart, hospitals, clinics, newspapers, museums, and galleries. Students have worked at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, the Smithsonian, the Mayo Clinic, Time Life, National Geographic, and many other places. They get course credit for co-ops and sometimes for internships, which are not usually paid positions.

PhotoVideoEDU: Do you hold special events for photography students?

Therese Mulligan: There's hardly a week that goes by when we don't have a visiting photographer here giving a talk. You can see upcoming and recent events on our Facebook page.

Photo District News comes here every October. They bring in photographers who have been highlighted in their PDN 30 issue. This past year, four of our alums were included.  

Every year the school collaborates with the university’s photography and computer store, called the Digital Den, on a trade show at the beginning of the fall quarter. A lot of great reps come in, show their newest products, and do training for faculty and students. They also talk to students about their own work and careers and how they got into their professions.  

Photo House also brings in speakers and does its own events. There are many clubs in our school, too, and they do events throughout the academic year. 

One of the School’s signature events is the 26 year-old RIT Big Shot project. Each year hundreds of students, alumni, faculty, staff, and friends of RIT photography attend a nighttime painting-with-light project. During its quarter-century run, subjects such as the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum; the Alamo; the Stockholm Palace; and the Pile Gate in Dubrovnik have been featured in the event. 

PhotoVideoEDU: Do your students get opportunities to show their work?

Therese Mulligan: We have a public gallery on the third floor of our building. It's exclusive to our school. RIT has five different galleries. Four are on campus, and one is in downtown Rochester. It’s called Gallery R, and it shows work from the entire college.

PhotoVideoEDU: What areas do graduates of your program go on to work in as professionals?

Therese Mulligan: It depends on the program they graduate from. From Biomedical Photography, some students go into ophthalmic photography, or they work at hospitals or clinics, which need and use photographers. They also go into positions such as imaging specialist in corporate environments. If they graduate from Imaging and Photographic Technology, they might go to the FBI, because they have a background in forensic photography. The head of the FBI photo area is an alumnus. Some graduates have gone to NASA. Some also go to camera and digital imaging companies. 

Our Photojournalism graduates are photographers at major newspapers and news organizations like Reuters and Associated Press. A lot of our advertising students go to New York and begin as photographic assistants, then open their own commercial studios or work for magazines, shooting everything from still life to fashion. 

Many Fine Art graduates go on to an MFA program, work in galleries or museums, or pursue personal projects. And many Visual Media students study to become art directors or photo editors, or work in publishing or advertising agencies as members of a creative team.

PhotoVideoEDU: Could you name a few distinguished graduates?

Therese Mulligan: We’ve graduated more than 8,000 photography students during our history, so there are many distinguished graduates. Here are a just few:

Kwaku Alston
Steve Giralt
Walid Raad

In photojournalism we have seven graduates who have won a total of eleven Pulitzer Prizes. 

PhotoVideoEDU: Does the program have any important new developments on the horizon?

Therese Mulligan: We’re moving from a quarter system to a semester system in 2013. This prompted the faculty to revise the entire curriculum and re-imagine the present and future of our school. It was a challenging but an exhilarating process. Curriculum relevance is very important to us, given all of our programs and their importance in the world today. Awareness of new developments in the photo fields we teach is always a preoccupation.


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