Chair of SVA's MPS Digital Photography department Katrin Eismann talks with PhotoVideoEDU about the program's intensive blend of technical and artistic training, the advantages of its New York City location, and its cutting-edge online program.
For more information about SVA's MPS Digital Photography program, and to see photos of the SVA campus, visit the program's profile.
PhotoVideoEDU: What is distinctive about your program?
Katrin Eismann: What’s really special about our program is that it combines gaining technical knowledge and skills with being in a world-class art school. It combines the technical with the conceptual. So students are responsible for everything—for having a great idea, but also for being able to use the tools to express that idea perfectly.
What photography is good at is being able to answer questions, and we challenge our students to ask a lot of questions—of themselves, of the equipment, and about what’s going on in their lives—and to use photography to explore them. It’s challenging. We’re not looking for pretty pictures. Our students end up doing some very personal and professional work. I always tell the students, the more personal you make your work, the more universal it will be.
Another thing that’s special about our program is that it’s an intensive one-year program, so we’re very results-oriented. We take it very seriously that students have ten and a half months. They’ve invested money and time, and they’re coming here to reinvent themselves. When they leave, they want to be able to join the workforce, and we’re very proud that they have the skills and understanding to do that.
Our faculty are all working professionals who teach because they love to teach, and they bring their real-world projects and assignments right into class, which keeps things really up to date. That would be hard to do if we weren’t in a city as diverse in terms of design, criticism, filmmaking, TV production, special effects, and obviously photography.
PhotoVideoEDU: What kinds of students does the program attract?
Katrin Eismann: One thing that makes us really great is the diversity of our student body. They’re diverse in terms of where they come from—we’ve had students from six out of seven continents. Our students have ranged in age from 21 to 73. They also have very diverse backgrounds in terms of what they’ve experienced in life and what kind of photography they’re interested in.
We’ve had fashion, commercial, editorial, fine art, wedding, portrait, landscape, and architectural photographers, as well as teachers. We get a great variety, and that’s really special, because there’s only one group each year. In the classroom that’s 16 or 17 students, and in the online program there are 8 to 12 students per year. I’ve seen how people with different interests influence each other. Instead of only seeing and hearing and talking about the same kind of photography, they get exposed to a wide variety. Teachers also have to teach to a wide variety of interests.
People come to a graduate program to reinvent themselves. It’s like they’re hiring themselves to become who they want to become. We’ve had commercial photographers who after 20 or 30 years say, “I’m jaded and I have no idea what I’m doing.” We’ve had retired cardiologists and bank executives saying, “I’m finally going to do what makes me happy. I want to have a new profession.” We also get people who have just graduated with an undergraduate degree and people who already have an MFA degree from, say, the early 90s. We love having people with MFA degrees in the program because they have the photo history and visual skills, and they can express themselves. We can really round them out with the digital information.
When we interview people, we say, “You should be able to look at your life and see the part before graduate school and the part after graduate school. The changes should be that extreme, in a good way.” The students work very hard and take it very seriously, and the faculty takes it very seriously too. We really respect the time and money they’re investing.
PhotoVideoEDU: What kind of campus does your school have, and what is student life like?
Katrin Eismann: SVA started very small 65 years ago in a few rooms with 35 students and three faculty. Now the campus is the area in New York called Chelsea. It ranges all along 23rd Street, from the East River to the Hudson River. SVA has 17 buildings in this area. So the campus is really mid to lower Manhattan.
It’s not like going to a land-grant college or the University of Pennsylvania or UCLA, where there’s a fixed campus. Our campus is Manhattan. You can take advantage of that in terms of going to galleries, screenings, concerts, and museums. Any SVA student can also go to a wide variety of world-class museums such as the Museum of Modern Art for free, which is a pretty great deal considering the $25 entrance fee. Even just walking between classes, you’ll see things that you’re not going to see in (with all due respect) Wichita.
There are a few classic campuses in Manhattan—like NYU and Columbia—but SVA is not like that. It’s scrappier. It’s more like Manhattan in that we grow as needed. It includes four gallery spaces and a world-class movie theater with two screening rooms. One holds 550 seats and the other 250 seats. There are a lot of world premieres in that theater.
PhotoVideoEDU: Does the program have required courses or final requirements?
Katrin Eismann: Yes, and every semester has a different feel. Fall semester, when students first come in, is very technical and skills-based. They learn about the tools—about color management, Lightroom, Photoshop, video, asset management, workflow. We really want to give them those skills early on so that in the spring they can concentrate on the more creative semester.
In the spring they take classes like photo illustration, where they’re shooting in the studio and creating composites. They work on their thesis project and their branding material. For the thesis project, the students need to develop an idea, write a proposal, find a thesis advisor, and of course create the images and have them critiqued in the thesis development class. They also take a full semester of business class where they learn about things like invoicing, copyright, model and property releases, and bidding.
The summer is production-oriented: The students have shot their thesis, and in the summer they’re going to produce it. It has more of a workshop feeling, because the students are making books, websites, and prints. We support them to do everything a photographer needs to do to show their work. Once they leave, they’ve got their artist’s statement and elevator pitch down, and very importantly, they have promotional and branding materials and a concrete plan for what they’re going to do for the next six months.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do your students do internships?
Katrin Eismann: SVA has a fabulous and very active career placement office. If somebody in the photo/design/special effects industry needs an intern, they're going to get in touch with the career placement office, where there's an incredible list of internships and jobs. Some departments have required internships, but we don’t because we’re an intensive one-year program. Some of our students do have internships, but we want them to concentrate on their studies. A lot of our students have done internships at studios, labs, and retouching studios, and it’s a great way to get your foot in the door. Some of them are paid, and we recommend the unpaid ones be short, like six weeks. All of our classes are required classes, so we don’t have any internships for credit.
We're very active in helping students after they graduate, and SVA graduates have lifetime access to the career placement office. Coincidentally, the associate director has an MFA in photography, so she understands what our students need.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do you hold special events for photography students?
Katrin Eismann: At SVA there are four photography programs, and each department holds lectures and screenings. MPS Digital Photography hosts the i3 lecture series every other Tuesday night. We bring in world-class speakers—gallerists, photographers, curators. We videotape the talks, and they go out on Apple iTunesU, Vimeo, and YouTube. One person could not attend everything that SVA offers, because each night there are easily four or five events. And SVA is really part of the community, so a lot of it is open to the public.
With all of our lectures, guest speakers, and guest reviewers, there’s a tremendous opportunity for networking with professionals from publishing, production, and the exhibition world—it’s amazing who just walks in the door. Smart students understand that and follow up.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do your students get opportunities to show their work?
Katrin Eismann: Our students have a number of options. They have to complete a thesis project, and one of the requirements of their thesis project is being in a group exhibition in the fall. They have to make prints for it, decide on the framing, come up with a name, and work on the marketing and collateral material. Every one of our students who completes a thesis exhibits their work in the SVA gallery on East 23rd.
In addition to that, the associate director of the SVA Galleries does an image call for group shows that a number of our students have been in. We also encourage our students to participate in meaningful competitions, meaning good ones where their work is actually going to get seen by the right people. We encourage them to apply for portfolio reviews and certain workshops, like the Eddie Adams workshop.
PhotoVideoEDU: What areas do graduates of your program go on to work in as professionals?
Katrin Eismann: Photography is a big field. There’s obviously the classic option of being a photographer, but there’s also a lot of expertise in the supporting part of the photography industry. A lot of our graduates work in production, in retouching, and in studios either as studio managers or asset managers. We have a number of people who are wedding, fine art, editorial, and fashion photographers. One of our students is in charge of Macy’s photography studio for the Web.
We have people teaching, people who have written books, and people working in the publishing industry as development and technical editors on books that have to do with photography. We’ve had a number of photographers release books on their own work, and I don’t mean vanity books, but books with real publishers and distribution. That’s a big deal, because once you have a book, you can get exhibits.
We have people who are art directors, production designers . . . a little bit of everything. But most of them are working in a field that’s related to photography. I haven’t walked into a Starbucks yet and seen one of my graduates, and I go to a lot of Starbucks!
PhotoVideoEDU: Could you name a few distinguished graduates?
Sought-after industrial, architectural, and fine-art photographer
Contemporary fashion photographer working Internationally
Fine-art editorial photographer. Recently published an award-winning book, Yonkeros, that is a beautiful black-and-white visual exploration of Willets Point in Queens, NY.
Hye Ryoung Min
Fine-art and fashion photographer working for Vogue Korea in NYC
Fine-art editorial photographer who recently photographed her 500th portrait for "In Reference To," a documentary project on Mexican Immigrant Women
Fine-art photographer with active exhibition career in both the USA and Europe
Editorial and successful wedding photographer.
High-fashion and glamour photographer
Ruo Bing Li
Super-busy fashion and glamour photographer based in Toronto
Clay Patrick McBride
Music and sports celebrity photographer
PhotoVideoEDU: Do you offer online courses or degrees?
Katrin Eismann: Yes. Obviously, there are people who can’t move to New York City for a year because of a job, family, or mortgage. And so we were the first program at SVA to implement a low-residency program. We created the exact same classes with many of the same instructors, and we put a lot of time and effort into creating a very rich learning environment. It’s a lot of work for the teachers, but it’s made everybody involved a better teacher, and it’s made all of our classes better, which we update every semester.
We have students now across nine time zones, from Vancouver, Canada to Cape Town, South Africa, and everywhere in between. Online students read the weekly lectures, and view videos of things like interviews, demonstrations in studio, and software techniques. We have discussions where everyone interacts, including the teacher. Then the students have to do assignments, and the following week they get critiqued. There are a total of 14 people in the online group right now.
What’s great about the online program is that the students come to New York City for a nine-week Summer Session. They come and are blended in with the in-classroom students, and after two or three days, you don’t know who was from which program. They have the same classes and requirements, and they have to fulfill the same projects.
Something special that we offer in our online program is an educator’s scholarship for 50 percent of tuition, because for educators it’s hard to keep up because they’re busy teaching. We want our curriculum and our knowledge to be passed on into their classrooms, so we’re building up the quality of the information that’s out there.
PhotoVideoEDU: Does the program have any important new developments on the horizon?
Katrin Eismann: We’re always thinking about new things we want to do. We just started live streaming all of our i3 Lectures, so that rather than waiting for two weeks for people to be able to watch the edited version, they can watch it right at the very time it’s taking place. We’re working on incorporating more video and storytelling into the program. We’re also working on having part of the semester take place in Havana, Cuba, where SVA students will work with Cuban photo students to create a compelling video and photo piece.
All in all, it’s a great time to be involved in photography—the technology is accessible and of great quality, and the creative inspiration is abundant. Everyone that works in our department loves what they do, and I know that when they go home they continue to be inspired by our students and continue to work on their own photo and creative projects.