The commercial photographer and RIT Visual Media program head talks about taking a multidisciplinary approach to preparing students for the contemporary photography market, the most difficult challenges he's faced during his 36 years in photography education, and his personal work with one of the humbler household accoutrements.
View a selection of Bill DuBois's work in the slideshow above. You can also see more of his photography on his website and hear about his perspectives on architectural photography in this video.
To read more from poet and PhotoVideoEDU contributor Ron Egatz, visit his website.
“I consider myself more of a commercial photographer than a fine artist,” says Bill DuBois. “That's why my architectural work is what I'll call my passion in photography. It's all because I love problem solving, and when you're working with architectural photography, you're constantly solving problems on the fly.” Little did he know how crucial his love of problem solving would become when he first began his career in educating photographers at one of the most technically oriented schools in the nation.
Over his 36 years at the Rochester Institute of Technology, DuBois has helped to build one of the most progressive and diverse photography programs during a period of unprecedented change in photographic technology and industry. With an ethos firmly rooted in developing photographic skills graduates can apply in the marketplace, RIT’s School of Photographic Arts and Sciences offers one of the most prized educations a photography student can obtain. DuBois says during his career in Rochester, transitioning the faculty into embracing emerging digital technology while not forsaking film has been the greatest challenge for his problem-solving skills.
DuBois earned a BFA in photography from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, before moving on to Bowling Green State University for a master’s in education. After graduation, he was hired as the university photographer, but was quickly drafted into the army. Amazingly, Bowling Green held his job of Associate Director of News and Photography Services for three years, allowing him to resume the position after his time in the military was finished in 1970. In 1974, he left Ohio for RIT, where he has been teaching and developing new approaches to photography education ever since.
Today, says DuBois, “our students enter a program that is totally digital in their first year. We had to change the philosophy from teaching digital photography courses to teaching photography courses digitally. I was very fortunate to have faculty who worked with me to come up with that phraseology, so all faculty truly understood we're changing the way we work. We're changing a style in teaching. We're using electronic technology as a teaching tool as well as an image capture tool. There are still a lot of teachers out there who feel photography is much more easily taught starting with the darkroom. That's because most of us grew up that way, and that's how we cut our teeth. We realized relatively soon in our transition into the digital world that film and chemistry are not going to be around that long. We had to get into the mindset that, if we truly believe our graduating students are not going to be using film in this industry, we should not be teaching film as a primary tool.”
DuBois reports some entering freshmen are still enamored with the darkroom. The RIT program has maintained silver halide studies and other analog photography systems. Students still take film photography courses, but not in their first year. When they take film technology classes depends on which of the six undergraduate degrees in photography at RIT they choose. Students have the choice of pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Professional Photographic Illustration, a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Advertising Photography, a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Visual Media, a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Fine Art Photography, a Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Photographic Communications, or a Bachelor of Science in Imaging and Photographic Technology.
One of the most multidisciplinary majors is the BFA in Visual Media, for which DuBois serves as program chair. In the third and fourth years of the program, students can study graphic design and print courses. As DuBois explains, “They are going to learn printing technology and the business of printing. They're going to learn graphic design technology and the business of graphic design. They're doing the same thing in photography. Then we throw a year of business courses at them. They graduate creating a totally new career track to work between photographers, designers, and printers.”
With numerous practical applications, this multidisciplinary approach to photography education stands as a testament to the market-driven thinking of RIT’s administration. “Those kids are going out, they're getting very good jobs,” DuBois says. “They're out there gaining jobs now which did not exist five years ago. We're creating those jobs for people who realize the value of a person who wants to work with a photographer, let's say, and doesn't want to shoot. They want to work behind the scenes getting the images published, getting them ready for the designer's page, getting them to where they're supposed to be and working like they're supposed to be. They become an extremely valuable link to that photographer's or designer's or printer's success.”
DuBois is quick to point out that drawing from diverse disciplines isn't just a trend engendered by the current marketplace or new technologies. He notes that photography grew out of the science of chemistry and the study of light, and drawing upon scientific knowledge remains an important element of the areas of photography taught in RIT's two bachelor of science photography degree programs. The Biomedical Photographic Communications program prepares students for medical industry careers involving photography, with graduates working in areas such as documentation of subjects relevant to medical research or practice. “That means their subject matter either is or has been alive at some point in time,” DuBois explains. “They need to have a background in biology and in the science of photography, including optics, especially as they get into photo microscopy.” But current trends have played a part in the program's popularity as well: DuBois says that the influence of television programs like CSI have directly fueled a demand by students to learn forensics and the science of photography. The department limits enrollment to just 20 students in the Biomedical Photographic Communications program each year.
RIT’s Imaging and Photographic Technology degree also requires students to take physics and other science courses, allowing them to work in a broad range of industries. For example, says DuBois, “a graduate is working for the industrial side of Singer, the sewing machine manufacturer. While a new machine mechanism will work very well at a slow pace, when they turn that machine up to the speed it's supposed to function at with the high-speed stitching of maybe four needles in a row, and it's doing a specialized type of stitching . . . all of a sudden things are bending and needles are flying and something is going wrong. The only way they can analyze that is through high-speed video or high-speed cinema.” The Imaging and Photographic Technology program gives students the ability to solve such technical problems through the use of cameras. “Our graduates are at NASA, FBI, CIA, and General Motors,” DuBois says proudly. “Any major corporation is going to have this type of photographer documentarian out there, because they really do a lot of testing.”
But while maintaining its strength in teaching the technical and scientific applications of photography, RIT doesn't neglect the artistic aspects of image making. Walk the halls of the school's Frank E. Gannett Memorial Building any day, says DuBois, and you'll see a wide variety of photography being practiced. “You’ll find a portrait session going on. Turn a corner and you've got students working on microscopes. Turn another corner and you've got rockets being launched into an upside down trashcan attached to the ceiling, hopefully.” With approximately 700 students at RIT at any given time studying some form of photography, the campus is hub of photographic experimentation. The student population includes between 25 and 35 graduate students in an MFA degree program, learning the skills to become teachers, gallery managers, and other professionals in fields related to photography. Says DuBois, “My philosophy is if we can't help students rip us off for everything mentally while they're here, shame on us. Because—and this is very egotistical for RIT—our faculty should be answering any questions which come up in the photographic world right here in this building.” With places like Kodak Tower and the Eastman School of Music located within Rochester, RIT is ensconced in a city built on photography.
Fortunately, DuBois is able to take some time away from the ever-evolving demands of his work at RIT to apply his problem-solving skills to personal projects and commercial jobs. Along with interior and exterior architectural work, a more recent photographic endeavor for DuBois has focused on an old passion of his. Three years ago, he began photographing pieces from his bedpan collection, which he’s been amassing for close to 30 years. With over 70 bedpans, urinals, and chamber pots, it’s no small collection. He has shown his series of images in Philadelphia, Buffalo, and Rochester. Next, it will be traveling to Richmond. What initially started as a methodical test of a new camera—shooting white porcelain on a white background—has morphed into a new artistic direction. Although he denies any connections to Duchamp, DuBois is quick with a quip: “My wife and I use the bedpans for everything from plants to distributing Halloween candy. I have never photographed a full bedpan,” he says with a chuckle.