Media Technologies Department Chair Randy Becker talks about the CSN Commercial Photography program’s large and diverse student body, its unique Las Vegas setting, and the hands-on professional training it provides.
For more information about the College of Southern Nevada, and to see photos of the campus, visit the school's profile.
PhotoVideoEDU: What is distinctive about your program?
Randy Becker: The College of Southern Nevada is part of the Nevada system of higher education. We’re actually the largest institution in the system, and yet we're a community college. We are primarily a commercial program; we're not a fine art program. We're working to produce photographers who can step into a commercial studio or perhaps open their own, and work in the commercial world in our region and beyond. Our students are getting the kind of knowledge and techniques they can use to compete in the marketplace. Every faculty member, including our part-time faculty, is a working commercial photographer.
We're a community college, so our course cost is very low. And I tell my students that although they will walk out of here with an associate’s degree, we feel they've received at least a bachelor’s degree in quantity and quality of education.
PhotoVideoEDU: What kinds of students does the program attract?
Randy Becker: We have quite a broad range, from students currently enrolled in high school, to photographers working in the field who come back to us to learn the newest version of a program, to people changing careers. Las Vegas is a unique environment in a lot of ways, not least of which is that people come here to reinvent themselves. CSN has grown up to accommodate that.
The average age of a CSN student is about 33. This semester, I have students from the age of 18 to older than I am in almost every class I’m teaching. I think that creates a great opportunity for our younger students to get a little bit of a insight from an older person—someone who is their parents’ age without being their parent. They know what it takes to sell a product or a service. The reverse is true as well. Sometimes when an older student needs some help with the computer, it's one of the youngest students who shows them how to do things during their lab periods.
We're also close to Nellis Air Force Base, and when Air Force personnel come to Nellis, for some it's their final duty station. They retire or leave the Air Force, and they come to us to change careers. We have a veterans’ office on campus that helps vets use their benefits, come to CSN, and work with our program.
PhotoVideoEDU: What kind of campus does your school have, and what is student life like?
Randy Becker: We’re what's referred to as a commuter school. The College of Southern Nevada has three main campuses and a number of satellite locations. The photography program is primarily at two of the three major campuses. Our West Charleston campus, the smaller of the two, is undergoing some renovations to expand our facilities and modernize them.
The majority of our classes meet once per week for four hours. Some meet for three hours twice a week. Our production classes are really intense in terms of time. It’s not uncommon for our students to put in an additional three or four hours several times a week in the print lab. We tend to be fairly hard-nosed about deadlines, because meeting deadlines is part of the life of a successful commercial photographer.
PhotoVideoEDU: Does the program have required courses or final requirements?
Randy Becker: Because we're a state college, we have both general education requirements and the program requirements. Our students must successfully complete between 22 and 26 credit hours on the general education side, and then 38 credit hours in the program requirements. Students have shooting courses in the beginning, and then darkroom and digital darkroom courses. After that, they're into the more advanced courses like Introduction to Large Format and Portraiture.
We also offer them up to 10 credit hours of electives. We have a fashion photographer who teaches our fashion course. We've got courses in wedding photography, sports and entertainment, product photography, and architectural photography. We even have forensic photography―you know, the CSI kind of stuff. We have a Las Vegas crime scene analyst who teaches that class. It's one of our more popular courses. We have a final portfolio class and an internship class as well.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do your students do internships?
Randy Becker: We have an elective internship course. At the end of the internship, the photographer that the student has been placed with gives the student a grade. We provide the photographer criteria for that.
We have what are called Joint Technical Skills Committees, which are made up of industry personnel who meet with us regularly and review what we're teaching. They give us guidance, and they're potential employers of our graduates. They tell us what they need our graduates to know when they leave, and they often are the people who will take our students as interns.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do your students get opportunities to show their work?
Randy Becker: On a regular basis. At our Cheyenne campus, we occupy the entire ground floor of the telecommunications building. It's in excess of 10,000 square feet. That's a whole lot of space where we can hang work. We have official gallery spaces, and we also hang student work in the hallways.
We've also formed partnerships with a number of places off campus that are interested in displaying student work. We are fortunate that we have an arts district in Las Vegas that is tied in with the First Friday phenomenon. It happens around different cities in the country. We've had students who have had gallery showings during First Friday celebrations throughout the year.
PhotoVideoEDU: What areas do graduates of your program go on to work in as professionals?
Randy Becker: The list is long and varied. Some students open their own businesses. Some go on to other schools for education beyond the associate’s degree. The majority of them seem to end up in the industry as shooters, assistants, or partners with another photographer. We've also got students who have gone on to working in the photo departments of corporations.
PhotoVideoEDU: Does the program have any important new developments on the horizon?
Randy Becker: Probably the biggest thing that we're looking at is increased integration between our still side and our video side. Our Joint Technical Skills Committees are telling us that their clients are needing them to be able to shoot video more and more.
We're also in the process of creating a graduate portfolio class where students will put together a final portfolio that will sum up everything they've done. We expect to have that in place within the next year. We really want to reinforce the importance of a final portfolio by making it a requirement for the program. Our plan is to have a graduating student reception to go along with the class.