Professor Mark Jenkinson, Administrative Director Irene Cho, and Technical Director Karl Peterson talk about how NYU’s approach blends its photography program with a liberal arts curriculum, the school’s high-achieving students, and its campus in the heart New York City.
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PhotoVideoEDU: What is distinctive about your program?
Mark Jenkinson: Most photo programs are based on either a traditional fine art education or a trade/vocational school model. Ours is a true photography program within a liberal arts curriculum, and there are some positives and negatives to this approach.
Our students bring all of their interests from their other classes in the sciences and humanities and apply them to their work. We don’t teach them to color inside the lines. We teach them how to create new lines. This also makes them resourceful. We are in a field that is undergoing drastic changes on a daily basis. Because we give them a strong intellectual foundation, they are able to adapt not only to changes in technology but also to changes in the way photographs are used and evolving business models. It’s impressive to see.
One negative is that our students don’t get exposed to a full fine art curriculum on a practical level. There is no requirement to take a drawing, painting, or sculpture class, for example. When I was in art school I dreaded those classes because I was insecure about my abilities, but they were very valuable. In particular, I was terrible at drawing, but I use drawing every day in my own commercial career. It remains one of the most useful courses I have ever taken. We do offer a drawing class, but it’s not required, and there are other facilities within the university for painting, sculpture, etc. for students who are interested.
We also don’t demand the same level of technique and optical/chemical/digital theory that a lot of the vocational schools might. However, I don’t see that as being a big disadvantage. Our foundation program is very strong, and our best students are extremely resourceful. They leave us with a fully developed skill set.
The big advantage to our model comes from the liberal arts component of our curriculum. The great photographers in the history of photography were interested in the world around them more than they were interested in photography. That’s the key to a long career; that’s what keeps you from being another “flavor of the month” photographer who has a hot streak of a few years.
PhotoVideoEDU: What kinds of students does the program attract?
Mark Jenkinson: Because the academic requirements for NYU admission are so high, our students tend to be very bright and achievement oriented. That said, the entire full-time faculty is involved in the selection process for each incoming class, so we aren’t just “picking students.” We are actively building a community of artists and critical thinkers. Ours is a small and selective department; it is a community we all live in. We want students who will be additions to that community, who will support their fellow students, respect their teachers, and use their time with us to flourish and grow as artists.
To that end, we might pick one student who has a really strong portfolio that exhibits a lot of passion and expertise, but who might be a little shaky academically, then pick another student who is self-taught and might not have the strongest portfolio but has great grades or writing skills, or a history of community service. I don’t think any of our professors want a classroom full of students who are just like us. We enjoy students who challenge us.
The goal of our foundation program is to quickly bring everyone to the same level of prowess so that technical skills aren’t the criteria for excellence. Execution is important, but it is a handmaiden to creative innovation, personal insight, and intellectual rigor. I think our students get that message very, very quickly.
PhotoVideoEDU: What kind of campus does your school have, and what is student life like?
Irene Cho: NYU has an urban campus. Our program is on the NYU Washington Square Campus in downtown Manhattan. Student life is city life. Students live in dorms or apartments, or commute from home. They walk or take the NYU buses or public transportation to get to class and to any other activities they may have planned.
PhotoVideoEDU: Does the program have required courses or final requirements?
Irene Cho: Yes, the BFA major requirements include the foundation courses in analog and digital photography, multimedia, and critical studies courses in the culture and history of photography, as well as aesthetics, human rights, and current critical issues in photography. The seniors also must take senior directed projects in their final year, which prepares them for their thesis exhibition.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do your students do internships?
Mark Jenkinson: Being in New York is a huge advantage to our students when it comes to internships. They can intern with virtually anyone, and we maintain a database that students can browse online for available internships. In my experience, the best internship experience is when a student seeks out a photographer, artist, gallery, or magazine that they truly admire and want to work for. Then we’ll create a credit-based internship that will count towards the student’s required studio credits.
The best internships are with photographers or organizations that are interested in being mentors and understand that the student’s academic career comes first. It’s an unfortunate fact that more and more photographers and organizations are viewing interns as a way to cut costs and overhead. Sponsors who treat students like unpaid employees are quickly eliminated from our list of approved sponsors.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do you hold special events for photography students?
Karl Peterson: Every year the department sponsors a variety of lectures and symposia on various topics in photography, often in conjunction with other NYU departments and outside institutions. Additionally, we frequently have guest speakers such as photographers, journalists, and curators in our regularly scheduled classes, which are then opened up to the department as a whole.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do your students get opportunities to show their work?
Karl Peterson: Every fall there is a work-in-progress exhibition, which highlights the best work by all the students, grouped by class. If a student is taking two production classes, they will have work on display in both groups. Additionally, there is a senior thesis exhibition schedule that takes up the entire spring semester, and a widely distributed catalog of the exhibited work.
PhotoVideoEDU: What areas do graduates of your program go on to work in as professionals?
Mark Jenkinson: Half of our students go on to become professional photographers, but within that broad category they then specialize in all areas of the field: photojournalism, fashion, editorial, travel, fine arts, and architecture. A smaller percentage are drawn to careers that are image-based but don’t actually involve producing or making photographs. They become art directors, art therapists, agents, web designers, curators, historians, writers for print and online magazines, bloggers, and photo educators. We have a few graduates working as photo conservators and archivists.
It might be a generalization, but some fields of photography require a broader understanding of culture and society than others, and those are the fields that tend to attract our alumni. Few of our students become still life or advertising photographers, for instance, but we have quite a few distinguished photojournalists and editorial photographers.
A smaller percentage pick up on careers that are image-based but don’t actually involve shooting, They become art directors, teachers, art therapists, agents, web designers, curators, historians, etc.
A very few use their extensive liberal arts education to continue into graduate studies and careers that aren’t related at all to photography, like medicine, law, or business.
PhotoVideoEDU: Could you name a few distinguished graduates?
Chang W. Lee
Hank WIllis Thomas