Professor of Photography Ford Lowcock talks about the breadth of the school's photo curriculum, its international student body, and the advantages of its location near L.A.
For more information about Santa Monica College, and to see photos of the campus, visit the school's profile.
PhotoVideoEDU: What is distinctive about your program?
Ford Lowcock: Our general approach is to teach the techniques so that the imagination can come to fruition. We're very much a technical program that's geared toward commercial work, but if people want to do a more art-oriented portfolio in our later classes, then they're still welcomed.
We have just redesigned a major part of our curriculum and degree requirements. We've worked very hard in a collaborative community of faculty and industry partners to make these changes to reflect what the industry needs from our graduates. We have always been very strong in producing people who are employable, but now we have removed all film components from the commercial side of the program to make the majority of our courses match what professional photographers are doing in industry.
We have learned from industry partners that we are no longer just photographers, but now we are content providers. Not only do we teach technique, but we must teach our people how to communicate more effectively through imagery. They have to be able to tell a story. This issue of being effective storytellers has been incorporated into the curriculum changes as well.
I think our class offerings are quite broad. We do still teach film, from advanced black-and-white printing to color printing. I think teaching film better defines what digital is about. If a student really wants to understand digital, I recommend to take a film class. And for us, making prints, even on the digital side, is very important. It really highlights everything that you're doing to the digital file, and it reveals things that the monitor can't show.
Another fairly distinctive class we have is a video-for-photographers course. It's designed to teach the differences between being hired as a photographer only and being hired to create a video component on a still shoot. It explores questions such as: How do you think when producing motion and sound, versus stills only? How can you provide content when the budget only grows by a few dollars more? What are the new skill sets photographers and assistants need? Students in that class produce an advertisement image for print, as well as short video clips for corporate web placement. Each must support the other.
For students who want to extend their studies beyond a two-year program, we have articulation agreements in place for Brooks Institute, the Art Institute of Colorado, Savannah College of Art and Design, and San Francisco Art Institute. They give credit for matching classes, so typically our graduates will enter those schools at the junior level, bypassing the first two years of the four-year institution. That's really a great advantage, because in private school, that could save them $40,000 to $50,000.
PhotoVideoEDU: What kinds of students does the program attract?
Ford Lowcock: I think what we have mostly are people who are really hungry to make life changes, and want to get into photography and succeed. We have a little bit of an older group coming through, so many of them already have a career and have decided they want to change. Many of them already have an advanced degree, four-year and past. Technically, we're a two-year school, but most of our people are around a few years.
We have over 100 countries represented on campus, so we have a fairly large visa student population within Photo. Our students don't have a whole lot of money, but they come in with a lot of passion. We have people driving in from the Palmdale area, which is almost two hours away, and a lot of people drive in from Burbank and Hollywood. It always surprises me when they have a college program close to them, and yet they drive so far to come to us.
PhotoVideoEDU: What kind of campus does your school have, and what is student life like?
Ford Lowcock: We have five campuses in total that are kind of spread out over the city of Santa Monica. Our main campus is very small, but we have a greater student population than UCLA. We have a beautiful quad area with fountains and palm trees where students gather. It’s really the highlight of our main campus, with a new student activities building that is being finished now. The photography program is concentrated completely on the main campus.
We like to build a big, huge family. For example, we've been doing holiday dinners at the end of the year for quite a while now. Last year we had 260 people in attendance, all photography students and faculty, and we also invited some members of industry who support us through the year. We do camping trips every fall and spring. We take the students tent camping somewhere in the state within a five- or six-hour drive. This fall we were in the eastern Sierras and we went to an old ghost town named Bodie.
PhotoVideoEDU: Does the program have required courses or final requirements?
Ford Lowcock: Obviously we have the very beginning class, to teach the basics. Then digital asset management. From there, they do the beginning lighting class with a variety of studio and location projects. For their final project in that class, they have to create a period piece on location. Then from there, they can do a beginning portrait class, and an advanced people class after that. We have a beginning product class as well. After finishing those classes, they can do the beginning portfolio class, and then we have advanced portfolio, for them to develop their photographic styles. We recommend they take our Business for Photographers class as well. Those are the core classes that the students work through. They've got to make a C or better in all their classes.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do your students do internships?
Ford Lowcock: Absolutely. It’s not required, but it’s encouraged. The college has a very large internship program. They can do it for credit or non-credit. It's up to the employer and the student. Usually they're unpaid. Every once in a while, I'll get somebody who's generous and sees the value in having somebody work for them.
There’s a constant request for interns from photographers and production companies where they'll get to see how a shoot is put together, how it's invoiced, and things along those lines. So even if it's a non-shooting internship, I ask the employer to remember they're still gaining financially from free labor and what I'm looking for is for education to be transferred from the employer to the student. I really want them to have time to sit down and look at pictures and encourage them, talk about how they got in the business, how they run their business—things along those lines. It's very important for people not to be abused, because it is an educational situation, not just a financial one.
So we've been able to cultivate a lot of good things from people in our area. Lauren Greenfield and Matthew Jordan Smith are always looking for interns. Michael Grecco as well has taken quite a few. Mattel Toys and Boeing Satellite have hired interns and at least a couple dozen staffers each through the years. And I truly believe that the people who do the internships have a better start when they leave the program. They understand the importance of working within a business.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do you hold special events for photography students?
Ford Lowcock: During the Month of Photography in L.A., in April, we'll usually be invited by the director to come to exhibits and lectures for free. We've worked with The Getty directly on special classes. The Annenberg Space for Photography sometimes will reach out and do a special contest for students.
APA-LA comes in for free with specially designed seminars on business practices, the importance of the estimate, What's the Next Step, studio tours and while it is not free Assistant Bootcamps. Each fall and spring semester we will typically have four to eight photographers or art buyers come in and speak to our people. In our portfolio classes, we've been getting about ten portfolio reviewers to come in at the end of the semester, all for the love of giving back to our students.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do your students get opportunities to show their work?
Ford Lowcock: The portfolio students get their own gallery exhibit as a group show at the end of each fall and spring semester. Every spring we also have a huge juried student photo exhibition. We've had as many as 300 images hang on the wall, but it's usually around 200. So if they get in that's great, because we have anywhere between 1,000 and 1,600 submissions. We do bi-annual alumni exhibits as well. This year we have a very special invitation to Photo L.A., which is our yearly sale that's been growing over the last few years with a lot of gallery owners, curators, and collectors of the photographic image. We've been invited and given a booth, and we're going to highlight our students.
PhotoVideoEDU: What areas do graduates of your program go on to work in as professionals?
Ford Lowcock: I'd say mostly photographing people. A number are doing stock. I have one who's very large in shooting children for advertising. Conceptual or editorial work is up there. Some are doing fashion. Many go into assisting right away.
PhotoVideoEDU: Could you name a few distinguished graduates?
PhotoVideoEDU: Does the program have any important new developments on the horizon?
Ford Lowcock: We're working on and hoping that it's possible to create a Photographic Artisan's Certificate. It would be given to students who take a set of film-based classes that we already are teaching. We do not wish to get rid of film. We feel that film is a vital piece in photography education, but it has lost its relevance in the commercial market place.