The Digital Journalist
Nuts & Bolts

by Bill Pierce

In the July 24, '05 issue of The New York Times, veteran reporter Gretchen Morgenson has a piece entitled "The School That Skipped Ethics Class." It is a piece about the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California.

While the Times story deals primarily with the reasons behind the fall in stock price of Brooks' parent company, The Career Education Corporation, there are parts of the story that should interest every young photographer looking for an education.

Morgenson tells of a report by the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education that says Brooks had encouraged enrollment by "willfully misleading" prospective students and "falsifying and omitting critical information."

The California bureau sent a young employee to pose as someone interested in becoming a Brooks student. Their report is quoted as saying the young woman was told she could expect her starting salary after graduation to be between "$50,000 and $150,000." "The sky's the limit," the admissions official said. Students were also misled about the availability of jobs and career placement services the school would provide.

Of the class of 2003 graduates employed full time, the average income was about $26,000 and the average indebtedness about $74,000.

The California bureau gave only conditional approval for Brooks to continue operating for the next two years and said it would have to provide restitution to students going back to 1999.

Michelle Bogre is the chairperson of the photo department at Parsons -- or, as it is officially known, Parsons The New School for Design. She's very smart (photographer, department head and lawyer). I've known her long enough to know she doesn't pull any punches. (No, I do not know how that characteristic and survival in academia can coexist.) She runs one of the best departments in an excellent school. I asked her what she told would-be students applying to the school. She corrected me, pointing out that her first words were often to parents and would-be students.

"We educate people to understand the language of photography." What, no guaranteed wage? Apparently not. But the more I thought about that phrase, "the language of photography," the more I realized that there had come a point in time when that was exactly what I would spend the rest of my photographic life learning. Wish that time had come earlier.

She also told me that many of the graduates would earn their photographic base pay, not as photographers but rather as photo editors, art directors, administrators and a plethora of jobs that involved computer skills. This, of course, is a huge change from the days when you went to photo school only to be a photographer.

Michelle Bogre says combine that with the fact that new tools of photography are constantly appearing and evolving, sometimes replacing existing tools and sometimes supplementing them, and educators have to widen their scope of what photography is -- and more classes have to ask what you want to do, and only then tell you more than one way to do it.

Her secret, and unrealized, dream: a course in copyright and contract law (which she would teach) specifically for photographers. (I told you she was smart.) Her pet peeve: separating photography into two camps, traditional and digital. Mine, too. Is there such a thing as lighting equipment for digital cameras? There is if you read the ads in some photo magazines and catalogs. Neil Selkirk, an exceptional photographer, taught a lighting course at Parsons. For the first part of the course, students had one light bulb that they could move about or modify in various ways. Once they figured out what light does, they could choose quartz, hmi, strobe, fresnels, banks, etc. -- and whether they wanted to shoot on film or digitally. Rather than traditional and digital, I would rather separate photography into two camps based on the quality of the final image: "This really sucks." and "Not bad."

If you look at the students' Web site,, 99 percent of the pictures could be traditional, digital or a blend of the two. There's no way to tell. Admittedly, there are a few pictures so surreal that you know you are looking at digital effects (or the work of a photorealistic painter under the influence of drugs). But even students know how to fool the visually challenged into thinking they are looking at art. In the end, know what you want to do and it will be easy to pick the right tools to do it.

Then, of course, there is the important issue of who best teaches photography -- full-time education professionals or almost full-time photography professionals who take a little time out to teach. The answer: either, neither, it depends. The academic professional can be knowledgeable in areas that the photographic professional ignores because they cost too much, there's no market for them or they don't fall within their professional "specialty." The full-time academic professional can also shoulder some of the administrative burdens of the department. They can also be smart and natural-born teachers and good photographers. They do, however, have to find the time to shoot a lot of pictures, practice their craft and keep up to date. And that's a rough hoe to add to a full schedule.

The professional photographers have it easier. They just have to learn to teach. If they can't, fire them after one semester. If they can, a glimpse into their lives is an added bonus for the students. Parsons has had teachers like David Vestal, Charlie Harbutt, Barbara Bordnick and Vik Muniz. Gene Smith taught across town at the School of Visual Arts. While he was in New York City, Pulitzer winner Bill Foley taught at N.Y.U. You've got to admit, that makes for a lot of good faculty photo shows.

The balance at Parsons' photography department is two full-time teachers (who still manage to regularly exhibit their images in New York galleries), with everyone else being a working photo stiff. I like that because it takes issues like tenure and moves them to the side while it moves running a good class and taking good photos higher up the priority list.

Parsons, a division of The New School, is fully accredited by the Commission on Higher Education of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools and NASAD. Its credits and degrees are recognized and accepted by other accredited colleges, universities, and professional schools throughout the United States. The New School (its new name, effective Aug. 1, 2005), a privately supported institution, is chartered as a university by the New York State Board of Regents. Parsons is an art school. Students have to take at least 35 percent of their studies in liberal arts.

"Photo school" is just one of many ways a person starting out in photography can educate themselves. The New York Times and Gretchen Morgenson have pointed out that you have to be careful when you pick aschool. Actually, that's not bad advice for people looking for an education who haven't got the slightest interest in photography. But the important thing to know is that there is a great variety of schools and learning centers out there and some of them are very, very good.

© Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer