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Sunday, 09 September 2007


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My art school days are fondly remembered and greatly valued. But not as a stepping stone to career and treasure.

A few years after graduating, I was putting bread on the table as an art consultant/private dealer. One day I received a call from a chap who wished to sell a painting he owned, and had been referred to me. The caller turned out to be my former Dean of Fine Arts (whom we will call "CG").

During our initial meeting to discuss the sale of the painting, CG expressed first surprise, then delight to discover that I was a grad from his department. How rare, he observed, to find somebody actually able to earn a living in art after graduating!

That was more than twenty years ago. And now, to quote Mike: "...I realize that I still need a decent job, to help make ends meet." C'est la guerre!

I couldn't agree more with your post Mike. I spent six years in photographic education and in all those years, there was no lessons to show you how you WORK as a photographer. Most courses seem to concentrate heavily on the art of photography and dismiss any thought of how to earn money from it.
I've been in business six years as a photographer and i've had to learn everything from scratch. Tax, getting clients, promotion - none of it covered during all those years at college/uni. Maybe its time that the students were taught by working photographers rather than the out of touch academics. It would certainly make the transition from student to working photographer that bit easier.

I believe most art schools are doing a disservice to most students. All private or public schools basically survive off of government subsidies that are grants and loans. The Brooks Institute for example is a fine Photography school but not a public school like UCLA. Brooks is a part of a private company. A NY Times article "The School That Skipped Ethics Class" on Sunday, July 24, 2005 exposed a disturbing marketing statement used by Brooks when recruiting students.

The Times reported that the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary & Vocational Education sent an investigator to pose as a prospective student. The Student was told to expect a starting salary of $50,000 to $150,000, or more, in the first year after graduation from Brook’s. An examination of Brooks's records showed not a single 2003 graduate had even $50,000 of earning potential. Brooks reported that 45 graduates employed full time earned an average income of about $26,000. There were only 45 grads employed full-time, and Brooks runs about 300 students at a time.

Photography is a big part of my life but I developed this nasty habit of eating every day so I have a full-time career with benefits. When I retire I will be able to afford the pursuit photography full-time.

One of the best things for I ever had the luck of doing as a photographer was spending years working at and eventually managing a camera store. It got me the business background I need to survive today, or at least the start of it.

I've always enjoyed the 5% stat, which I actually heard first well doing my first stint in undergrad, and later from Mike. That stat was what kept me going through the years when I could've, and probably should have, given up. (No money, no social life, long hours, hoping I could afford to go to a movie theater twice that year, and forcing myself to shoot even after I'd spent 12 hours talking about nothing but cameras and photography.)

And well I may make a living today, and that's important, somehow, what really matters is that I'm pretty happy doing what I do.

I found out the hard way just how truly worthless an art degree is. I have a BFA from Indiana University. There are no jobs, and being self employed as an artist takes a lot of capital to get stated in business. I didn't have any money when I graduated. I also found out that no one will hire you for anything if you have an art degree. A lot of philosophy majors are hired in non-related fields that just require "a Bachelors Degree". That doesn't work for art majors. In Indiana where I lived most of my life, the second a hiring manager sees "Art Major" on a resume, that resume hits the circular file. For 7 years after I graduated I lived off my family and anyone else who would feed me after my family got tired of doing so. I spent all my time looking for a job, applying for more than 700 jobs in that time. How many interviews did I get? ONE. That's it. And that was to be a graphic designer and I wasn't because I had been out of school too long without employment. After ending up homeless, I was rescued by a friend in Santa Fe who took me in and fed me until I found a job in a local camera shop. I began doing freelance photography and graphics work and 6 months after arriving in Santa Fe I had enough work to quit the camera shop. I'm not making a huge amount, but I get to eat every day now. I moved to Santa Fe in June of 2006.

There's an art school called The Art Center College of Design that advertises on the Albuquerque radio stations all the time claiming that their graduates all get good jobs making good money. The ads feature kids trying to convince skeptical parents to let them go to that school. "If I don't go to a good school I'll end up waiting tables or living with you forever" the ads say. Well guess what, kids. You'll probably still end up waiting tables, and given the cost of living in New Mexico you'll have to live with mom & dad even with the waitress job. I live with my girlfriend in Santa Fe and her tiny little dump of a house cost her a staggering $200,000. My parents had a house 3 times as big that cost half that in indiana. and my dad made twice as much money as my girlfriend! eek!

These schools should be prohibited by law from advertising such damned lies. The government won't let pharmacuetical companies claim that thier drugs do things they haven't been scientifically proven to do. Why do they let schools do exactly that?


This is an indeed an insightful post. But that 90% statistic is very, very wrong when it comes to lawyers. I read an article a year or two ago called something like "What happened to the Harvard Law School Class of 199X?" The basic point of the article was that the percentage of the HLS graduates that were still practicing law 10 years after graduation was actually shockingly low (I seem to remember it being around 60%, but don't quote me on that). I have since read numerous other articles that have confirmed similar trends throughout the legal profession (it isn't just a HLS thing). Whereas artists would love to work as artists, but can't afford to, I assure you that many lawyers hate working as lawyers and are looking for ways to get out. If they stay, it is usually due to the fear (whether founded or unfounded) that they can't afford not to. I'm not saying that lawyers are all a bunch of miserable, self-loathing wretches (I'm a lawyer and generally like the other members of my profession), just that it isn't nearly as satisfying, challenging or fulfilling as law schools would have you believe.

Law schools also do nothing to prepare you to practice law. Nothing that I learned in law school has come in remotely useful in my career as a lawyer. Law school was a fascinating and intellectually stimulating experience, but it does not prepare you for your profession as one would expect it to. On the other hand, even though I am an international securities lawyer at a pretigious law firm, I assure that I (or you or a large percentage of your readers) could probably do everything I do now without ever having attended law school, which says something about the job itself.

And whereas art school may not prepare you for how to earn a living after graduation, law school tends to make it seem as though the only option upon graduation is to go to a large law firm. Some of that pressure obviously comes from student loans, but law schools don't do a great job of educating law students about alternatives to law firm life (or non-life, as the case may be).

I dunno what the answer is. I'm positive about one thing, though. Money does not have nearly as much bearing on happiness as people think it does. NOT having money obviously contributes to unhappiness, but I am skeptical about money's ability to generate happiness. In particular, people who have money tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time (given their, by definition, favorable financial position) worrying about losing that money, or not having enough in the future, or about earning less money if they do something they [think they] would actually enjoy doing.

When it comes down to it, I think that the percentage of people who actually enjoy their work is very, very limited. Most of us try to do something that is compatible with our talents, our personality and our work habits and we try to work with people we like. These things make work bearable and we all enjoy certain aspects or moments of our work. But I doubt that most people would still work in their jobs if they won $100 million in the lottery. A certain subset obviously would. And I would bet anything that artists make up a large percentage of that group.

Best regards,

P.S. Okay, so I might be projecting a bit here...

Being a university photographer, I have a front row seat to the workings of higher education and have learned a few disturbing tidbits. Most disturbing to me is that few faculty members have ever worked outside of academia. (To be fair, there are exceptions such as law, medicine). This is especially true of art dept. faculty, which makes them completely unqualified to train students, grad or undergrad, for a working life outside of academia.

MFA programs are even worse as they, like many other terminal degree programs, exist primarily to train students for life as future college faculty members. And that, to me, is the gist of the problem. Certification, not true talent, is the bellwether for the qualification to be a college faculty member.

Interestingly, I have no real relationship with our art department. I've made some attempts, to be sure, but feel my status as an "employed" photographer is viewed with a bit of disdain by some of the faculty members.

Perhaps that's part of the problem. As soon as someone is employed full-time in a creative field such as photography, they're no longer considered an "artist". Therefore, it's in an art departments best interest to NOT train students for full-time employment in their chosen specialty, as that employment status will, by definition, defeat the very purpose of educating artists.

I don't think this country is fundamentally hostile to the arts -- you see art and would-be artists all over the place. They're like rats, you can't keep them down. (I live in Minnesota. If you google 'minnestoa arts spending" as I did, you'll find a variety of numbers. One of them is that there are 20,000 artists in Minnesota, who spend $250 million a year. Another bunch of stats says that total economic impact for arts spending in Minnesota in 2005 was $838 million dollars. I think you'd find the same for most other states, and the spending in places like New York and Californian would dwarf that of Minnesota. That's fundamental hostility?)

The big problem is that most artists are marginally talented, something that's always been true, even in France in 1870. And it's a bigger problem in photography, where tool-acquisition is far, far easier than in the other arts. (Even the utterly talentless can learn to effectively use a camera and lights in a few weeks of study. Vison, of course, is a different problem.) Because of this, more marginally talented people wind up in photography than in the other arts. They also wind up there for the wrong reasons -- photography is hip, fashionable, and sometimes, somebody gets to take pictures of naked super models.

It's not really a school's job to try to winnow the marginally talented, because you really can't test for talent and drive. It's the school's job to try to provide some tools (although I would also define tools as a few classes in business and pr.) Things are different in laws and medicine, because there, you're actually entering a legally protected guild; if there were a legally protected guild for artists, we'd see the same thing that happened in the Soviet Union: all the spots would quickly be occuppied by the best politicians.

So what can the schools do? Try to provide tools, and pat each student on the ass and wish them the best of luck. After that, it's pretty much up to the student. And I think that's as it should be.


"I don't think this country is fundamentally hostile to the arts -- you see art and would-be artists all over the place. They're like rats, you can't keep them down."

The prosecution rests. (g)


I feel the same as many of the other commentators. Having graduated with a BA this past spring, I am seeing what it means to have an art degree. The real world caught up with me quickly as I am now a father and have people depending on me to support them. The thing with the school I went to is that the instructors seemed to hold back little on the students when it came time to critique. The work that was given the crap rating by an overwelming majority was given great reviews by the profs. This makes it hard to feel confident about your own work when you are given great reviews by these same teachers. Frustration and low self confidence are what I learned from my years in school. I did come away with a better technical understanding, but I could have learned most if not more from going to workshops. The advice I would give to anyone looking at art school is to make sure they need to go and to go to the best school they can.

Great post Mike. But there are lots of issues about self expression. I truely believe living is a work of art, taken as the personality manifestation that every individual constantly lets through. Acquiring a better, rounder, more complex way of expression, be it through any means chosen, makes life a better experience all around.
In my case, I'm 35 and studied bussiness at a very young age, I never had problems with studying, but I went through a series of family tragedies that made me stuck to whatever made everybody around me happy. And arts were never taken as a serious part in the equation. In time, through depression and thorough evaporation of the original driving motives or imagined life goals, I'm a free man, but also free from any kind of motivation. I'm above average in playing a few instruments, singing, and photography, but I'm locked in dilettantism, quoting you. Yep, it's great insight, but quite painful.
Some people do have money in their families, but sometimes their families do believe you have to "work hard" to deserve it, and in some agravating circumstances that concept of what hard work is might ruin your taste as badly as anything else.

I spent the morning online looking for art schools to see if I could go get an MFA in photograpy. The answer is, I can't. They seem to cost about $25,000 to $35,000 a year for 2 years. And that's 2 years of giving up my job. Who, I wonder, can afford to not work for 2 years and pay $50 - 70,000 for such a degree?

And why did I want an MFA? After all I already have an English degree, an MBA, I'm 50, have a serious job and family responsibilities and am reasonably confident in my artistry (that's not to say that I don't have loads to learn - only that after almost 40 years of autodidactic photography I know a thing or 2).

I've decided that working on my own, with a novice web site (http://islerphoto.smugmug.com), I'm never going to be heard of, never going to sell a picture. And when I look at all the galleries and all the shows and all the magazine articles on up and comers, they all have MFAs. (They also seem to have all gotten stuck in the 1970s, showing deliberately artlessly composed shots of the banality of modern American living blown up to unimaginable proportions - but that's a story for another screed.)

But it seems to me that school is where you meet people, make connections and get a shot at getting your work seen by people with the critical and professional connections to advance your cause. And if I can learn something about composition, lighting, technique or art history while I'm there, so much the better.

Maybe in my next life...


I found it to be a relief when I realized that it was not a failure if I did not make my living by painting or photographing. In fact it can remove the strain of having to please many. Like you said, how many professional photographers make their living on actual fine art?

For a life of doing more than one thing, I recommend the books "Refuse to Choose" and "The Renaissance Soul".

I don't think you'd better wait till your next life. Do the best you can in this one.


I think I could tell anybody in a few hundred words how to REALLY succeed in photography.

People come to me and ask me for my opinion about their photography all the time, but real criticism can come across as extremely harsh, despite being very constructive, and that's not what most people want. Most people don't really want constructive criticism because they're not constructing anything. They think their problem is that they don't know how to get there, but that's not really the problem. The real problem is they don't know where they want to go. A few people know where they want to go, and for them, real criticism would be very useful. But for most everyone else it would merely be cruel.

It's difficult to know who is who and which is which, when people ask. And why be cruel? It's not nice.


Mike, I don't see this country hostile to the arts, what I see is a country hostile to the self congratulatory, smug, elitist "arts and croissants" crowd that just swoons over jars of urine with crucifixes in them. I see so called "artists" telling people that if you cannot understand their "art" you are a Phillestine of some sort, and obviously not able to grasp such fine art.

I do photography as a hobby, I have donated prints to charity, and made far more money for charity than I frankly expected to make, AND was asked to do it again. We are not hostile to art, just to the obnoxious "art crowd".

To Adam Isler: New York residents can get an MFA from Hunter (CUNY) for $3200 per semester. But anyway, Alec Soth doesn't have an MFA, nor does Simen Johan... thinking of that, we ought to compile a list of those folks!

Maybe, but I think what you've just done is to delineate a cliché, one that doesn't really even exist. Ever met anybody who actually has swooned over Serrano or his "Piss Christ"? I haven't, and I don't think you have either. Your attitude is defensible and you have a right to it, but it *is* hostile.


Mike, An excellent article! This is one of the many reasons I read your Blog every day. I have not attended an art school personally, but my sister attended a fashion design art school in California for one year before deciding to attend a traditional four year university. Her reason for leaving, lack of job opportunities after graduation with a career path leading to a decent earning potential. On thing I have never been able to figure out is why most art schools provide little or no practical business, accounting, or management classes. I think you assessment was right on.

Please don't read me wrong because I like (love being a word my wife says should be reserved for people) and enjoy photography very much. It seems that a major source of income for many photographers is from teaching photography to others -- not that there's anything wrong with that!

Living by your art is not necessarily a good thing. Once upon a time I had computer programming as my all-consuming passion (Not art, true, but the feeling I get from doing it is in many ways similar to when I photograph or write. It's a medium of expression). But three jobs and one master's degree later, most of the fun has been sapped from it, by all the incidental pressures of doing it for a living. I still find it fun and interesting, but the passion is pretty much killed.

So depending on what you want with your art and your life, aiming for professional success may be just right for you - or it may be a disaster for your interest. Me, I value taking and editing pictures precisely _because_ I'm not really any good - it's an area where I can experiment with the format with no time limits and no pressure to create something of value to others.

There is the occasional time where I am asked to take pictures for someone else (mostly as part of my real job) rather than for my own amusement. The results are overall better and I have learned quite a bit every time, but I sure don't have the same kind of fun. I recognize the same signs all over again: assuming I would ever develop my eyes well enough and start to do this for a living, it would kill my passion just like it did for computer programming.

As all the thoughtful comments above attest, this was a great essay -- thanks. But I have to admit I read most of it with only 50% attention. The rest of my brain was busy being annoyed at the lecturer in the museum. I mean, presumably it was either a public museum or else you'd paid to get in. I wouldn't actually have had the courage, but in your place I would have liked to have told him, "Excuse me, then, but if you don't want people to hear you in public, you'll have to stop talking out loud."

It's possible I asked him a question. (g)

I used to do things like that.


P.S. The first essay on photography I ever wrote was a heated refutation of a lecture given by critic Andy Grundberg at the Corcoran, where I went to school. He was at that time the photography critic at the New York Times. I knew nothing about AG and had not yet learned that I just don't agree with his outlook. Alas, he is now the Head of the Photography Department at the Corcoran, a post held, in my day, by my late friend and mentor Steve Szabo, the one who died of MS. Steve was a real photographer, a top photojournalist with the Washington Post for many years who quit to become an art photographer, and who was then instrumental in the large format / platinum revival of the 1970s. AG isn't even a photographer, which I find...well, I shouldn't lob an incendiary adjective in here, or I might be sorry.

I once was an artist. Creative juices flowed through my veins. I was not afraid to try different things, and my photos could be recognized as 'MY" photos.
Then I took some art classes.
It took me the better part of ten years to become an artist again, and I still struggle.

Art history is good.
Art classes are not.

Art school made me into a commercial photographer. Blah.

Interesting reading all the comments, while I agree different people have different needs and different conditions that they come from, thought I too will add my story ☺

Well I am from India, and went to USA for my MFA,
The exchange rate is usd 1 = 50 RS,
So my investment was 50 times more then u folks are claiming it costs to go to art school.

And interestingly went thru the emotions that u folk's mention about collectively

I went thinking I will go to school to train myself for a year at the most, well guess what, 3 yrs later I finished my MFA, and am glad I did.

I selected a school - academy of art in San Francisco, the faculty was 98 % working professional, yes I did learn about business in school. Very important to choose the right school.

I went to art school, as I felt it is better to be an artist, and do what I enjoy today - while I have a healthy body, then when I retire for a safe option of a job.
That I might not like that much, and be a grouch.

The world does not owe anything to us, we owe it to ourselves to succeed, we need to follow our heart, that’s why we are artists, we are people who are ahead of our times, we are the torch bearers of our civilization, we dare to dream.

We are most productive when we are down, we face adversity always, every moment, and still coming back, being a artist is a lifestyle, and some practical thinking will always create a window for us to make money … do not lose hope, stay with it … the world needs us, think what you are doing / giving the world, the days will be more fun to create.

Know your cost of doing business, and keep rediscovering yourself … just a matter of time, we never hear the engineer was lucky to build the bridge, he was good and he got the job, same with us , be prepared to act when the job comes along , don’t kick it , out of frustration, see how one can build on it,

I mostly shoot editorial, I sometimes build relations with the subject which go on to bigger project, more fun and about my vision …




I went to art school for one year, a studio photographer who taught there (and was eventually forced out since he never graduated college himself) advised me that if I really wanted to be a pro, I really needed to be an assistant.

I was third assistant to a very successful team of studio photographers (one would do most of the sales & PR, the other the bulk of the photography). I saw what they had to go through, and decided right there and then, that wasn't me. Born sans the business gene, I knew I would end up penniless fast, and in the process, lose my passion for photography as well.

I taught in the "inner city" for seventeen years (talk about statistics for short term careers) and currently work with devlopmentally disabled adults. Life certainly hasn't turned out as I thought, and I still struggle to make ends meet. Yet I've managed to keep shooting, my passion for photography, and life unabated.

An art school is at one end of a long spectrum, with all sorts of academic "professions" between it and the schools of law, medicine, and engineering that really do prepare students for a job that has licensing requirements and enjoys guild-like protection. Perhaps it is unusual in that it takes the place of undergraduate education, rather than coming after. In the last three categories, there has always been a movement to include education in professional ethics and professional practice.

In physics, my own profession, there are regular efforts to find out where the graduates went, especially since physics PhD programs enjoyed a tremendous boom in the post-Sputnik 1950's, filled all possible faculty positions with their graduates in the 1960's and have been exporting their skills to computing and to finance ever since. I spent one very satisfying career in an industrial research lab after getting my PhD, and am now embarked on a second career as an academic in a computer science and engineering department. This has required learning from scratch where money comes from when you want to use it to support students. And I find that my instinctive reactions to the issues that we face can be very different from those of my colleagues.

There are jobs for our students, however, and some of the students know more about finding work and starting companies than do their faculty. Most don't have a clue, but they learn a lot from the other students. As you point out, the chief learning in a good school comes from contact with other good students.


I went to law school. I would be surprised if 50% of graduates got jobs in a legal related field after graduation let alone 90% after 10 years.

Mike, et al.

My first "real" job (after mowing lawns and delivering newspapers) was filming football games for a rival high-school; my lab had recommended me. I then got work as the "staff photographer" for the local arts center and for two local papers. Based upon my employment(s) there, I was hired by a TV station to handle film traffic (I don't see the connection, either). I soon managed their art department, and before I left, was head of their film department.

UCLA and USC had yet to begin their film programs, so I went to Brooks for a year. At that time their only interest seemed to be the "business" of photography. Though I did learn a few things I couldn't get from Kodak manuals, they were few and far between. My main interest was in film, not the business of opening a photo salon. So, when I was asked to document a couple's sailing circumnavigation, I left Brooks Institute in a New York minute.

After my return, I worked as a Director of Photography on several low budget features. By the time I was 21 I was able to buy my first new car, a Volvo 144, in cash.

Yes, I was lucky. But, I was passionate, focused, and persistent. I feel that in most cases, those attributes created the opportunity for my luck. Sure, there were times when I worked as an electrician, a carpet cleaner, and I've waited tables. But, I have always been able... no, either found or made the opportunity, to return to my root passion.

BTW: I also taught and lectured... On my first day, at my first teaching position in a public high-school, I was shocked by the stoic resignation of this most attentive class. I had them move their desks out of rows to put them in some less orderly fashion. That didn't seem to help. Next day, I had them all sit on the floor. That, for the most part, worked pretty well :-)

It's the Scarecrow Syndrome: getting the diploma doesn't mean you're any smarter, it just means you're credentialed.

"...back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts — and with no more brains than you have... But! They have one thing you haven't got! A diploma!"

The reason most "outside artists" fail to be successful as artists is that selling art is dependent on who you know. Models need to know you're an artist and not just a wierdo with a beard who like posing people. People who own galleries need to know you; they need to know people who know you; they need to have rejected you once or twice and see that you've adapted your portfolio to suit their tastes. People who buy art need to have heard of you, and they need to have heard good things--which means your work has to appeal to the sort of loudmouth other people listen to.

Forging these relationships while maintaining success in a day job is hard work; which is why many of us have to settle for high praise on Flickr accounts and the occasional "showing" at a coffee shop or library.

I'm different from you, Mike, in that I never want to make a living off photography (nor off my own artistic major--rhetorical theory). Oh sure, I take money for it, but I don't want that to be the only thing that I do. Making a living off something you love seems noble, but it's also difficult to do so without trading some of your integrity for security.

Some comments on what has been a great "post" etc.

The university's and art schools have become the patrons of the arts. It seems expected that you do your own art as well as teach. How well this works for the students is another discussion.
I, personally have no aptitude for teaching.

Not only do few of the schools offer any "business" instruction, I found few teachers who knew, let alone taught the basic technical aspects of art or photography, though photography is better than painting about this. How to stretch a canvas sort of stuff. They were big on "history" and aesthetics. Opinion vs. fact. If you want your aesthetics polished go spend some time in a museum, looking at actual objects, in some context. Not in a book or a transparency.

The very ancient method of instruction in an art or craft; master and apprentice, has become rare, though photographers still use assistants, as mentioned above. You may start sweeping, but that is also part of the "business" of any craft.

I don't worship at the altar of "HIGH ART', so I've been free to think that all that I do, paint, carve, gild, sculpt, photograph, music listen, (thanks, Mike!) comes from one source, me. And me realized early about Art School, and took advantage of several mentors along the way, even though it was wrenching to my life at the time.

My point being, if you want to teach or work in a museum, go to school, as you need those letters after your name. If you want to be an artist, then go find a mentor, someone whose work you like, and is working in your chosen medium. This may preclude worship at the altar of HIGH ART, but the history of art and craft is very long, and that silliness of HIGH ART is very recent, less than 150 years, and only seriously silly in the last 70-80 years.

IMHO, and since I'm not a FAMOUS ARTIST, some sour grapes might be indicated, but I've also made my living, such as it is, in some aspect of art or craft for most of my adult life.

The illustrator, James Montgomery Flagg, who was a damn good painter mentions this; I paraphrase: "...the difference between an illustrator and a fine artist, is the illustrator eats three meals a day and can afford to pay for them..."



Postscript: I'm actually shocked at how little most schools do to prepare their students for anything other than the most basic technical aspects of a career. In my industry -- software engineering -- you learn more applicable technical knowledge in the first six months of a real job than you will in six years of college, and all else being equal I would hire a drop out with two years of real world experience over someone with a master's degree.

What I find shocking is that most of the computer science graduates I know don't even go into fields that require computer science -- most become network engineers or second line tech support or quality assurance technicians, jobs where you will never need to know assembly language or logic design or algorithms.

I think that's because most of what a good college teaches you isn't tangible knowledge -- it's learning how to learn, how to get along with others, how to promote and defend your ideas in a competitive environment. For all the fooforah about how useless an English or Philosophy degree is, graduates with these degrees often go on to be highly successful. We have good debating, organization and comprehension skills that can be applied to nearly any trade in nearly any industry.



I've seen the original photograph, and the positive reviews that describe it as "luminous" are not inaccurate. I suspect more people are disturbed by the title, and that's part of the work. Unfortunately, I was unable to have the opportunity to see the work before learning the title, which would have had a more powerful effect.

Sorry for the digression--good column today.

Well said Mike. As a former Professor of Photography, now Digital Media Specialist, but still within academia, I see this dilemma all the time. Perhaps that is in part why I decided to concentrate on making art for myself, not for academia and not for media attention.

While it it is incredibly gratifying to see former students "make it", it is extremeley draining to see the vast majority struggle.

I raise my glass to your 22 years of persistence.


Mike, your comments about those who choose career over passion and thereby become "dilettantes or dabblers" with their creative urges struck a chord with me. Someone once said there are those who want to 'have' and those who want to 'do' - and as a young man (I'm 60 now) I probably fell more into the former camp than the later. Although, in fairness, the 'have' had a lot to do with security, and there's been a fair amount of 'do' in my life with hobbies of music, writing, and photography. Similar to one of your earlier posters, I also fell in love with writing computer programs for a number of years - fortunately I was able to put these to good use in our business. Now I've made my fortune (such as it is) and I am looking forward to retiring and having more time for my hobbies, and maybe, if I'm lucky and work hard, I can produce something of lasting value. But it is when you are young that you have the energy, determination, and single-mindedness to spend the 10,000 hours of "effortful study" it takes to master something. Those of us who chose the security route can only play catch-up in later life. In the view of those who spent years learning their craft (or art, if you will) all day, every day, we will always be "dilettantes and dabblers". In defence, when your natural interests and abilities are divided almost equally between science/math and language/arts, you can never commit to one for too long before realizing how much you miss the other.
In hindsight, I know that I never would have become a rock star. But I might have made a life in photography, if I had had the confidence.

How poignant and relevant. On the subject of "training" schools, I made note about how many classmates of mine were still in the photo business in my article about my days at the University of Texas studying "Art Photography" under Garry Winogrand all the while getting a degree in Photojournalism. (And thanks for referring to the essay on your site.) Almost every classmate that entered the PJ studies when I did is either still firmly embedded in the photo business or just recently retired (they did better than I). Yet I have never heard from any of the Teaching Assistants from Winogrand's classes that were actually art majors. Even though the Internet and free news services are now putting intense pressure on newspapers and other periodicals - and hence pressure on PJ photographers - PJ school still serves as excellent vocational training. It may fade away sometime in the near future but at least it served its students better than the art schools. In a way this is fitting, but in a way it is also sad as you so succinctly stated.

O.C. Garza,

The reason so many of your journalism classmates worked as photographers is that journalism is just about the only 'Real job" that exists for photographers. By that I mean it is the only type of photography that one can get a regular employment rather than being self-employed. Self-employment is hard...you have to be a businessman as well as photographer and many of us are not good businessmen. With employment you just do your job and go home...with a paycheck that's the same each week. No worry about drumming up business, no need to hustle each week for money. Just show up, work, get paid. Every day, every week.

I've just gotten back from eight days of backpacking about 85 miles around Mt Rainier on the Wonderland Trail, so this is a tad late, but may be interesting. The creative news for me is that I was able to bring back 2.2GB of images with my little digicam, compared to my two or three rolls of film from a similar trip in 2002 with an SLR. So that makes me more creative, right?

Anyway, now for the fun part.

I found a note about Sir Ken Robinson's talk at TED (http://www.ted.com/index.php/) in 2006 on Kathy Sierra's (now defunct, after later, unrelated death threats) blog: "Finally, if you have NOT yet seen Sir Ken Robinson's TED talk, please stop whatever you're doing and watch it now. It's titled 'Out of our minds: learning to be creative', and it's not just one of the better presentations I've ever seen, I can virtually guarantee that any regular readers here will REALLY appreciate it." (from http://headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/2006/07/a_few_more_pres.html)

From TED...

About this Talk:

Sir Ken Robinson makes an entertaining (and profoundly moving) case for creating an education system that nurtures creativity, rather than undermining it. With ample anecdotes and witty asides, Robinson points out the many ways our schools fail to recognize -- much less cultivate -- the talents of many brilliant people. "We are educating people out of their creativity," Robinson says. The universality of his message is evidenced by its rampant popularity online. A typical review: "If you have not yet seen Sir Ken Robinson's TED talk, please stop whatever you're doing and watch it now."

About Sir Ken Robinson:

Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson challenges the way we're educating our children. He champions a radical rethink of our school systems, to cultivate creativity and acknowledge multiple types of intelligence.

Why don't we get the best out of people? Sir Ken Robinson argues that it's because we've been educated to become good workers, rather than creative thinkers. Students with restless minds and bodies -- far from being cultivated for their energy and curiosity -- are ignored or even stigmatized, with terrible consequences. "We are educating people out of their creativity," Robinson says. It's a message with deep resonance. Robinson's TEDTalk has been distributed widely around the Web since its release in June 2006. The most popular words framing blog posts on his talk? "Everyone should watch this."

A visionary cultural leader, Sir Ken led the British government's 1998 advisory committee on creative and cultural education, a massive inquiry into the significance of creativity in the educational system and the economy, and was knighted in 2003 for his achievements.

"Ken's vision and expertise is sought by public and commercial organizations throughout the world." BBC Radio 4

This is worth every second. It's easiest to download the audio and listen to that.

Audio download: http://ted.streamguys.net/ted_robinson_k_2006.mp3

Video download: http://ted.streamguys.net/ted_robinson_k_2006.zip

View online at: http://www.ted.com/tedtalks/tedtalksplayer.cfm?key=ken_robinson


"TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds. Since then its scope has become ever broader."

Hoo boy Mike, this is a good one.
I've made a living as a newspaper photographer for 30 years (It's almost as tough as trying to make a living as an artist.) For the past 7 years I've also taught basic photography at a small, local U. As I get older and it gets harder to climb over fences carrying a Domke bag, I've realized that I'd like to eventually teach full time. But I need that MFA. There is another nearby U whose MFA photo program has a pretty good reputation. I emailed their admissions person explaining my situation; BA social science, working news photog, part-time college teacher, 3 one man shows of my fine art stuff, half dozen more group shows, blah, blah, blah.
I asked if I could set up an appointment to meet some faculty and look at their work to see if it had any kind of connection to what I was doing.
Whoops! Big mistake. The admissions person frostily replied that generally, they wanted to see MY work first. Apparently I had insulted them.
Oh yeah, and they wanted me to take 2 semesters, full-time of undergrad art history, etc, even though I had a fair number of those classes while earning my BA.
The heck with it. It's easier to keep climbing fences.

"I asked if I could set up an appointment to meet some faculty and look at their work to see if it had any kind of connection to what I was doing."

I understand that impulse completely. I accomplished essentially the same thing, but without having to ask for it: the Corcoran Gallery had a show featuring the work of all of the photography faculty at that time. Great show; I still recall it pretty well. I don't think I ever would have decided to go to the Corcoran without having seen it. It gave me a good handle on what all of the teachers were about. I had actually decided who I wanted to take classes from before I'd ever met any of the teachers.

Oddly enough, one of the teachers whose work I *didn't* care for in that show, Joe Cameron, ended up influencing me more than many of the other teachers. I had more to learn from Joe than from some of the teachers whose work conformed better to my existing outlook at the time.

In fact, I still learn from Joe. Just this morning, he wrote to tell me about something he'd once seen written on a bathroom wall: "An artist can never fail; it is a success to be one."



D. Goldfarb- You don't digress. Serrano is a second rate photographic portraitist, at very best. Piss Christ however, is one of the most compelling and beautiful works of (religious) art of the 20th century. Period.
That article is right on, the masses simply react in knee jerk spasm to the name- which points to the dire need for some kind, any kind of relevant art education in this country, and not just for a select few.

Hell, I'll settle for plain ol' education...

..........went to art school had a ball and then got on with all sorts of other things........... still make art and do all sorts of things

Chris Crawford,

You have mistakenly assumed that all my UT PJ classmates went into the newspaper photography business. I am aware of three that are still photo editors/photographers, (and one that just retired) the other nine or ten (including myself when I was still a full time photographer)were all freelancers, started their own studios,got into portrait or wedding business (AND MADE MONEY) or did contract work for major clients and scrambled for jobs and bread/rent like most photographers do.

O.C. Garza

I really enjoyed reading this article, and having spent time in photography schools and hanging around artists of many stripes, many of the insights are confirmed by my own experience. I'm currently a full time photographer, and the job itself has squelched any passion or time for the personal work I used to do when I was "dabbling" (though I do still dabble very occasionally, but not because I have any designs on exhibitions or some sort of grand artistic statement in a future life...just because I enjoy taking pictures).

In response to the earlier discussion about whether the country is "hostile" to the arts, I would say the arts still aren't terribly well understood, but I have observed personally that there is more tolerance for people pursuing artistic professions than there was 10 to 15 years ago -- it may be a function of a greater number of baby boomers aging and leaving corporate life, it may be younger generations deciding not to blindly go down the path of business/law/medical careers.

I was suprised at how much support I got when I decided to leave corporate life to become a photographer. There would have been much more eye-rolling years ago. There are still too many myths and too much romanticization of the life of an artist/businessman, but that is all part of the odd dynamic people have with the arts and pursuing one's creative muse in general.

Your post added very thoughtfully to this discussion, though I find it odd that virtually no women have chosen to comment -- it seems to be mostly men at an advanced stage of their careers with a thoughtful if jaded perspective. I recently hired a woman who is an musician and photographer doing beautiful work, and has had a few small exhibitions, but is sort of making ends meet with a variety of part time jobs -- she tells me she is the envy of a few friends for having a job related to photography. Most of my colleagues locally (who are more split between the artistic and business side of photography) are women. It would be nice to hear their side.

This discussion reminds me of a pretty good joke:

Q: What's the difference between a fine art degree and a large pepperoni pizza?

A: A large pepperoni pizza will feed a family of four...


Dammit Mike you made me think.


"four years of art school is a great experience and will help your child immeasurably to mature as a person and prepare him to practice art for the rest of his life"

This is, of course, pure conjecture. After my degree, I told my tutor that I felt I'd matured as a person over the course of it. She pointed out that that growing up happens anyway.

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