Interview with Dr. Jennifer Pearson Yamashiro, Society for Photographic Education

Interview with Dr. Jennifer Pearson Yamashiro, Society for Photographic Education

Dr. Jennifer Pearson Yamashiro served on the board of the Society for Photographic Education (SPE) in the early 2000s . Dr. Yamashiro has also worked as curator of photography, art, and artifacts at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender & Reproduction from 1995 to 2000 and has taught courses in the history of photography.

Although not a professional photographer by trade, Dr. Yamasiro has curated exhibitions on contemporary art and the Kinsley Institute's collections, and presented research at professional conferences including SPE, the Nineteenth-Century Studies Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, and the World Pornography Conference. She also published a book in 2000, titled "Peek: Photographs from the Kinsey Institute".

She received a BA in English and Art History from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota in 1990, an MA in English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, an MA in Art History from Indiana University, Bloomington, and her Ph.D. in Art History from Indiana University.

Benefits of an Education in Photography   |   Majors and Program Specialties   |   Careers and Jobs in Photography   |   Testing and Assessment   |   Industry Trends   |   Closing Remarks

  Benefits of an Education in Photography

Why should someone pursue an education in photography? What are the benefits of a formal education in the field?

Photography is powerful and pervasive. It is not tucked away into one area of our lives. It is in our homes, our market place, our media, our museums and archives; photography is embedded in our culture. It is a rich and diverse field that offers many different ways to make a living. Education is never a mistake. It improves our lives by inviting opportunities and creating possibilities. A formal education in photography provides students with conceptual and artistic philosophy, necessary technical information, and historical knowledge and understanding. A strong photographic education should also introduce a range of practical experience in the darkroom, studio, digital lab, and working with people.

What will students get out of an education? What will they learn in school that they couldn't learn on their own?

Students come away with different knowledge and experience depending on their own interests and their professors' interests. An education should teach students to ask questions and where to look for logical and convincing answers. Essentially, a strong education enables students to think critically and understand the complexity of ideas, communication, and the production and interpretation of meaning. College encourages students to consider these important issues.

What kinds of careers will a formal education prepare them for?

Today, most photography programs in four-year colleges and universities are in the school of fine arts and emphasize the medium's artistic capacity. They were once part of the school of journalism or communication. Despite the location of the photography program, exposure to techniques, processes, and formal considerations, combined with an analysis of meaning, are the foundation for making strong visual images for gallery walls, books, magazines, newspapers, and web sites.

Technical school prepares students for commercial photography work, whether it be establishing a portrait studio or doing freelance work for magazines. Almost every business uses photography in some way--so the possibilities for employment in this area are incredibly diverse.


Majors and Program Specialties

What should prospective students look for when evaluating and comparing photography programs at different schools?

Students need to consider their goals to find the learning environment that will be the most stimulating and productive for them. It is a good idea to go beyond a reputation of a school and to learn more about a particular program and the faculty. Would the student thrive in a program that has a strongly structured curriculum or one that allows for independence? What is the procedure for joining the program? Is there a portfolio review or open enrollment? What kind of facilities does the program have? What sort of access do students have after hours? How many faculty members are there? What sort of work do they do (subject and media)?

What are the most popular photography specialties?

In fine art photography programs, students usually experiment with the range of traditional subjects, such as landscape, the human form and portraiture, and still-lifes. Photography lends itself well to experimentation in mixed media projects as well.

Photography specialties in the commercial world can make viable subject matter out of anything for which there is a market. A client may want to promote a product or a service through photography, and the client may be very specific or, on the other hand, vague about the best material to convey the idea.

Are there different kinds of programs for portrait photography and fine art photography?

Yes. Students can gain the technical understanding that is required to become a studio portrait photographer at many technical schools. An education at either an art school or a liberal arts university seems more geared toward fine art photography. There are also a few programs that specialize in photojournalism.

Can you compare some of the pros and cons of pursuing a technical school education in photography, as opposed to a fine arts degree?

Making good photographs requires a wide range of skills, whether the photographer is classified as professional/commercial or fine artist. However, a technical education seems to emphasize technical skills and business strategies whereas a fine art education focuses more on the process of making art, conceptual considerations, and aesthetics. Both demand that photographer be able to communicate through pictorial means, which is no small task, and creativity. However, commercial photographers have to be primarily concerned with the clients tastes and desires. Fine art photographers have the luxury of concentrating on their ideas and the expression of those ideas through the medium of photography. In general, commercial photography has the potential of being far more lucrative than fine art photography. Fine art photographers have more freedom in expressing their ideas.

When is it a good idea to pursue a graduate degree in photography?

A Master of Fine Arts (MFA) is the license required to hunt for a teaching job at the college level. A graduate education in the arts is a good idea for anyone interested in being an artist. A master's degree (MA) or a PhD enables a person to pursue a high-level professional position in the arts. Both teaching at the college level and careers as curators and art administrators have become competitive and a graduate degree is usually a requirement.


Careers and Jobs

What can you tell us about the rewards and difficulties of photography as a profession?

Photography is a very rewarding profession since it allows us to convey and interpret ideas through pictures. This visual literacy is fundamental to comprehending the cultural impact on shaping and understanding the meaning of what we see in photographic representations.

Regarding the difficulties, it's competitive, the materials and equipment are expensive, and it's hard work. It requires technical expertise, creative thinking, and interpersonal skills. If you want your work to be seen (or purchased) you have to be able to work well with people in numerous situations: getting permissions to photograph, working with models, meeting gallery representatives or potential clients. Commercial photographers also have to manage their production of visual images as a business, complete with an accounting system, and be effective in setting prices, collecting payment, and building a clientele. Many fine art photographers have to balance their artistic production with teaching in addition to promoting themselves in the art world.

What are the professional options of a photography graduate?

MFAs used to be for those who wanted to pursue a career in teaching at the college level. This degree, along with MAs and PhDs, is widely respected. It is also a terminal degree, meaning that it is the highest degree a student can earn. Teaching jobs are not as plentiful as they were in the 1960s when colleges and universities were developing and expanding their art departments. This means that graduates have found alternative career paths, like running galleries, participating in arts advocacy, opening studios, frame shops and other related businesses, etc.

How do art colleges help students find jobs?

Individual schools probably handle career placement differently, though most institutions have a career placement office to assist graduating students in their search for a job. Certain programs and faculty may have relationships with institutions or companies. If this is a primary concern, I would recommend contacting each of the institutions a student is considering attending.

What can students do while attending school that will increase their chances of a good job?

It's simple. Do well in school and expand your experience outside of the classroom, if possible. Employers are looking for mature and responsible graduates with a good grade point average, excellent recommendations, and well-rounded education. This means that going to classes, doing assignments, participating in classes, respecting faculty, learning how to use available resources, and meeting the expectations set forth by each professor is extremely important. Getting experience outside of the classroom is also a good idea if it does not interfere with a student's ability to excel academically. Students can look for a part-time job, internship, apprenticeship, or extra-curricular activities related to photography. Any of these steps will enhance the formal academic experience and show commitment. Another way to increase your experience is to conceive of and execute a cohesive photographic project that is not an assignment. Determine a point of interest and pursue it on your own. Plan to photograph something on a family trip, for instance. This will demonstrate initiative as well as the temperament and motivation to work independently as an artist.


Testing and Assessment

How can prospective students assess whether this is the right field for them?

As with any career choice, students need to feel committed to it and love at least a majority of the activities it entails. Commitment and passion are requirements not just for success in a field, but for happiness, which is the most important consideration in making a life decision.

Are there any tests that you know of by which one can gauge his/her own ability?

The reactions of others should provide some sort of gauge by which to determine the power of an artist's images. How do your teachers react? Your peers? Has your work ever been accepted for exhibition or publication?

How important is raw talent, and how much can be developed in school?

The ratio between talent and education can fluctuate, but they go hand-in-hand. Some talent is needed, but without the commitment and dedication to learning and working, success isn't guaranteed. One of the most important lessons from art courses is how to respond to criticism. Could the work be better?


Industry Trends

What are some important trends in the field of photography today? What factors are shaping the profession?

"The profession" is expansive and includes photographers working in the documentary mode, photojournalism, fine arts, and commercial world. Digital imaging is an important new component of photography today and may be involved in any branch of the profession. The internet is also impacting the field of photography, as it is affecting a wide range of professions.

Is photography a hot field to be going into right now? What does your crystal ball tell you about the field 10-20 years from now?

Definitely! Photography is a hot field right now and will continue to expand with digital media. More traditional media, such as color photography and silver-based photography, will continue to be important in the field.


Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in photography?

I didn't discover photography as a subject for art historical consideration until my first year of graduate school. One course sparked this interest and I am indebted to Professor Sarah Burns for teaching the history of photography at Indiana University. None of my peers in the art history graduate program shared this interest and I felt alone until I began attending the graduate seminar for students in photography. This opened a whole new world for me and bridged a gap between imagemakers and historians that was represented even in the way the department of art is structured at my alma mater. I discovered how important it was to find a community with shared interests. My community expanded when I discovered the Society for Photographic Education, a wonderful organization comprised mainly of photographers but also by curators, writers, and other professionals in the arts.

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