Interview with Reed Estabrook, San Jose State University, Photography Program

Interview with Reed Estabrook, San Jose State University, Photography Program
Reed Estabrook is a faculty member and former Coordinator of Photography at the San Jose State University, School of Art and Design. He holds a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and an MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

In this interview, he shares his insights on photography education, based on more than 30 years of experience in the academic field.

Photography Education   |   Accreditation and Credentials   |   Applying   |   Financial Aid   |   History and Background   |   International Students   |   Closing Remarks


Photography Education

How important are academic degrees to professional photographers?

While what counts most in any visual field is the work itself, usually the best way to develop that work is to pursue a course of study in some form of institution coupled with real world photographic experience. However, to be successful in this world without a degree is a near impossibility. That does not mean that you have to have a degree specifically in the field you wish to pursue. There are any number of cases where a student has earned a BA or BS in another field and discovered toward the end of that program that they wished to be involved in photography. In such a case, the most efficient way to develop the necessary skills in photography may well be to study only the photography and art components of a second Bachelor's degree and then, depending on one's objectives, "assist" a working professional, pursue graduate studies, or both.

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

There are many complex issues having to do with objective, resources, location, and personal desires. Ranked roughly in order of general importance:

  1. Comprehensive Program. While a young person may have an idea that they wish to pursue a career in Fine Art Photography they should pick a school that will at least give them the opportunity to study with a variety of people, providing exposure to a broad range of options and skill sets within the field. Personally, I think that all undergraduate programs should REQUIRE that kind of diverse experience.
  2. Location. Often, this is dictated by other factors in life, but it is an exceedingly important issue. IF there is the opportunity for choice of location, I argue very strongly for an urban environment. Art is largely an urban activity and photography, commercial or otherwise, is no different. Cities provide employment opportunities, art and visual communities beyond the school, and, generally, a more visually-aware environment.
  3. Value for money. Quite simply, what do I get for what I spend and how long will it take to pay off the debt? Education loans are wonderful, but they are debts and, ultimately, you've got to come to terms with the cost factor. With photography, you also have the expenses of the supplies and equipment. If you are considering a school, take it for a test drive. Visit the classes, talk to the students and faculty, and find out what equipment and workspaces are available as part of the course. How well maintained is the equipment? And, today, there's the all important question: "How are they addressing the digital revolution that is so changing the photographic environment".
  4. Intangible personal preferences. After a serious and comprehensive investigation of the choices, if one discovers that institution X is one's clear "gut" preference but school Y seems better for some tangible reasons, choose X. Intuition is just very complex thought of which you can't backtrack the logic, and invariably, if you really like the feel of a place, you'll probably be more successful there.

What are the most popular photography specialties?

I really don't know, beyond the digital genre. I know that at SJSU, certain classes are sought after, but often that is as much or more a choice of studying with a certain faculty member than pursuing a specific topic of study. One of the great advantages of a "big" program is that one can study with a variety of different people. As students progress through a program, they tend to identify certain faculty of particular interest to them and tend to take their advanced courses with those faculty whenever possible.

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

This is a very complex question which has a lot to do with what preparation one has. In VERY GENERAL TERMS, I think of graduate studies in photo as relevant only to people interested in Fine Art. There are probably graduate programs with emphases in commercial fields, but beyond an undergraduate degree with very sound and diverse courses in photography, real world experience is the best teacher for commercial fields.


Accreditation and Credentials

What does accreditation mean and why is it important? What are the major accrediting bodies for the visual arts? Are there any specific for Photography schools and programs?

I've got 30+ years of involvement with accredited schools, so I'm hardly neutral on this issue. Accreditation means that a school has passed a comprehensive review, not really any different than a student passing a comprehensive set of tests for graduate school or the like. There are a number of ways schools get around the word "accreditation," like accrediting themselves or creating an organization with a different name that accredits them. It is my understanding that there is only one, or perhaps one dominant accreditation body for schools of art and design, called the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. This body reviews the faculty, curriculum, resources, etc. for all member schools each decade. Having done some of the preparation for several NASAD reviews, I can attest that it is a comprehensive review. While these reviews serve a number of purposes within an institution, its principle function is to assure a student that they are receiving a reasonably well-designed and developed education.

How should prospective students evaluate different accreditations and credentials? i.e. what makes one accreditation/credential better than the next?

Choosing the school that has a comprehensive program, earns you a degree, and "feels right" seems to me the first issue. If there is a doubt about the accreditation issue, then research that further.

How important are the credentials of faculty at any given photography? How can prospective students evaluate the faculty?

Faculty credentials are very important. They show you how respected the faculty is within the field. What is the faculty's professional experience? Where did they earn their degrees? Who are their clients or where do they exhibit? In what public collections is their work found? These are important questions and a real measure of the quality of the experience the student is likely to get.



How difficult is it to get into a good photography program?

It depends on what you mean by a good program. Some universities have a largely open enrollment system, while "professional" schools might have a very strict admissions policy. I do think that with a few notable exceptions, it is easier to get in than one might expect. And remember that some schools have a very real financial reason to get you in.

What do prospective students need to do when applying to photography school? Who do they contact? Can you walk us through the process?

This varies from school to school, but each will have a stated admissions policy and procedure in their catalogue. Start there.

However, there is one thing I think you must do as an applicant for a graduate program, and often for an undergraduate program: VISIT the school and ask questions. If you live near a school, then it should be easy for you to visit, so call the office and ask how to do so. If you apply to the school and you live down the road, the admissions people, often the faculty, are going to wonder why somebody applied to that school without visiting first. At least I do, and failing to visit when it's easy counts against them when considering the intangibles like maturity and ability to negotiate the world.

Is there some way to consolidate the application process for multiple schools, or is it different for every college?

Not that I am aware of. For graduate admission, one almost always has to present slides. And at least initially they are not viewed with a projector. Make it easy for yourself by making it easy for the faculty to see your work. I'd send a few 6x7 or 4x5 transparences, in addition to the slides and/or CD. And never send a CD of your work without a few easily-seen visuals, such as the transparences.

How important are portfolios? What advice can you offer to prospective photography students with regard to making a killer portfolio?

I've not dealt with portfolios in any formal way for so long that I have nothing to offer here other than to recommend making the portfolio easy to be handled and viewed.


Financial Aid

What options do incoming students (grad and undergrad) have for funding their education?

I've no real knowledge here. I know this part of it only through my own son's educational loan experience. There are a lot of different sources for funding and education from state grants to private foundations. I do know that there are professional folks who will help you with this process for not a huge fee.

Contact the financial aid office.Entering students need to get advice specific to the institution through the financial aid office. In large public universities, that office can be a very busy place with limited staff time per student. I would think that in such a case a professional advisor in the field of education funding might well be worth the fee.


History and Background

Who have been some of the groundbreaking figures in the field?

That has to be a personal choice because there are so many. We could list the agreed upon major figures - Steglitz, Lange, Evan, Frank, Arbus are a few that come to mind immediately but there is so much remarkable work I don't know how I would limit it to "some". Artists whose works I've been particularly interested in on a personal level as of late are James Casebere and Greg Crewsdon

Why is photography an important profession today?

In our mediated culture, "IMAGES" are the method by which we given information about this ever more complex world and photography is the foundational imaging system. Understanding HOW we are informed seems to me as important as the information itself.

What have been some of the more recent groundbreaking advancements? What do you see as the most exciting technological advancements on the horizon?

Clearly, that is the shift to the digital environment and all that this holds "professionally" and culturally. From a professional perspective, it is another big load of technical material to master. From an academic perspective, it presents a particularly difficult situation because we have to support both chemical and digital technologies simultaneously with labs and training. From a cultural perspective, the whole issue of veracity will again become an issue. It didn't take a long time for the photograph to earn a place in our culture as a conveyor of truth.

Over the past several decades, we have called into question the nature of that truth - but we still have, collectively speaking, a kind of absolute belief in the photo's veracity. I think one of the aspects of the digital age we are entering into is that the notion of the truth of the will be called more and more into question. Culturally speaking, we are going to be "media challenged," and we're going to have to learn to become better readers of the messages behind images.


International Students

How can prospective students from other countries get accepted at schools in the states?

I have to think that this is specific to each school. At San Jose State there is no "photo admission" procedure for an undergraduate degree at this time. A student needs to first get into the "University". Once in, she or he can take any basic courses and assuming they perform well, they work their way to a BA degree. There is a separate portfolio review for admission to the BFA degree program, which occurs roughly two to three semesters before the planned graduation date.

How can students in the states get to study abroad?

There are lots of programs both within university structures and without. A very important distinction between programs is whether you are an American studying with American Profs. in a foreign country versus an "exchange" wherein you trade places with a student in a foreign country and function as a student of that country. At San Jose State, I know of a program in Bath, England which uses SJSU personnel as the faculty there - basically another SJSU campus. The School of Art and Design has a long established exchange program with Sheffield Hallum University in Sheffield England and the University as a whole has a relationship with a school in Florence, Italy.

What are the benefits of studying abroad? What percentage of photography students do so?

A decreasing number of our students study abroad, in part because so many of our students are "new" Americans or "international" students. I spent a year in England at Sheffield Hallam University and it was a truly remarkable and very challenging experience. I can't recommend it more highly for the student who has some clear sense of where they are going professionally and therefore, educationally. One challenge our students have is that our facilities and program are so large and comprehensive (for a University based program), few other places they can study at as an "exchange" student offer comparable programs or facilities.

Are there special considerations for financial aid?

My understanding is limited in this area but I do believe that a student on "a-year-abroad" or "exchange" program is eligible for the same types of financial aide as any other student.

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about education in the field of photography that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in the profession?

Picking a school is an incredibly important life choice and often we pick it based upon the least valid of reasons. You're only going to "buy" an education once. Research it carefully, get good (professional) advise even if it costs a bit, and ultimately, especially if you are going out of state to school, GO VISIT the school while it is in session! A summer trip only tells you virtually nothing of importance. Sit in on several classes, Spend a few days on campus. Be sure the school and program is up to your needs and standards.

Related Articles