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Fine Art Photography: Degree/MFA "required"?

John Ryan

New member
Hey guys,

Just wanted to ask those in the fine art business: has having, or not having a degree affected your sales, marketing, and opportunities in any way? More specifically, I'm referring to an MFA in fine art photography. I come from a filmmaking background, and have been shooting photographs for a few years now. I'm fully aware that college is in no way a requirement for most careers within the industry. That said, I'm starting to lean towards fine art photography, and have read in a few places that not having an MFA can be problematic for a photographer when it comes to getting into certain galleries etc - especially during the initial stages. Yes, yes, there's a whole host of artists who have succeeded in this field without their piece of paper, but is "elitism" and "art snobbery" still common out there?

I understand that doing an MFA would be beneficial in various artistic ways, but to be honest, it's something I wasn't even considering before.

Simply put, for reasons aforementioned, I'd like to know if not having an MFA could hinder an aspiring fine art photographer further down the line.

Any help or advice much appreciated,
J
 

Tracy Lebenzon

New member
I don’t have a direct answer. Most photography is about the product. If you desire to teach or be an employee in an institution that employs MFAs, having said diploma is required. But you don't need a degree to produce great photos.

As regards education, follow your passions and make the most of the opportunity. If you do, you will probably only occasionally regret doing so down the line, as opposed to putting yourself through the considerable effort that goes into a degree program based on a perception of obligation. In that case some regret it….. unless....unless....it ends up paying a lot and feeding one's other psychological needs.
 

Asher Kelman

OPF Owner/Editor-in-Chief
Hey guys,

Just wanted to ask those in the fine art business: has having, or not having a degree affected your sales, marketing, and opportunities in any way? More specifically, I'm referring to an MFA in fine art photography. I come from a filmmaking background, and have been shooting photographs for a few years now.
John,

I'm no expert on getting work into galleries. I do know that being in a premier photography program and building a great portfolio can land one jobs as assistance to well established commercial photographers. From that point one can go on one's own.

Fine art is different. Somehow your work must appear to the galleries as so worthy in quality and esthetics and production reliability, that they will venture to market your work to their hard-earned list of real buyers and collectors. Art galleries don't necessarily make their big money on walk-in clients. It's the folk who trust their judgement in providing art for them that can be the biggest resource they have.

Any successful gallery already has a core of proven artists they promote and maintain a market for. So breaking in is very hard. Also there may be connections between galleries and museums that can be incestuous, further limiting an outsider's access. Despite these barriers, a lot of photographers, self trained or otherwise, do end up being represented, at first in the small galleries, gradually building up a following and reputation.

There's a long list of reputable MFA programs and if they succeed in getting graduates prepared for curatorial or commercial work, that's great. Still, I'd guess that the MFA trained talented artist might have an advantage over a equally gifted outsider.

Some of the best paths might be schools that at least produce competent artisans! Entrance to the best such institutions has a high barrier! Consider this, try just getting info, on perhaps, the most prestigious program in S. California, Art Center College of Design, Pasadena. They don't even describe their graduate programs in detail. You have to apply! It seems that they expect you to know the programs and what you will get out of them, years beforehand.

For just the bachelor's degree, the prospective student is likely to already have an impressive portfolio. So there's a demanding path of preparation to be considered, never mind actually accepted. To get a feeling, read this on the programs open to the general public:

"Serving as a gateway to our degree programs, Art Center’s Public Programs provide access to exceptional instruction, facilities and networking opportunities. Headquartered at South Campus but holding classes at both, these programs feature a varied and evolving curriculum led by a dedicated faculty of professional artists and top design practitioners, many of which are Art Center alumni.
Art Center at Night (ACN), our part-time continuing studies program, is where many students first explore the educational opportunities offered at the College, taking courses and creating projects helping them build their portfolios for admission. ACN is also for art and design professionals as well as those new to the creative process. ACN offers a wide range of challenging, studio-based and academic classes taught by many of the same faculty teaching in our degree programs.
Many degree students begin their Art Center journey through Saturday High, our program for high school students in grades 9 through 12. Saturday High students discover their creative voices and explore a rich art and design curriculum in a college environment. These courses mirror the diverse disciplines of the College and reflect Art Center’s founding educational philosophy."

Still, the school does not pretend to carve out careers for students as artists, but rather expose them to "the vocabulary of seeing" and opportunities for more practical careers in industry. MFA programs in other colleges might have more emphasis in artistic photography and be able to connect exceptional students with opportunities to exposure to galleries and museums.

So, as far as photography is concerned, if one can be satisfied with a career as a commercial photographer, education at a college like The Art Center is a great investment. However, few folk will have the portfolio to be accepted in the first place. If one wants to be a "fine art photographer", then a MFA might help but likely as not, most will not make it in the end earning a living just doing "fine art photography". They will often have some other job to put bread on the table.

If I was going to advise my offspring, I'd suggest they visit the campuses of some MFA programs and seek out current students and see if a few will agree to sit down over coffee and share what they know. Do they have programs where there's exposure to galleries, curators, collectors or museums? What expectations do they have? I'd see no harm in investing 2 years to get that MF if what's offered seems to provide some advantage in work production, discipline and knowledge of the field.

To do this, however, I'd also want to get some feedback from faculty, other photographers and galleries on the student's work to date. How such critique is internalized is very much fraught with danger. If you believe you are talented enough and can afford the investment, the education will be beneficial to you as a person, no matter what you do. There's something to be said for giving yourself the extra education to know the field you will be competing in.

Asher
 
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