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National Influence on Photographic Education

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Some photographers who learned their skills in this era actually attribute the medium’s popularity to Michelangelo Anto-nioni’s 1966 film entitled Blow Up . The movie chronicles a hip young professional photographer’s attempt to solve a murder mystery detected through the repeated enlargement of one of his photographs. Though undeniably influential to young males in the 1960s, the movie is just one of many examples of the medium’s appeal to popular culture. Other influences came from the popular press and the expanding number of galleries featuring photographic exhibits.

Though it may seem contradictory to photography’s popularity, it was also a time when classic picture magazines like LIFE and Look were being supplanted by television images as a source of news. What the demise of these magazines in the early 1970s caused, however, was a release for photography from its role as objective witness. Just few years later, a surprising surge in new magazine production including Smithsonian, Quest , and Geo featured photography as beautifully crafted still images. The rising cost of television advertising prompted many firms to return to print-based mediums, but the loss of the image’s utilitarian function allowed photographic illustrations to be appreciated for their artistic merit.

An expanding art market for photographic prints was in part a function of the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 1965. Bruce Davidson received the first photography grant in 1968 for his work East 100th Street , a documentary project focused on a New York City neighborhood. At the same time, the Guggenheim Fellowships in photography were awarded at an increased pace of 181 fellowships during the 19 years between 1966 and 1985, up from 39 fellowships awarded during the prior 19 years.

Time-Life issued their successful Library of Photography venture in 1972. Seventeen beautifully printed volumes were published about the history and art of photography. They were considered collector’s items by serious amateur photographers including those bound for college studies in photography. In the same decade major magazines including Newsweek, Esquire , and Rolling Stone did cover stories devoted to photography. Photography was modern, artistic, and hip. Galleries were showing photographs at an increasing rate, particularly in New York City where in 1968 no less than 24 photographic exhibits were on view during a one-month period. An article reproduced in the journal Image in 1971 reports on a visit to Lee Witkin’s Gallery in New York City where sales of photographs were “booming even with price tags from fifty to one hundred and fifty dollars per print!”

Cultural critic, Susan Sontag published a series of essays on photography in the New York Review of Books starting in 1973. The series was critical of the medium but served to legitimize photography as a subject worthy of consideration. The essays were later revised and published as a book, On Photography , in 1977. In this book Sontag examines aesthetic and moral problems raised by the authority of the photographed image in everyday life. The book considers the relation of photography to art, to conscience, and to knowledge.

The literary world applauded the book and Davis considered its publication a landmark event in the cultural history of photography. “Sontag changed the way the medium was perceived in at least two important ways: she confirmed its intellectual worth and expanded its critical audience.”

While photography was welcomed into the art world, academia was showing an interdisciplinary interest in it. In 1975, Wellesley College sponsored a series of lectures around the theme Photography Within the Humanities featuring lectures by Susan Sontag, John Szarkowski, Robert Frank, W. Eugene Smith, Irving Penn, and Paul S. Taylor. Author Keith Davis states “many academic disciplines—including art history, American Studies, English, anthropology, and philosophy—suddenly took an interest in the photographic image.”

Another factor increasing enrollment in colleges across the nation is that the “photography boom” was preceded by the Baby Boom. Returning WWII veterans fathered a population explosion that resulted in 76 million births necessitating major expansion of housing, schools, and services nationwide. At the same time the Servicemen’s Re-Adjustment Act (GI Bill) was financing the college education of returning military personnel increasing the perception of the necessity of a college education. The expectation of a college education placed on the Baby Boom generation combined with the possibility of studying something as “fun” and current as photography caused enrollments to soar in the new photographic departments.

The confluence of the amplified demographics of college-aged individuals, the critical and cultural acceptance of photography as an art form, and the increased expectation for the attainment of higher education combined to escalate the enrollment in photography departments across the country.

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