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Early College Level Programs in Photography

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With the advent of any new technology and its requisite new tools, inventors themselves tend to provide the first instructions. Soon after the announcement of the daguerreotype process to the French Academy of Sciences in 1839, L. J. Mandé Daguerre published detailed instructions for each camera he sold. Forty-five days after the first public demonstration of Daguerre’s invention, formal instruction in picture making was offered at the Stuyvesant Institute of New York City. By 1856, the University of London was offering a course in photographic chemistry. Shortly following were courses in Berlin, Dresden, and Munich all introduced between 1863 and 1888. The speed at which the news traveled and courses were formed was indicative of the great interest in this new process.

The California College of Photography at Palo Alto, California, in the early 1900s was one of the earliest schools in the United States dedicated to training professional photographers. On the east coast, Clarence H. White began teaching photography at Teacher’s College at Columbia University in New York City in 1906. In 1914 he opened the Clarence H. White School of Photography, and taught at both schools concurrently. White was associated with the Photo-Secession movement endorsing a revolt against the pseudo-impressionistic in photography on the grounds that photography must depend on its own unique capabilities rather than following the lead of painting.

Walter Gropius founded The Bauhaus in Weimer, Germany, in 1919. The program promoted the concepts of experiential learning, sound craft skills, and breaking down barriers between “fine art” and craft. Though not a photographic school, the students were encouraged to use photography in design, applied technology, and experimentation. Regular courses in photography were started in 1929. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian painter, photographer, and graphic designer taught a foundation course starting in 1923 and, later, founded the New Bauhaus in Chicago after activities at the Bauhaus in Germany aroused the suspicions of reactionary political forces that brought about its closing in 1933. Moholy-Nagy was the first photographer to become a principle motivating force behind an American institution of higher learning believing that, “the illiterate of the future will be the person ignorant of the use of the camera as well as the pen.” Lacking financial support from the founding organization, The New Bauhaus closed in 1938 but was opened again in another location in 1939 as the Chicago School of Design. Its final name change came in 1944 as the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology. It has produced numerous graduates, many who became photography professors in the expanding programs across the county.

Henry Holmes Smith was hired to teach the first photography course at the New Bauhaus in 1937. Later, Smith taught the first History of Photography course for a fine art department at Indiana University at Bloomington in 1947. He started a small graduate program in 1952 that influenced the future of photographic education through graduates like Jack Welpott, Jerry Uelsmann, Betty Hahn, Robert Fichter, and Van Deren Coke, who became important photographic artists and teachers themselves. For all his success, however, Smith felt that the administration did not hold photography in high esteem, causing problems in program development. Smith was a one-man department until Reginald Heron was hired in 1970.

Not far away, at Ohio University, a camera club’s enthusiasm was so contagious that a course in photography was added to the curriculum of the College of Fine Arts. Ohio University was the first university to offer both a bachelor’s and masters’ degree in photography inaugurated in 1943 and 1946, respectively. This program was also the first to combine photography with other disciplines such as art history and design.

The San Francisco School of Fine Arts had courses conducted by Ansel Adams, Minor White, and others since 1945. Though not a degree granting school, the influence of the courses was significant. In addition, painters Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko taught there during the same era. The school was “aided by the mature students just out of the armed forces and the support of the G.I. Bill, there was undeniably a most stimulating assembly of teachers and students at this West Coast school during the decade after the end of World War II,” according to Van Deren Coke’s article.

Rochester Institute of Technology (then the Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute; RAMI) offered evening courses in photography as early as 1902. Eastman Kodak Company’s Director of Training and Personnel, Mr. Earl Billings, founded the School of Photography at RAMI as a two-year work-study program in 1930. The first class consisted of twenty-four students. The first two teachers, Frederick F. Brehm and C. B. Neblette were reassigned from Eastman Kodak to the school on a part-time basis. The program changed in 1936 due to high enrollment numbers (30-40 per class) and the industry’s inability to immediately absorb all the graduates. As a response, a three-year program was introduced with the first year being full time and the second two years being work-study. A student could opt for two full time years, eliminating the work experience.

By 1959 there were 400 students in the School of Photography earning a bachelor of science degree. A bachelor of fine arts degree was added in 1960 and a master of fine arts degree was first offered in 1969. By 1979 over 1000 students were enrolled in the school’s comprehensive selection of photographic programs.

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