You wouldn’t believe the number of weird looks I get when I tell people that I am getting my four-year degree in photography. People at home who knew me as a math student think it’s a massive departure; people at my university don’t even realize that that is a thing. After all, why would you pay out of state tuition to a university for something as simple as photography?

I’ve been asked the equivalent of that more than once. I even thought that for a while during high school; I planned to just start my own business and hope for the best. But that would never have worked, and I think I knew it.

So eventually, I convinced my parents to let me get my four-year degree in the one thing that I was more passionate about than anything else – making photographs. I am now a second-year student at Montana State University getting my BA in Film and Photography, following the photography option.

It was the best decision I ever made, and I’m here to tell you why.

(Two photos from a project I did on student artists last year. Shot on a Mamiya 6 and 75mm f/4.5; with a off camera flash)

Technique

I was lucky enough to take a film photography class in high school. I shot and processed my own film, I printed in the darkroom, but I had only scratched the surface; and I had no idea how much I was missing out on.

I don’t know anything and I love it.

Getting to college, I was thrown into a world of new techniques, ideas, and practices. From fiber-based paper, to split filter printing, to medium and large formats; my college-level classes allowed me to explore things that I never would’ve been able to in high school or if I had never gone to college for photography.

I was so quick to assume I knew everything, especially when I learned another thing and was suddenly more knowledgeable than most of my peers.

Kodak Ektar 100 (expired) - Canon 1V and 35mm f/1.4 lens.
Kodak Ektar 100 (expired) – Canon 1V and 35mm f/1.4 lens.

Now, after being here for nearly two years, I’ve learned that I don’t know anything and I don’t say that as a bad thing! I don’t know anything and I love it. Every day presents a new challenge, a new hurdle with my photography. Every hurdle teaches me a little bit more, which in turn makes me a better visual communicator.

I assumed that every photography program would be four years of theory lectures and critique of long-dead artists. That could not have been further from the truth. Along with physical techniques relating to shooting, processing, and printing; I’ve also had the opportunity to learn about photographers and artists who have shaped my work more than any I knew about before them.

I have learned how to look critically at a single piece or body of work and know what makes it successful. Probably the biggest thing that I have learned was how to form a conceptual body of work.


How I ever thought I could be a photographer without knowing how to critique, form a body of work, and work with other artists; I’ll never know.

Equipment

Before I got to college, I thought of medium and large format as some mystical legends of yore that only the richest and most successful got to use now. I’m not here to brag about my university’s photo program (however amazing it is); but rather to explain that while gear isn’t everything, it sure can help.

There are so many techniques that I would never be able to try if it wasn’t for the plethora of gear that is available to me at school. Not every school will be this way, I acknowledge that I’m lucky, but I can say with fair certainty that every school will have at least one piece of equipment that allows a technique that you couldn’t try before.

8x10 pinhole on ILFORD MGIV RC paper.
8×10 pinhole on ILFORD MGIV RC paper.

This is when equipment starts to matter. I had never dreamed I would shoot large format film, and now it’s one of my favorite formats to shoot with. This is probably the best example I have of this idea of technique being linked to gear. Because of my love of large format, I have also become more knowledgeable and skilled about manipulation of focus, exposure, and other concepts that get so simplified in an SLR type body.

Don’t get me wrong, I love that simplification most of the time, but when I need to, I now know how to break the rules, manipulate the parameters, and create the image that I want to create.

What do I do with this?

Finally, the issue that most makes me the most grateful that I made the decision I did.

I had no idea what I wanted to do. When I got to college I had my whole life planned out. I was going to be a wedding photographer in a city somewhere. Now, I want to live in a small college town somewhere and teach photography at the university.

I don’t think that my two goals could be any more different, and the thing that changed my mind was studying photography at a top tier university.

Prints in progress
Prints in progress

Looking at photography as an art form as well as a science, seeing how happy my peers and I are, doing what we love; has changed my life forever. I have met some of my best friends, and developed mentorships that I hope will continue throughout my career.

I had no idea what I wanted to do; and I truly believe that I would have never discovered what I wanted to do if I hadn’t first been a photography student.

~ Charlie

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Charlie, I’ve been in the photography trenches for a long time. The last decade + have been an extra tough battle. Hearing your voice of enthusiasm gives me encouragement to continue the fight. I love film but I ultimately love images(prints)that hold a moment for future generations(however this is done). Keep pressing in to learn and follow your heart when that inner voice speaks to you about photographing a particular subject. Onward and upward. I agree with each reply. Go Charlie!

  2. Right on! I did my graduate studies in mathematics. People often have a hard time seeing the connection in my case as well. Photography’s a great blend of the technical and the abstract.

  3. Charlie, I can’t tell you how much I LOVE this article. I’m so happy for you that you got the chance to do this & are clearly enjoying the experience of a lifetime. What a gift. You keep on doing what you’re doing and have a blast! ️

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