Lomo In-Depth: Do you need a photography degree?

Lomography is a network of working photographers and serious hobbyists. It gives equal space to both clusters; after all craft is the main attraction, whether it is Mark Andersen’s thoughtful framing or Hodachrome’s vibrant doubles. And when technique and skill are the topic, questions about the photographer’s training also crop up.

Credits: vinci84

The starting photographer debates between professional schooling and trial-by-fire practice. Either way is a challenge, in all the –wise areas: cost, time, and emotional investment. And yet, each has a lot of things to recommend it.

Universities have links to museums, galleries and photo agencies. Teachers may even hail from these partner institutions. For the student who aspires to be exhibited, this is a half-entrance to the small world that awards credibility to a body of work. Degree-based education fortifies the goal to become a professional, that is, someone who is able to earn a living from his art. Granted, not all graduates of photography programs will be as lucky as the widely published Martin Parr, an alumnus of Manchester Polytechnic’s photography department. But some students go beyond theory: They combine formal education with the habits of the unwavering enthusiast. Photography becomes a personal routine as much as it is an aspiration. They take pictures because it is a requirement of art, not just the institution where they happen to be enrolled.

Of course, even the hobbyist can be every bit as proficient as his schooled counterpart. This is how photography becomes a lifetime affair after all. It starts as a recreation, passed on from a relative or friend. Stephen Shore got his first darkroom set from an uncle and Stanley Kubrick his first camera from his father. Both photographers are termed self-taught but they had early experiences that are arguably as formative as a university degree. Shore was in his teens when he got in at the Factory. In this wildlife of artists (with Andy Warhol as king) he learned the decision-making part of photography. Kubrick had Helen O’Brian, head of photography at Look magazine, as an on-the-job trainer.

In both modes of study, the mentor’s presence is vital. It is possible to have mentors outside a photography program, although within the school, they can address questions more directly, closely, patiently. And as in any field worth spending years on, advice only works if the receiver has the drive to get the answers himself, should his mentors fall short.

Originally published at www.lomography.com.