The aim of education is the knowledge, not of facts, but of values. —William S. Burroughs
This is a first. I’ve had a long-standing rule for myself that only my own pictures would accompany the articles here. Today we are making an exception for the point of education. The picture at the top was taken by Gary Watson, New Year’s Eve, 2012. The photo above was taken by Polina Osherov in June of 2012. Sometimes we have to let someone else take the pictures. That’s an important lesson. See? Education. It’s everywhere.
Well, not everywhere, exactly. Specifically, you’ll not be finding photography education at the Brooks Institute in Ventura, California anymore. The school announced late last week that they are closing. Founded on the heels of WWII by Ernie Brooks, Sr., the Brooks school was unique during the 20th century in that it put as much emphasis on the non-camera-related aspects of photo education as it did the picture-taking portions. Graduates during that period, and there were a bunch of them, were grounded, knew how to handle themselves professionally, and, for the most part, took damn good pictures. I’ve run into Brooks grads several times over the past 30 years.
Visit the school’s website today, though, and on the front page is posted the announcement:
With deep regret, Brooks announces that the school will close on October 31, will continue to offer administrative and student services support.
On the Brooks Facebook page, both current students and incoming freshmen are pissed, and understandably so. Formal photography education isn’t what it once was.
This Specific Instance
For-profit schools have been taking a beating for a while now. Just ask anyone who has gone to or been affiliated with the Arts Institutes or ITT Tech, both of which have had to weather both investigations and fines from the federal government as well as numerous lawsuits from former students and faculties. Education and profit are not generally compatible in the first place. Throw in the temptation to defraud the federal government through the student loan program and bad things start happening quickly.
There is no indication that Brooks suffered from that particular problem, though. Instead, according to an article in the Ventura County Star, Brooks simply did not have enough students. Only 350 students were scheduled for this fall. In 2005, enrollment was 2,563. With or without federal financing issues, that’s a pretty big hit. While the article doesn’t go into particular detail, I assume that the school had already started laying off instructors and trimming administrative staff. The school had changed ownership multiple times over the past few years and its current owners, Green Planet, were unable, or perhaps unwilling, to turn those numbers around.
In all likelihood, Green Planet is going to be hit with a class action lawsuit for defrauding students. Brooks was not part of recognized accreditation systems, so credits earned at Brooks do not transfer to other California schools. With recent administration changes, the charge that administrators knew that closing was imminent is one that is difficult to deny. What was once a well-regarded photography school has met a very sad and possibly unnecessary end.
Who Needs Photography Education?
On one level, there is a very legitimate argument that photography schools are no longer necessary, if they ever were. Think of the great photographers we’ve known: Horst, Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, Herb Ritts. You’ll not find a photography degree among them. Avedon enrolled in Columbia University as a poetry major but dropped out. Herb went to Bard College and majored in economics. Neither Horst nor Helmut gave the matter any consideration. Even now, I’m not immediately aware of anyone I would consider an above-standard photographer who is running around with a photography degree tucked in their belt.
From its inception, photography has been one of those skills developed outside the classroom, most typically as an assistant for another photographer. There are too many exceptions to the rules, too many instances where one has to shoot on the fly, for classroom instruction to hold a great deal of real-world value. Those who do the best are those who learned on the job and developed their own style that allowed them to stand out from the rest.
Yet, even there, Brooks was different than the rest. Talk to the few remaining photographers who came out of the 1940s and they’ll tell you they picked up photography during the war, most often while serving in the Air Force. And who was teaching pilots and others to use photography during WWII? Ernie Brooks, Sr. After the war, his first ten students were vets who wanted to transfer what they had learned in combat into a marketable skill at home and Ernie Brooks was the right person to teach them. His education system was practical, rooted in reality. Only when the school stepped away from that model did their enrollment and reputation decline.
Arguing For Specialization
As cameras have developed, especially in this digital age where everyone thinks they’re a photographer, some would argue that specialization is the key to photographic success, at least from a commercial standpoint. While I don’t think that argument holds water universally, within certain locations, such as California, it has some validity. There, formal education might not be such a bad idea.
Brooks Institute included some courses that might be difficult to find just anywhere. For example, Brooks had an in-water diving photography course. First off, getting credit for underwater photography sounds incredibly cool. However, it’s not one of those things one just picks up randomly. One benefits from not only having a professional dive instructor, but one that understands the effects of increasing pressure on their photography equipment and other underwater dangers. Brooks also had degree courses in science and technological imaging and other specialized courses.
When dealing with elements that contain a high degree of difficulty, specialized equipment, or a significant amount of danger, finding a school that teaches those skills is probably a better bet than attempting to learn them while assisting someone else, or worse yet, on your own using YouTube videos. Highly specialized aspects of photography need a highly specialized mode of education. Unfortunately, those programs are expensive and a for-profit school is likely to find the investment not worth the return.
More Than A Shutter Click
I am not likely to ever get behind the notion that a formal photography education makes one a better photographer. What makes one a better photographer is getting out there and taking pictures. Take bad pictures at first. That’s okay. Lord knows I certainly wasted more than a few rolls of film trying to figure our the whole damn process of measuring light and angles and reflectivity. With practice, most of us get better (I’ve met a few exceptions). If one is dedicated to becoming a good photographer, one will become a good photographer.
The problem with formal photography education, however, is that not everyone who takes a class is truly dedicated. Let me reference back to last week’s article about not doing what you love. While this is true of many areas of study, photography is especially prone to the problem. Someone just loves taking pictures and their friends think they look professional. So, why not go to school and get a degree in what you love? If only what we think we love were the things we are actually good at doing. I know almost as many former photography students as I do former music students and in both groups, there is a high percentage of those who don’t remain in their field of study. I’m one of them (I have a music degree, remember?).
If there is an argument for being part of a formal photography education system it is the camaraderie found among fellow classmates. One of the biggest challenges to survival as a photographer is the ability to network with others. Photographers who attend schools with graphic arts departments, illustration departments, and more, build relationships across those lines that can serve them well in the real world. In fact, to some degree, the ability to build up a network of peers and professional relationships is at times more valuable than learning how to work a camera. Replicating that opportunity in the real world is almost impossible.
Learning To Change
I feel sympathetic toward the 350 Brooks Institute students who now have nowhere to learn. Many had traveled from other countries and diverse places across this one. Apartment leases were signed. Arrangements made. Money spent. They have every right to be angry with the school’s owners.
What we ultimately take away, though painfully, is that in photography as in everything else we must learn to change. What Ernie Brooks, Sr. built doesn’t fit well in the modern world of digital photography. Were he or his son still living, perhaps they could have guided the school through the change. But when the eyes are on the bottom line positive change is extremely rare. What’s good for the investors is rarely good for the school. Welcome to the real world, kids. Here’s your first lesson in adapting to sudden change.
The lesson should not be lost on the rest of us. I never thought I would need to understand computers in order to be a good photographer. If I remain in this profession another 30 years, I’m likely to have to adapt to more change, including virtual reality and 3D imaging. There is no way I can sit here and predict the severity of change that might be in our future, but I am sure it will change and we will still need to learn.
And the biggest change of all is still out there: letting go and letting someone else take the pictures. Sometimes learning is hard.