What I said at today’s graduation ceremony
For those of you who weren’t there, or even if you were and simply just want something to hold against me, here is what I said at Graduation today.
I somehow skipped an entire page as I was reading this, so the setup along with a few good lines were missed. I am publishing it here in its entirety. And Craig didn’t post anything negative about his classmates on Facebook, by the way. They were among the nicest, tightest groups of people I’ve ever had the privilege of teaching. It was meant to be a joke and would have been funny in person, but it sounds a little snarky presented like this.
Our Executive Director, Bob Daniels, apparently misinterpreted part of this, and felt it necessary to defend his dedication and commitment to CDIA, which nobody, including me, would ever call into question. It is, in his words, his life’s work.
You’ll notice that in the section that caused Bob to shit a brick (“It’s only business”), I didn’t come close to saying what it sounds like he thought I said (“It’s only a business”).
I admire Bob and Bob Frazier for creating an incredible teaching and learning environment. But effective communication will never be their strong point, which is a shame, because at its core, that’s what their school teaches. As professional communicators, we all know that the biggest part of communicating is listening.
So Bob, if you’re out there, give this a read again and see if you understand what I was trying to say this time.
And thank you for giving me the greatest professional opportunity of my life.
So I was told by a delegate from the graduating photography class (a delegate who shall remain nameless Craig Montague) that if I didn’t promise to say a few words here today, the entire class was going to boycott this ceremony.
So I said I would, and they’re all (mostly) here today, which is the important part anyway. But guess what? The joke’s on you. I’ve got nothing to say.
No, that’s not true. I have lots to say, most of it I’ve said to you privately, but I do have a few parting thoughts I’d like to leave you with.
I thought about the kind of advice people in my job tend to offer at graduation, some of which has already been said today. Stuff like
- the future’s bright
- if you just work hard, network, and show up, everything’s going to be awesome
- you were all such wonderful, talented, inspiring students
- Keep in touch, we’re going to miss you
- if your certificate folder is empty, please see the financial services office
that kind of nonsense.
I’m pretty sure the boycott threat was issued because you don’t want to hear that today.
Craig even posted on Facebook that he doesn’t think any of his classmates were all that wonderful, talented or inspiring.
You don’t want to hear it, and I don’t want to say it, either. We all know that while it’s all good advice, it sounds kind of empty and obvious.
We all know it’s not going to be easy to get from your comfortable seat today to that happy, successful place we all do sincerely want you to reach.
So if you don’t want me to blow smoke up your skirts, what am I supposed to say?
You’ve all just completed a pretty grueling and hopefully enlightening experience, and if you’re sitting here, it means you completed it successfully.
I do wish you well, and I do want each and every one of you to succeed mightily.
But like I said, it ain’t gonna be easy.
So I figured I’d try to come up with a way of saying something encouraging without sounding like an idiot.
So here goes. What I’m about to say falls under three basic headings:
- Have you been paying attention?
- It’s only business.
- Don’t let the screen door hit you on the behind on the way out.
So, have you paying attention? Let’s try a little game here.
You’re all highly trained visual, observant people. Close your eyes. No peeking, Laura. What color is the ketchup stain on Bob Daniels’ shirt?
You guys all were exposed to some pretty tricky stuff pretty quickly.
The school’s philosophy has always been “you can teach anything in 4 days or 4 years”.
I certainly hope we’ve only been using that line for marketing purposes.
I can’t believe anybody here actually believes that. I’ve been at this photography thing for about 40 years, and I’m still trying to wrap my pea brain around it.
All we are able to do in our short time with you is to show you what you need to learn, in small, digestible chunks we call “modules”.
The assumption is that you will then go out and spend every waking minute for the rest of your lives really learning how to do what we show you.
Some of you will do exactly that, some of you won’t.
Look no further than the gallery show that’s up on the wall back at school. You’ll see a lot of really fine photographs, but if you look carefully at some of them, you may rightfully wonder if we bother to teach basic concepts like white balance.
Have you been paying attention? Have you been putting in the time necessary to own the skills we have tried to expose you to?
Bob Daniels can tell you all about the concept of “deep practice”. Studies have shown that it takes about 10,000 hours to master a skill.
There’s a whole book written about it, called “The Talent Code”.
Don’t bother reading it. I tried. It’s a total snoozer.
In 300 or so dry, academic pages the author comes to the astonishing conclusion that practice makes perfect. Ever heard that one before?
So I hope you’ve been paying attention. If you haven’t, I hope you start today, and not just to folks like us who have all the answers.
Try paying a lot more attention to the ones with the questions. You’re smart enough now to figure out the answers for yourself, and hopefully, for the important questions, it will take you a long, long time to do so.
The next part is hard. It’s only business.
There’s been a 900 pound gorilla in the room lately that nobody seems to want to talk about, so I’m going to talk about it.
Jackie, try pushing away from the table every now and then, OK?
My students have heard me say that “beauty is in the eye of the check holder” so many times that they’re probably ready to write me a check just to shut me up.
What I’m trying to get them to understand is that our clients ultimately determine whether what we give them is any good or not by paying us.
That’s why you came to CDIA, right? To learn how to separate clients with creative problems from their money.
So guess what? You’re our clients. And we’re not looking very beautiful these days, are we?
Our school is on the ropes.
The recent financial crisis hit everybody really hard.
The credit crunch hit businesses like ours particularly hard, and enrollment at both of our campuses has suffered.
As Boston University winds down their affiliation with career schools like ours, we’re scrambling to find the right fit with another academic partner.
Despite what some of you might think, I believe that we will. I believe that in some way, shape or form, CDIA will keep on keepin’ on.
But if the worst happens, and we all have to pick up our cameras and go home, here’s what I need you to remember.
It’s only business.
Trade schools like CDIA come and go.
Teachers like me come and go.
Business cycles are inevitable and brutal, and every one of you sitting here today will discover that sooner or later.
My advice to you is to work for the best, but prepare for the worst.
I know this sounds like a real downer. Not what you expect to hear at graduation, right? How am I doing, Craig?
But here’s the good news, and it is really good.
No matter what happens to us, you get to keep what you learned here.
It’s really good stuff, and it’s all yours.
We did our jobs, and speaking for myself and my amazing faculty, we did it really well.
We have accelerated you to the starting line of your careers.
You get to keep all of what you learned from us, but it’s up to you to maintain it.
You now have to use it, every day, or trust me– you will lose it.
So that brings me to my closing point.
Don’t let the screen door hit you on the behind on your way out.
Because you have to get out now. There’s a big, bad, incredible world out there just itching to have its way with you.
It’s time to roll up your sleeves, put up your dukes, and get ready to rumble.
We usually wrap these things up by saying we hope you will all think of CDIA as your “center”, a place where you can return to whenever you need to use the facilities.
(Just please knock on the door of the men’s room in the basement before you barge in, OK?)
I’m going to say the opposite.
Get the heck out there and do something!
Sure, CDIA is your home, but you know what they say about home- it’s where when you have to go there, they have to let you in.
I was talking to one of our graduates at the gallery opening last night.
Jay probably wouldn’t want me to mention his name, so I won’t.
He was telling me he doesn’t like his job as a digital retouching grunt at a catalog studio and wants to quit to come back to school as a TA. He said he wasn’t meeting people and he just wants to be shooting.
So I asked him what he thought of Mary Ellen Mark’s lecture down here at BU the other night.
He looked at me as if I didn’t have any hair. He had no idea what I was talking about.
He probably didn’t even know who Mary Ellen Mark is.
(She is arguably the greatest living documentary photographer in the world, that’s who.)
Jay didn’t go to her lecture, but the rest of Boston’s commercial, editorial, educational and fine art photography community did.
Many CDIA students and graduates were there, too. He might have met a few people had he gone.
Seeing her nearly 50 years of amazing photography might have inspired him in a way that no video tutorial ever will.
Talking to her for a moment or two might have helped him understand that not only CAN he always be shooting, he had BETTER be if he wants to be taken seriously as a photographer.
Get out there.
Be what you say you are.
Screw the torpedoes!
Make a difference while you’re making a living.
Get lost. You will be astonished at what you find.
But come up and get your certificates before you leave.
September 14, 2013 at 10:07pm
The more things change…
Writing about the fading opportunities for professional photographers, John Szarkowski famously said this:
"Portraits, wedding pictures, scenic views, product photographs, PR photos, architectural views, insurance-claim documents, and a score of similar vernacular functions that were once thought to require the special skills of a professional photographer are now increasingly being performed by naive amateurs with sophisticated cameras. Although for the most part these pictures are approximate and graceless, they answer adequately the simple problem of identifying a given face, setting, product, building, accident, or ritual handshake."
Sound familiar? Like maybe another sad acknowledgement of the death of photography as a career choice, laid once again at the feet of every untrained idiot with better equipment than yours? Like maybe one more reminder about how “good enough” has become good enough?
Here’s the thing, though. He said it in 1978.
Here’s what I say, and I don’t know how many more times I’ll have to say it. It’s always been hard to make a living as a photographer, especially in some of the specialties listed in the quote above. That’s where all the low-hanging fruit is, and where so many low hanging fruit pickers conduct their food fights.
But what makes it even harder is if you’re a professional photographer complaining about having to compete against today’s “naive amateurs” and you don’t know who John Szarkowski was. Or even who Andre Kertesz was (hint: he made the portrait of Szarkowski at the top of this post).
Because knowledge like that might lead you down the path toward the kind of inspiration that separates you from the herd. Knowledge like that might actually help you learn how to “think different”, or maybe even just to think for yourself.
Get some context. Learn the history of your chosen medium. Worship some heroes other than the likes of Zack Arias and Bambi Cantrell- they already have enough worshippers, and they’d probably tell you exactly the same thing.
Read about something other than hot new apps or lens resolution tests. Here’s a good place to start– it’s where I came across Szarkowski’s quote a few hours ago. But there is so much more to know. While enlightening information like this is easier than ever to find, it’s up to you to find it.
If you want to be different from everyone else, start by not being the same. Because the less you change, the more things stay the same.
September 12, 2013 at 3:59pm
An open letter to all my friends at CDIA
To my colleagues, faculty, and most especially, students:
Today, I have resigned from my position as Photography Program Director at CDIA, a job I’ve loved since the day I was hired in 2009. I have accepted the position of Academic Director at New England School of Photography (NESOP), and will take charge of their professional and evening workshop programs beginning October 7. My last day at CDIA will be Saturday, September 28, and my last official responsibility will be to help celebrate the graduation of yet another group of extraordinary young photographers and other media professionals.
NESOP, as you probably all know, has been a strong, influential and consistent presence on the region’s photo education landscape since its founding in 1968. NESOP is where I reinvigorated my career as a teacher in 2005, and as long as I don’t screw things up, it’s where I hope to continue to help train and inspire students until Social Security kicks in and takes me gently into my geezerhood.
Trust me- the people closest to me know that this has been one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make. But it’s finally time to move on, and the timing, right at graduation, seems right. I’ll be able to sell my old car, walk to work when the weather’s nice and stuff myself onto the Green Line when it isn’t. I might even learn to be a better Red Sox fan since I’ll be forced to look over the top of the Green Monster every time I’m in the big glass-walled classroom on the third floor. I only hope that the F-16 pilot who stepped on the gas and broke the sound barrier over Fenway the last time I taught in that classroom on Opening Night has been promoted to a desk job by now.
Most importantly, though, I’ll be able to threaten to fire my pal Heratch whenever I feel like it, just for kicks. He’s been teaching there since the CITGO sign next door was lit by candles, and he’s already looking over his shoulder.
Even though Boston University will be ending their deal with CDIA next May, they have stepped in to shore things up and to help us through the transition to a new institutional partner. They are nice folks who are impressed by what we do, and with their support and advocacy, (and a little luck) there will be new faces, new ideas and new energy to move the school toward a brighter and more secure future.
I gave CDIA everything I had, and I believe I leave the program in better shape than I found it. The fundamentals have never been stronger, and the curriculum is more relevant than it’s ever been. Our remarkable faculty delivers it brilliantly, and our students are doing more with it than even I could have imagined. CDIA graduates own a huge chunk of the local market.
Now I get to try to roll the boulder up the hill a little further at another great school. From Kenmore Square, I look forward to growing a good, strong, fair and friendly competitor to the program I helped to build and grow out in Waltham, and if I can pull that one off, we’ll all be better for it. I’ll be sure to let you know what’s going on with me from time to time, and please do stop by to say how-do if you’re in the area.
I’ll close here with one last sappy but heartfelt thought that just occurred to me: the same river that runs behind CDIA also runs behind NESOP. For what it’s worth, you’ve all got a friend, a supporter and an admirer just a little further downstream.
Urban Landscape Night at the PRC
Last week I had the pleasure of presenting my work to a group of photographers at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University’s Urban Landscape Night. These occasional events at the PRC serve as informal opportunities for photographers to share and discuss work produced around a theme. Hosted by PRC Executive Director Glenn Ruga (introducing me, above), each photographer is allotted 20 minutes to present 20 images to the audience. Last week’s event was moderated by architectural photographer Philip Jones, who wrote the following recap of the evening’s presentation (also published on the PRC’s blog).
It’s Impossible to live in a large city and not, at least to some degree, to fall under its spell. For some of us this fascination goes further and we find ourselves tramping down uncharted avenues searching for the city’s hidden secrets.
Photographers, in particular, feel this tug. Urban landscapes become the prime subject of their visual explorations. In fact, the way we’ve come to perceive certain cities has been shaped by the artistic vision of the photographers that document them. Paris has its Atget’s, New York its Abbott’s, Tokyo its Moriyama’s and so on.
The cities keep growing and evolving, however, and each new generation of photographers naturally observe their surroundings with fresh eyes that replenish our understanding of the here and now.
Last night the Photographic Resource Center held its “Urban Landscape” event here in the photogenic city of Boston. We looked at the portfolios of five urban photographers whose experience ranged from recent graduate to seasoned professional, but all of whom were dedicated and competent artists.
Glenn Ruga, The PRC’s executive director and I kicked off the evening with introductions, some observations about the urban landscape in general and then dove right into the presentations. Each photographer had 20 minutes to present 20 images. Three chose to lay their prints out on tables and two projected their work digitally. I was asked to give the “official” feedback although the audience wasn’t shy about contributing input of their own.
Our first presenter was Randall Armor <www.armorfoto.com> who is a successful professional photographer, having shot commercial and editorial assignments for Lotus, Fidelity, Boston Magazine and many others. He is currently the director of the photography program for Boston University’s Center for Digital Imaging Arts. This level of technical achievement and sophistication was evident in his many-faceted presentation. His work had several subcategories including black-and-white street photography, nocturnal time-lapse photographs of moving trains and complex incidental compositions utilizing signage, windows and reflections. It was as if he’d curated a group show of urban photography but just happened to have taken all of the shots himself. The work featured some real gems and it’s a pleasure to see this skilled pro take a break from commercial assignments in order to follow his own paths of artistic inquiry, each of which seems rich with potential.
The audience next shifted over to the table of Yorgos Efthymiadis <www.YorgosPhoto.com>. He came from his home in Greece solely to study at the New England School of Photography and has just graduated. His concepts about the United States were shaped by watching countless American television shows while growing up and when he actually got here it was as if he’d landed in an unknown and exotic land. His photographs, taken within walking distance from his house in Somerville, portray this sense of wonder. His approach epitomizes the idea of the lone witness out combing the streets for evidence of some sort of truth about where they live. Over his two years as a student he developed favorite haunts that he’d frequent to record the changes. The work has a mysterious quality because it feels as though someone has beamed down from outer space to collect data before establishing a priority list. Common objects acquire a logic-defying gravity and the familiar seems new. Although the work is fresh and unlikely it’s anything but naïve and I’m guessing that his time at NESOP has provided tools to analyze visual themes as they emerge. It will be interesting to see how Yorgos re-examines his home in Greece after he returns.
As an occasional juror more accustomed intermediate photography classes, I was impressed by the consistently advanced work displayed at Urban Landscape Night. Much of the credit must go to Glenn, Francine, Erin, Julie, and Laura at the PRC for providing this exceptional forum for photographers to meet and setting a standard that attracts real talent.
John Bunzick <www.JohnBunzick.com> also presented his photographs in printed form. John lives in Somerville as well but searches for photographic content in cities around the world. He is a formalist by inclination. Formal in the sense that he looks for specific structures and underlying forms when composing his images. Interestingly, the photographs he’s gleaned from everywhere are so thematically coherent that they might have come from a single stroll on one inspired afternoon. He’s distilled his criteria for this series to sites and details that he literally stumbles upon while glancing down as he walks. The camera tilts below the horizon line at oncoming crosswalks, sidewalks, parked cars, traffic cylinders and street debris scanning for a fragile order and balance within a somewhat shabby urban fabric. He’s finding grandeur that, by all rights, shouldn’t be in the corners and edges of our built environment. He has a keen eye for colorful high notes and a sense of humor that rewards the viewer for joining in his on his quest.
Although humans aren’t exactly forbidden from appearing in an urban landscape motif, their presence is more implicit than actual and you begin to wonder if someone’s just stepped off the edge of each photo’s frame. We’re not looking at architecture per se but at a crowded stage setting during an intermission. It’s a backstage glimpse at the timeless rhythm of a metropolis.
Our first photographer to project digital images was Andrew L Schirmer <http://andrewlschirmerphotography.zenfolio.com>, who seems to often have a camera on hand at just the right moment. His work demonstrates a strong intuitive approach that can be applied to whatever subject he tackles although his affection for the urban and architectural is clear. He selects a different post-production processing technique depending on what the image’s content seems to demand. Some photos will be rendered in grainy black-and-white while others have slightly desaturated color with HDR filtering and still others have a colorful pop to them. This nudges the viewer to consider each photograph on its own terms as a stand-alone object and seems to add uniqueness to the individual shots.
There’s a different dynamic to watching a sequential slideshow lighting up the wall after seeing a mosaic of images spread out on a table. The slideshow seems to tell a story, albeit a short one. The paper prints, while not as luminous, benefit from their sense of solidity and permanence.
Our fifth presenter, Jeremy Ackman <jeremyackmanstudio.com> helped expand the evening’s definition of the urban landscape. The series he brought has a playful yet slightly disarming quality. Somewhere within each of his images of what one might call “the outskirts of town”, there lurks a forgotten and forlorn shopping cart pretending it’s not there. Jeremy is a bit of a trickster and after he’s gotten our attention and we’re all looking for shopping carts he makes them harder to find so we’ll look harder at the photograph. One can imagine him as a nineteenth-century bird-egg collector, always with a sharp eye out for his quarry and delighted to find a new scenario where the shopping cart’s tucked into an concealed and fascinating nest. Fortunately, his photographic instincts have elevated this “where’s Waldo” challenge to a higher artistic level. By promising a surprise in each photo he engages the viewer more intensely. He also makes sure that each photograph is a compelling image in its own right and that the cart is an integral part of the shot. He took some good-natured flack from the group for changing the framelines from horizontal to vertical to square depending on the image’s internal composition but this seemed more like a power-point issue that wouldn’t be as pronounced in a mounted exhibition.
Basically, I was blown away by the overall competence and passion that the photographers brought to these projects. From the turnout of the crowd and waiting list of presenters it seems that the movement of urban landscape photography is alive and well here in Boston. And, again, I must express deep thanks to the Photographic Resource Center for mounting an event so well suited to the photographers and viewers who share a love for the city.