The Other Reality

A Grad School Story: 1

Posted in MFA, Personal reflections by aryckman on February 26, 2010

Going into my last semester of graduate studies at VCFA I am encouraged– if not forced– to consider the journey that has brought me this far by writing a Process Paper. If the title doesn’t clue you in to the contents let me enlighten you. “In the final semester, the Visual Culture Project will entail writing a Process Paper in which the student will contextualize, within appropriate historical, critical and social frameworks, progress and production during the graduate studies” (VCFA Student Handbook, Winter 2010). I have to work through my time in the program to understand where I fit in–the bigger picture.

I’m feeling overwhelmed. I’ve started mapping my journey, putting up forms and quotes and bibliographies on the wall to find consistencies. But I still feel lost looking at all that small black-and-white print. I don’t see a bigger picture yet.

For fun I decided to write my journey down in a narrative. I don’t know if this will become part of my process paper but it might help me think about where I’ve been and how I’ve changed. And I’m going to try to share it as I write.

I’m starting at the beginning.

*   *   *   *   *   *

Why did I want to go to grad school? What else was there for me to do? I really didn’t know what I should do with my life and I didn’t feel that a BFA in photography had prepared me for anything. Sure, I knew about assisting commercial photographers but I hadn’t enjoyed it that much. I’ve joked since high school that I wanted to be an eternal student. And it is true in a very literal sense, not just in an admirable I-always-want-to-learn sense… I always want to be enrolled in school. I love the classroom setting, the academic calendar with nice big breaks for holidays and summer and the motivation to finish projects and continue to learn. The good-job-pats on the back don’t hurt either. Moving on from the high school mentality I figured the best way to stay in school forever was to get a job in one. If I were a teacher I’d still get all the same things I did as a student (except I would be giving the good-job-pats instead of receiving them). An MFA made sense because it would supply the educational credentials to teach at the college level and stay in school.

Did I think I was an artist? Not really. Once I called myself a photographer and an asshole I was associating with at the time told me that I couldn’t call myself that. He said I was only a photographer when I was making a living from my photographs. I was already self-conscious about titling myself “photographer” or “artist” because I didn’t think I was living up to those titles. His comment really struck a nerve.

My first round of applications got me accepted into the photography MFA program at Rochester Institute of Technology and SUNY Brockport’s Visual Studies Workshop. I chose RIT, probably for all the wrong reasons but also the expected ones. It was a good name—ranked fourth on the list of best schools for MFAs in photography—and being such a well known school it also had “well-known” equipment—companies want to convince students they can’t live or work without having their products so when they graduate they’ll stretch their wallets to work with equipment their comfortable with.

I had heard about low residency programs. I knew people enrolled in them. But I wasn’t interested because I wanted a physically school, where I met students and teachers and had equipment so that I could work in a way that was familiar.

I started at RIT and almost instantly hated it. I didn’t last long. I felt almost immediately that the teachers hated me (this is probably an exaggeration) or at least thought I was stupid and I admit I felt stupid. But more than that I felt that I wasn’t going to be able to do what I wanted. The darkrooms were disappearing and from what I heard most students just used them for storage anyways. That was heartbreaking. I love traditional photography and I was especially interested in historical and alternative processes. On our first tour of the darkrooms we were told that no toxic processes were allowed. That meant no historical process (except cyanotypes and Vandyke Brown). Unscheduled darkroom searches were also part of the deal and you could be fined if you didn’t have the proper MSDS info on every container (up to $1,500). No wonder the darkrooms weren’t in use. It would be way too much work to stay “legit,” digital was just easier. This was upsetting to me but there was something even more worrying.

In my first studio class we were asked to think of what we wanted to work on. I had just come back from Ukraine visiting extending family, only the second time I had ever met them. I had rolls and rolls of film that I wanted to process and then work with the images. It was really important to me. I mentioned this to one of the faculty and their response was “Well, that was what you were doing before you came here and we want you to work on something else.” I guess I can see her point but my understanding of a graduate program was a place to develop a personal artistic style and studio practice. How would dropping something I care about help me discover that? Wouldn’t it make more sense to work with students where they started and through dialogue and critiques let the students grow?

It seemed backward. I was going to spend lots of money not allowed to work with the materials on wanted and not on the content I wanted. What was all my money going towards?

So, I dropped out.