I Blinked and I Graduated with My MFA in Photography

How did I get here?

This time seven years ago, I was, to put eloquently, a Total Fucking Wreck™.

I was finishing my senior year of high school, less than two weeks from graduating, and I had no idea what the hell I was supposed to do with my life. I didn’t get into the school of my dreams, which meant I didn’t get into the program I longed for: Classical Archaeology.

There were things I knew I liked doing, like writing and taking pictures. But the summer before I started my undergrad career, I didn’t pick up my camera once. I lied in bed, staring at the wall, wondering what the hell I was going to do with my life. I was 17, confused, depressed, crying a lot, and completely uninspired.

I would like to tell you something inspiring, some sort of turning point in my life where I decided I wanted– no, needed– to become a photographer, but that’s just simply not true. Taking pictures was a lot of fun to me. I was good at it– it was the first thing I had a natural knack for– but I didn’t think I wanted to make my life out of it. About halfway through my first semester at MSU, studying English Lit, I was on the phone with my mom and I said, “I miss making art.”

It was a gentle admission, a passing comment. I was collaging by then, making sketches in my sketchbook and all that, but it wasn’t like high school, where every weekend was marked by a crazy photo shoot with my friends and praises from my teachers. I just kinda missed it, so my mom suggested I get a minor in art or take some classes. It wasn’t until my sophomore year– now pursuing a BFA in Studio Art– that I took my first college-level photography class and realized:

Fuck, I want to do this for the rest of my life.

I knew after that first semester that I didn’t want to be a wedding photographer or a portrait photographer, but that I wanted to teach photography. I loved critique, I loved the theory and the history, and I loved learning. I wanted to pass my knowledge to others. I also knew that the photography I liked doing wasn’t photography in the traditional/commercial/profitable sense, but more academic. I am so, so lucky that I knew what I wanted to be at 19 years old.

What I also knew was I needed an MFA, and that getting into an MFA program was Serious Business™.

When you find your passion, you delve head-first into it. And goodness gracious did I embrace it. I stopped denying that I wanted to be an artist (oh no not an artist how will I eat) and decided to, as I would say in 8th grade, “go balls to the walls.”

My weekends and weekdays were photo shoots with friends. I carried a camera on me at all times. Summers were spent taking photographs every. single. day. It was surrounding myself with people who liked photography as much as I did, browsing forums online and gathering inspiration for my next big shoot. I was submitting to galleries, exhibitions, museums, magazines, anything to build up my resume for graduate school. When the time came to apply, I bused all around the country, visiting schools, interviewing, meeting with professors to go over my application, checking my email every five minutes–

I got a full ride to Columbia College Chicago.

And, somehow, two years later, I have my MFA in Photography.

Holy shit, what a ride.

But I wouldn’t be here without a few people. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my art teachers in high school, or my friends in both high school and undergrad who let me dress them up/make them stand naked in the woods in February/carry my heavy things. My homies who drove me around, let me use their backyards, drag them around zoos in animal masks or get stopped by the police– if it weren’t for them I wouldn’t have gotten this far. All the professors who wrote me letters of rec, who taught me how to be a better writer, how to take better pictures and challenge me to think more deeply, to ask the hard questions, them too.

My mom for saying “Why don’t you get a minor in art?” or my boyfriend for all of the countless hours of driving, setting up light stands, cramming balloons in his car or me snapping at him because “I’m in the zone Mitchell shush.” My friends for letting me bitch at them about critique or something some critic said about my work, or those nights when I would be up late crying because “I don’t know what I’m doing how on earth did I get this far?” and their words of encouragement (“Shut the fuck up, deo, ur a great photographer fuck the haters.”) The friend who read my essays and statements and applications and was absolutely brutal in the best way. My cohort for the time spent debating theory (lol or crying about it,) the whiskey bar in Ireland, challenging me and making me think in new ways, showing me how to do things and inspiring me to be better. All of these people helped.

I thought about all of these people as I was hooded and received my diploma case on May 14th, 2017.

 

So, if you ever helped me, no matter how minor, thank you.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Now, I’m off to go make some waves in the art world with my Masters of Badassery™.

Happy Shooting!

So, You Want to Go to Grad School?: Pt. 4– The Statement of Purpose

So, You Want to Go to Grad School?

Pt. 4– The Statement of Purpose

Ah, yes, my favorite part of the graduate school process. I have so many thoughts and feelings to share with you, and man, this one is a doozy.

When applying to MFA Photography/Visual Art programs, every school will ask you to submit a Statement of Purpose/Intent. This is just as important as your portfolio of work– and let me ask you a question: Did you create your graduate-school-worthy body of work in one night? No, you did not.

Don’t treat your personal statement as something you can crank out in one night. Because if you want to get into a good program, making it up as you go will not help you.

GIVE YOURSELF TIME. I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority here, but I started thinking about my statement in August of the year I was applying. I’m not exaggerating– August. Most people don’t start until late November/early December. This is a mistake, and I will tell you why later on.

So, let’s get down to business. What makes a good Statement of Purpose? Almost all schools want you to answer a few questions:

  • How did you come to focus on your medium?
  • Tell us about the development of your work?
  • Why our school?
  • What is your plan for the future?

You have to answer all of these questions in 250-700 words or less. The word count depends on the institution. Daunting yet?

No worries. I’ll be showing you examples of answers to these questions, from one of my own Statement of Purpose. I have a damn good statement– I interviewed for every school I applied to except one (oh Columbia University, u so silly,) minus the ones that didn’t do interviews, and the ones that didn’t do interviews straight up accepted me.

Oh, I also got a full ride scholarship.

You are in good hands, mes amis.

Introduction: How did you come to focus on your medium?

This is vital to your success. The committee reviewing your application is going through hundreds of them, and if they start reading your statement and it is boring as hell, say hello to the trash can. Your first sentence should be compelling enough for the reader to go on to the next one, and the one after that. Many people start off with quotes from famous artists or photographers. I wasn’t keen on this approach, since it is done often, and I wanted to be special (who doesn’t?)

My opening sentence was this:

I had been absorbed in photography throughout high school, but I put down my camera and took up a pen when I left for college.

This sentence makes the reader ask, “What does she mean, she took up a pen?” My sentence is simple, and clearly begins a narrative. The introduction to your statement is the part where you explain why it is you want to pursue the MFA. This is where you get to share your passion for your medium! The best way to do this is to write out your story of how and why you love your medium. Then cut out the unimportant bits, change the language so the story flows– because that is what your introduction is, a story.

I had been absorbed in photography throughout high school, but I put down my camera and took up a pen when I left for college. I thought becoming a writer was the best way to make the ideas that were in my head tangible, but as much as I loved reading and writing, their images seemed latent and unfulfilling. I reconnected with photography, and after creating a series of images that satisfied my longing, I added a Studio Arts BFA to my studies in my second semester of freshman year. Being a part of an artistic community and having the guidance of inspiring faculty, my passion for photography was restored, and now there is only room for it to grow.

rainbowTell us about the development of your work?

This next section was the hardest for me to get through. Here, you have to prove that you know how to talk about art– especially your art. You need to be able to convey your ideas clearly, and relate those ideas to your portfolio you submitted.

WARNING WARNING WARNING

PLEASE HEED MY ADVICE HERE. Too many artist statements say nothing. You have read them yourself in galleries: just a block of text with fancy words thrown in that doesn’t mean a thing. Artists are known for not being particularly good writers, but never fear– if you suck at writing, you’re going to be okay. I’ll tell you how, so stop hyperventilating and close the thesaurus tab on your browser.

Anyway.

Back to your work: what themes are you exploring? What does your research entail? What are you hoping to convey?

Because of my work in literature and writing, I’ve become a photographer who is interested in visual storytelling. The tableau is my aesthetic of choice and the stories of dreams and memories are what I want to share through the lens. The stories I tend to tell are dreamlike because dreams have fascinated me since I was old enough to know what they were. As a child, my dreams were so lucid that I sometimes confused them with reality. The personal weight they have on my early life created a life-long interest in finding out more about them and what purpose they have. If a dream has significant impact on an individual, they may remember the dream for the rest of their life—which ties dreams and memory together.

Here I clearly state what my work is about, and why. I like to work with dreams and memory because these topics had an impact on my childhood. My “what” is dreams and memories, and my “why” is because they impacted me as a child. I expanded on the “what” and “why”, and ta-da, I had a good start. But I continued in a new paragraph, to discuss my research, my bodies of work in my portfolio, and what I wanted to convey:

My goal is to continue investigating dreams, memory, and narrative and how the three oftentimes intersect. My most recent research has led to the creation of surrealist scenes directly tied to my childhood. Home Sweet Home and Allow Me to Share My Nightmares with You explores the nostalgic tendency of memory, and whether or not the memory is something that has root in reality. Our memories of things that happened and our memories of dreams follow a narrative pattern that is oftentimes distorted or romanticized. Instead of choosing just a pen or a camera, my work requires both. This is my way of storytelling, and, when done correctly, viewers leave with their own stories about what they saw in my work. I’m a writer and a photographer—I can’t help feeling like I have something to say, and when my stories are continued in the voices of others, I’m compelled to keep sharing.

Now, mind you, these paragraphs are short and sweet because they needed to be. My original explanation was easily 3x as long. Also, everything I say means something. I’m not typing gibberish, and I’m not being vague. You need to radiate confidence, not just in your work, but in your writing as well. Show those committee members you are a person who knows what they want! You came, you saw, you conquered, you got into your dream school because you are the baddest bitch.

Why our school?

So, why do you want to attend that particular school? Unfortunately, you can’t say “because I want to,” or “it has been my dream to attend this school.” The first thing you need to do is go to the website of the school you are applying to, and look at their philosophy and how the department operates. Do you want to create work that has a sociopolitical impact? Or do you want to explore what it means to be a contemporary photographer? Perhaps you are more interested in learning about theory and criticism, or maybe you just like the facilities. Like I said– be confident, show that you put in the work, and show them you know what you want.

The support of inter-disciplinary research found at -insert college here- is important to me, as I come from a background of English and Art, and I’ve found that pursuing degrees in both disciplines only improves my photography. That, in combination with being in a program with different voices, backgrounds, techniques, practices, among some of the best image-makers in the field, would be invaluable. Engaging in discourse with such a community would show me new ways to approach my work, and that thought alone is enticing. I’m ready to be a part of that kind of community, and I’m ready to contribute my own background as an artist and writer.

and here is another example:

The encouraging environment at -insert college here- fits well with my academic interests and goals. The emphasis on exploration and redefinition of the photographic medium is appealing, as are the opportunities to work with other departments at the university. The support of inter-disciplinary research is important to me, as I come from a background of English and Art, and I’ve found that pursuing degrees in both disciplines only improves my photography.

After reading this, they get it. I like the school for the interdisciplinary opportunities, which I know about through their website. #nailed it.

What is your plan for the future?

I hate to break it to you, but you cannot write “Hell if I know!” as an answer to this question.

I used this question as a way to wrap up my Statement of Purpose. Some schools just want to know what you kind of want to do, whereas others want to see that you have a plan already in mind. My college was the latter.

My ultimate goal is not to just become a professional fine art photographer, but a well-educated one. Since I want to do this for the rest of my life, I have many years to produce work. However, I’m afraid that after a while my work will grow stagnant, becoming a circle of redundancy and devolution. The MFA in Photography program at -insert college here- would prevent that from happening, as it would grant me access to a world of artists who have different ideas, backgrounds, and practices. I’m drawn to the challenges a MFA program presents conceptually, technically, and critically, as these things are necessary tools for work to change, grow, and improve. There may be times where I feel like I’m stuck as an artist, but the MFA in Photography will remind me that there are different ways of approaching a problem and giving me a chance to solve it. Another opportunity the MFA would grant me is teaching at a collegiate level, should I choose so down the road. If I decide to take this route in the future, I would need to be experienced as a professional and educated like an academic. With all of that in mind, studying photography at -insert college here- would undoubtedly enhance my practice.

You can use your last paragraph for more explanation on why you want the MFA. I said why, and tied it into my future career goals. This is probably the easiest part of your statement, but don’t call it quits just yet. You need to end the statement gracefully, not abruptly. A terrible place for me to end my statement would be:

Another opportunity the MFA would grant me is teaching at a collegiate level, should I choose so down the road.

Like, okay? That’s nice? Good for you? I was writing so nicely about my goals and how the MFA is a perfect compliment, and I ended it with a sentence that looks like a tagged-on thought? No, Felicia. Bye.

I finished my thoughts. When you are ending your statement, close it like a book. You want the last sentence to resonate with your entire statement.

SOME HELPFUL TIPS:

  • I started my statement in August. I wrote it in September, and edited it until it was due. I spent hours typing away, trying to figure out what to say and how to say it. Every time I went to work on my statement, it would be for a minimum of three hours. I feel I must reiterate: START EARLY.
  • Use your professors. If you are currently in school, this shouldn’t be much of a problem. If you’re out of school, don’t be afraid to contact a professor– they would be more than happy to help you. Having a professor to speak with was extremely beneficial, as he knew what the graduate selection process was like, so he knew what to look for in a statement. He was able to point out my weak points, and improve them. Professors also make great editors– my favorite English professor edited mine, and if it weren’t for his guidance, my writing would read like a hot mess. If you suck at writing, you must do this.
  • Include the word “research.” Researching in the arts can be reading, looking stuff up on the internet, looking at photos other people took, and messing around with your own work. Trust me, you have done research. Try to incorporate that word into your statement, because all grad programs talk about doing research. This was a piece of advice given to me by a professor.
  • Read your statement aloud, every. Single. Time. I know, I’m the worst, but SO MANY PEOPLE submit their statements, go back to look at them, and realize they made a grammatical error, a spelling mistake, or the worst– having the wrong school typed in. So many regrets from so many people. Don’t be that guy.
  • Take it seriously. Usually, faculty look at your portfolio, then if they are interested in you, they will look at your personal statement next. And if that is good, they will look at the rest of your app, like your resume and transcript. The Statement of Purpose is important for your success.
  • Don’t sound as if you have a croissant shoved up your ass. If your grandma can’t understand your statement, you are using too many big words. Don’t lose your personality in ridiculous vocabulary. It’s not worth it.

I think that should be good for now. The statement may seem daunting, but it’s okay, you’re going to do just fine.

Only 6 more months until everything is due!

Happy Shooting!

So, You Want to Go to Grad School: Pt. 3– National Portfolio Day

So, You Want to Go to Grad School?

Pt. 3- National Portfolio Day

The most rewarding thing I did on my graduate school journey was going to National Portfolio Day. If you are unfamiliar with the event, acquaint yourself, because it will seriously be the best thing for you to do to get into an ideal program.

National Portfolio Day is when a bunch of schools (like over 20,) send representatives/faculty to cities across the United States. So, there are opportunities to go. Each school has their own table, and you wait in line for the rep to look at your portfolio, and you will have the opportunity to ask questions about their program. This was incredibly valuable to me, but I didn’t go into it prepared.

I had no idea what I was doing. I looked to the internet to give me something, anything, to help me prepare, but everything I found was regarding National Portfolio Day for high schoolers, not young adults looking to get a master degree.

Here are some things I learned and wish to pass on:

  • Have artists who inspire you on your mind. Reps may ask you what artists you look at, and you want to look like you not only know how to make pictures, but that you can talk about them.
  • They will ask you specifics about your work. They want you to tell them what it is about, and they will ask if you considered X perspective, or why did you include X photo in your portfolio. So, think about your work, and find justification for it.
  • You MUST have a cohesive portfolio. What I mean is don’t bring in 20 unrelated images. That screams “undergrad,” and schools are not about that life. Your portfolio should be 2-3 series of work that all come together conceptually. For example, I brought in my work on dreams (which was three series condensed into one portfolio,) and my work about memory. I was able to explain to them my interest in dreams and memory, since our memory is oftentimes dreamlike, and my portfolio supported my claims. They are looking for people who are focused– if you have a bunch of different images that have nothing to do with each other, lawd help you.

  •  Be polite. You are speaking with people who may be your future professors. Do not get defensive over your work, but smile and nod and, if you feel passionately, kindly disagree– but have a reason why you disagree. This could open the floor to a discussion with the faculty, which is a good thing. If you are with a rep for more than 5 minutes, you did a good job.
  • If you get a card, you did good. When you are speaking to the reps, and near the end of your stay they give you their contact card and tell you “please contact me with any questions,” you did good. They are interested in you, and, let’s be real, who doesn’t want that? It would be best to follow up with them and shoot them a nice email, thanking them for their time. They will remember you more for it.
  • Take notes. But be courteous about it. Have a small notebook, and if you feel inclined to jot down any artists, literature, or philosophies that the rep is sharing with you, say, “Would you mind if I wrote all this down?” It shows them that you are eager to learn and improve. It is really hard to remember everything they tell you, so I highly recommend this.

  • DO NOT BRING PHOTOGRAPHS ON YOUR COMPUTER. Many people do, and I was actually one of the only people who had physical prints. It is one thing to look at an image on a small screen and another to be able to hold it. It proves that you took the time to print them, that you know how to print, and you stand out because of it. It was easier for them to flip through my images physically than having to do it on a computer.
  • Bring your prints in a portfolio box. I brought mine in one of those folios you get at Michael’s, the ones with the plastic pages that are kind of like a photo album, and that worked fine. They were able to flip through my images, and it was easy for me to transport. But, I found out later that at more “professional” portfolio reviews, you need to bring your work in a portfolio box like these. I personally like the Print File brand “clam shell,” but it’s your preference. I saw someone walking around with one with their named engraved on it, so if you’re into that sort of thing, look into it and look extra spiffy.

  • Check the National Portfolio Day website for a list of schools that will be at the event. Pick 3 schools you MUST see, pick 2 that you want to see but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t, and 2 schools that you would like to see if you have time. You will be surprised by how quickly time flies, and a lot of that time is spent waiting in line. If you want to speak to reps from schools like RISD, SAIC, or MICA, I suggest you get to your top choice first. You could be waiting quite a while to speak to them.
  • They have you fill out a form with your name and info on it, which the reps make comments on and put in a pile. I’m pretty sure they use these during the admissions process, to see if you talked to a rep at NPD, and what that rep thought about you and your work. This is a really good thing, because the admission board has no idea who you are or what you are like, but they do have a piece of paper that gives them some idea as to whether or not they want to work with you. By going to NPD, you are already a step ahead.
  • You know what to improve upon for when you DO apply. They will tell you what is strong in your portfolio and how to make it stronger. They will tell you your mistakes (gracefully,) and give you things to think about.

Going to National Portfolio Day was such a treat. I left feeling really good, hopeful, excited, and ready to work hard. I knew where I wanted to apply, because I was able to see how the faculty treated me, and I was driven to prove myself to these programs. If you are reading this and preparing to go, take a deep breath, wear something nice, and be confident. You are taking a step towards your goals, and it is scary, and not many people will do what you’re doing because they are too afraid. But, you’re not afraid to try, so hold your head up, smile, and walk and talk with confidence.

You got this.