How I Became a Professional Photographer and What I Saw Along the Way: Applying to Photography School
Graduation season and all this talk in the news about recent college graduates entering a terrible job market has me reminiscing about my college application experience in my continuing series about how I became a professional photographer. Up until halfway through 11th grade, I assumed I would apply to a school that was strong in the sciences, as biology was my main academic interest. Sometime during that year though, and I’m not sure what inspired this irresponsible fantasy, I realized I could and should major in photography (!) in college. I remember racing to the high school library and eagerly flipping through the pages of the massive college directory looking for schools that listed photography as one of its majors. It was slim pickins. I compiled a list, which consisted mostly of state colleges, small art schools, and a handful of private universities. Just as quickly as I made the list, I began eliminating schools that were too far from my hometown of Brookline, MA (just outside Boston) or weren’t academically rigorous enough. That didn’t leave me with much of a list, so I went through again, and decided I would pursue these five schools: University of Michigan, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Art Institute of Boston, Massachusetts College of Art, and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
I called each of the schools to request information packets to be sent to me via snail mail, as was still common during the days of dial-up. (Remember not being able to pick up the phone while someone in your home was using the internet? Weird.) Partway through the University of Michigan application, I decided there was no way I wanted to spend four years in Michigan, so I tossed it out. The RISD application required drawing samples, and given that drawing even the simplest stick figure has always demanded my full concentration, that school was eliminated as well. And then there were three: AIB, Mass. College of Art, and NYU. I applied early decision to NYU and was put on the waiting list, which meant I probably didn’t get it, but they’d let me know in April. I was accepted to AIB (described as a “Mickey Mouse school” by my high school photography teacher), and was accepted to and offered a full merit-based scholarship for Mass. College of Art. Oh, how excited I was at the prospect of being top of my class at a local art school. Reality set in though when I visited the school and realized I was a few piercings, tattoos and bottles of black nail polish short of fitting in there. But, it was considered a better school than AIB, and you can’t beat free. Very soon after that, I received a big fat envelope in the mail from NYU, which meant that somehow I made the cut and was offered a spot in the photography program at the university’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts. The prospect of a four-year university program with strong academics AND a quality photography education outweighed free (much to one of my parents’ chagrin, eh hem, you know who you are!), and I made my decision.
A couple years later at NYU, a photography professor I had grown close with recalled looking through applications for prospective students and told me in confidence that I had been accepted by only the slimmest of margins. Nearly everyone on the photography program board of admissions, including he, didn’t think I would be a good fit for the school. Only one professor liked my portfolio, and I was only accepted because of his persistence. It’s hard to believe, but I was *this* close to the inevitable pierced septum, latin and/or chinese tattoos, and black fingernails.
Below is the hand-printed portfolio in its entirety, sequenced as the board of admissions viewed it. The images were taken on a road trip from Seattle to San Francisco the summer before my senior year of high school. You’ll notice the content is a significant departure from the events and portraiture I now shoot professionally, although I continue to shoot natural landscapes in my personal work.
- My First Photo
- Connections, Connections, Connections
- The Entrepreneurial Spirit
- Digital Can’t Do That
- Brooklyn Children’s Museum
- Madison Square Garden
- First Concert