Previously, we discussed my photographic journey from my first camera in 1984 to my first shots with an SLR in 1992. I was generally working with the Nikon N2000 now as my primary camera. My dad didn’t seem to miss it. But to me, it was a door to self-expression that I needed at the time. Now we go forward just a little bit to my first formal education in photography.
1994: Senior Year of High School. Much of my Junior Year was spent pondering over career choices and colleges. Like many 17-year-olds, I did not have a clear idea of what I wanted to do for a living. So I spent my study halls and free-time after school in the guidance office narrowing my options. The first time I plugged away at the little beige box known as the Career Center Computer (or CCC for short), it spat out a few interesting career paths: Landscape Architect, Photographer, and Writer. While photography and writing both seemed like viable career choices to me, my research on Landscape Architecture seemed to align with my life goals. Besides, at the time, photography and writing didn’t seem like something I would do long term. I guess only hindsight is 20:20.
I was lucky: Both photography and writing became pretty good hobbies, while Landscape Architecture is probably not the type of thing people do as a hobby. My mother’s wisdom was always to make sure I’d have a hobby. Again, hindsight reveals she was correct. But I’m on a tangent; back on course…
With my career path leading me toward Landscape Architecture, the next step was to learn about some colleges, go on a few tours and apply to a few. I applied to a handful of good schools, but one was at the top of my list: Temple University. Temple, like many schools, had a rolling admissions policy. I applied early, so I got accepted early: September 9, 1994, to be exact, a Friday on our first week of school. I came home to an acceptance letter from Temple. There was no need to wait for other letters; I was going to Temple.
Now before I go on, I want to briefly talk about how the way our classes were set up. My Senior Year was the first year our school followed a “block scheduling” scheme. Previously, we had 9 periods across the day including lunch and homeroom in which major subjects and electives were scattered to span the entire year. The new block scheme basically paired everything down to four longer class periods each day. Major subjects only went half a year, unless you were in Advanced Placement courses which spanned three quarters. This created a major problem for those in AP courses: It limited your electives, and it pushed them all to the fourth quarter (a problem that has since been rectified by the district, but we were the guinea pigs). I was in four AP courses: Physics, Math, History, and English. The year was shaping up to be very difficult, at least until the last semester.
But then, on September 9th, I opened that cherry-red envelope that told me I was accepted into Temple. Naturally, I partied that weekend with my friends and family. But on Monday, I found myself in the guidance office. Per my mother’s advice, I made my life a little easier and I transferred out of most of my AP courses into standard level courses, keeping only Physics. This reduced a lot of the pressure, and Temple wouldn’t care. It also opened me up to do some more electives. Among them, I added both Photography 1 and Photography 2. This was a feat not possible in previous years because Photo 1 spanned a whole year, but was a prerequisite for Photo 2. Now, thanks to Block Scheduling, I could do Photo 1 the first half of the year and followed with Photo 2 the second half.
I’ll be honest: I took both Photography courses because I was pretty confident that they would be easy. Even though my photography skills were all self-taught, I was pretty sure that these classes weren’t going to be very challenging. But the courses weren’t nearly as easy as I expected. I was not prepared for darkroom work. I had so much to learn.
The most important lesson I learned from formal photography education was moderation. Before I had a teacher, things like Depth of Field or Dutch Angles seemed like the true mark of an artist. In reality, the way I used such skills was more like a beacon above the head of an amateur. My instructor helped me to learn control. And when I still didn’t get it right in-camera, I learned that I still had an opportunity to refine the image in the darkroom. This was a new way of thinking: Rather than focus on the capture, I was now thinking about an entire process. And that process included my time in the darkroom. I learned about under-exposing to capture reflections with a pushed exposure in post. I learned that you could “dodge” the dark spots to gain detail in one area, a “burn” when I was worried about losing data in those bright spots. The process was not a consideration when I was setting up to take the photo.
I was starting to think in the fourth dimension when it came to taking a photo. If I saw a challenging lighting scheme, I would plan for it. My notebook was still filled with details of each exposure. But it was also filled with what I expected I would need to do in the darkroom. This was a completely new level of my work.
I might have learned these important lessons on my own. But I can assure you that it would have taken me many years. Looking back, I am very fortunate to have had that formal education in High School. I was very fortunate that Temple accepted me so early, affording me the chance to take those classes. I wouldn’t trade them for the world.
I would later take more classes in college. It’s possible I would never have taken those courses if I hadn’t learned the value of formal education in High School. Regardless, as I look back, I would do it all over again. They made me a better photographer.