Photo school uses the past to teach the future

By NOAH BOSTROM/Montana State News

In a world where everyone has a camera, where an Instagram is considered art and the word “film” has lost its meaning, what is the importance of studying classical approaches to photography?

The photography students of the Montana State University photography program would argue strongly for the older processes because they are an important part of understanding the visual language.

“We are teaching an entire language to our students, and the same as any other language, we start with the basics,” professor Chris Anderson says. This visual language is one of the most complex languages to learn or express.

“Since we see the world visually, minute to minute, we pay less attention to the detail and the beautiful scenes,” said professor Ian van Coller. “Using the commonplace to create something spectacular is the most important role of photographer.”

The MSU Photography Program is a very unique program, offering an education in technical aspects of photography as well as the its history. This program combines technology of traditional darkroom processing of black-and-white film to digital processing labs allowing student the ability to combine, alternate and experiment with these processes.

Offering a four-year degree, opposed to the dominant two-year degree programs across the county, MSU offers 17 unique photography courses. They offer two university core classes taken by 500 students from across campus. This degree has over 100 combinations for any major or minor a student could want with a retention rate of 80 percent, according MSU’s webpage.

“We are a four-year program because we believe photographers need a broad base not only in photography but also in other fields,” Anderson said.

The School of Film and Photography is considered “state of the art” by other universities. This facility gives students access to two large 20-station gang labs and 18 individual darkrooms attached to a large finishing room equipped with lockers, film and print dryers, dry mount presses, and matting equipment. There are also two digital labs equipped with Mac computers, large format printers, and film and flatbed scanners, along with a 2500-square-foot studio space devoted to the photography students.

An expensive degree to pursue, the school has a checkout department equipped with approximately 2000 pieces of equipment that are maintained continually, including view cameras, medium format cameras, 35mm digital and analog cameras, a variety of lenses, lighting equipment, other types of cameras such as pinholes and Rolleiflexes and, of course, all enlarger equipment, contact printing frames and film-developing equipment for student to use.

If a student decides to major in photography, they must pass through what the school calls “the gate” in order to move forward with their degree. The process is done because it’s a highly competitive degree program and the process will helps weed out students by making the student maintain a certain GPA. They must also submit a final portfolio for professional critique in order to go pass through “the gate.” “Black and white allows students to learn the basics of composition and lighting,” professor Dan Wise said.

Once through “the gate,” students will be introduced to photography history. This is one of three undergraduate photography programs that teach three photographic history classes.

“We firmly believe in history’s ability to teach us,” said photography history professor Steve Jacson. Seeing photography’s progression through time gives more meaning to where we are today.

Photography student Kayla Bedley said, “Only when we know where we came from can we move forward and create something better.”

Later on in ones degree program in photography, student advance from using the smaller 35mm film cameras to the larger cameras. The large format cameras allow photographers to correct optical distortions and capture seven times the detail of the best-known digital cameras.

“The detail captured by these beautiful mechanisms allows the photographer complete control and maximum ability,” said the well-known Ansel Adams who actually loved to use a very large camera. The school checkout department has available some 14 different types of large format cameras for students to experiment with during their education.

As a student progresses in their photography degree, they will be exposed to analog color and digital processes and printing. At this point in the students degree, they are also exposed to some of the following processes along with more creative freedoms to develop their own unique research or project: hand coloring, pinhole, gum, cyanotype, mordancage, chemigram, lithe, lumen, bleachout, casein, van dyke brown, and platinum.  Several of these aren’t taught anywhere else in the world and learning them helps student invent their own techniques and processes.

“This photography program puts a lot of effort into preserving appreciation for the history and progression of processes.” Anderson said.

Photography has always had an inherent relationship with every part of the human experience, and thus, “We believe it’s important to understand as many different ways of life as we can,” van Coller said. This is where the importance of being a four-year program lies.

In the world of contemporary photography, van Coller said, “some of the most successful and interesting work is being done by classically trained photographers who work in odd places, who use photography to interpret their daily lives.”

During the spring of 2013, the school began making a Camera Obscura, a course that stands for their identity as a school dedicated to research and ingenuity. A Camera Obscura is an optical device that projects an image of its surroundings on a wall or screen. It is used in drawing and for entertainment, and was one of the inventions that led to photography and the camera.

The device consists of a dark room with a single hole. Light from an external scene passes through this hole and strikes a surface inside where it is reproduced on a screen overhead. “We have created a moveable, walk-in Camera Obscura as part of the President’s Fine Art Series that will be showcased on MSU campus for the next 2 years in a variety of locations,” said the course professor Jon Long.

We’ve seen it all, or have we? Photographic processes have been advancing for the last 176 years and yet we already started developing systems so fast that they can record the path of light as it moves through time, to cameras that can capture a picture of a pebble on Mars. “The program keeps students working “conceptually, technically and emotionally” said Anderson.

For more information on the SFP or the Photography Program itself, go to or call 994-2484.

–Edited by Melinda Peirce

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