Interview with MFA in Photography Graduate, Ellie Brown

Academic Perspectives of Photography

Ellie Brown is a recent MFA graduate of San Jose State University‘s Photography Program. She is focusing her career in the fine arts and plans to complete an artist residency in the summer of 2002 at the Atlantic Center for the Arts.

Her current work focuses on body language, beauty obsession and the social interaction of young girls. She writes: “During the pre-adolescent years, a girl’s true intent and meaning are often masked by a chorus of ‘I don’t know.’ Their knowledge and confidence become buried by their self-consciousness and uncertainty. This is why body language and gesture are often more telling then their words. With the camera, I look to capture the juxtaposition of the pre-adolescent being both girl and woman as well as the frequent awkwardness that comes with the age.”

Recently, Ms. Brown had a featured gallery presentation on the Women in Photography International website (Archive 10 April 2002-June 2002), and she has received recognition for her work in the form of awards, fellowships, and scholarships from organizations such as the Long Beach Island Foundation of Arts and Sciences, the National Alliance for Excellence, and the Ruttenberg Arts Foundation. She has had solo exhibitions of her work in San Francisco, San Jose and Boston, and she has contributed work to group exhibitions in New York, Greece, Nevada, New Jersey, Nebraska and Washington.

Ms. Brown & Her Career   |   The Actual Work   |   Education Information & Advice   |   The Industry   |   Closing Remarks

Ms. Brown & Her Career

Tell us about how and why you became involved in photography?

I’ve always wanted to take photos. I got my first camera at age 11 and was really interested in using it, but I was inhibited by lack of money to buy and develop the film. I started seriously working in photography in high school where I would always walk around with my camera and spend all of my spare time in the darkroom. When I got to Massachusetts College of Art, majoring in Photography seemed like the obvious thing to do. I think my main motivation for starting in the first place was to never forget anything or anyone – to preserve my memories.

You’re a recent MFA graduate. What are you doing now, and what are your career plans? What kind of photography career will you pursue?

Right now, I am looking for a full time job teaching photography at the college level. To me, that is the most engaging and challenging way that I can use my education. This summer, I have an exciting artist residency at Atlantic Center for the Arts working with Graciela Iturbide, whose work I admire greatly. I am also working very diligently to get my work into gallery shows, look for publication opportunities and funding to pursue projects and purchase equipment. This is the other 50% of what fine art photographers do besides make work – MARKETING!

Tell us about your photographic work. Do you have a specialty? Is there a particular style or method that you use?

Since 1996, I have been photographing girls seriously. These photos mostly revolve around my sisters who are now 13 and 14. When I moved to California from Boston for graduate school, I expanded my work to focus on pre-adolescent girls in general. Here I am looking at the time between childhood and adolescence when confidence and voice typically falter, and there are some really interesting things going on with identity. Right now, I shoot with a Mamiya 7 (6×7) in color and print 16×20 and 20×24. I utilize what is called the snapshot aesthetic in a sort of documentary style.

Who have been your greatest inspirations to pursue a career in photography?

I think that I have been most strongly inspired by the strong women I have worked with who have cultivated careers in fine art photography while being college professors. I modeled my personal goals from their successes. They include Laura McPhee, Virginia Beahan, Shelburne Thurber and Robin Lasser.

What are some of your proudest accomplishments and favorite projects and why?

I am always thrilled at every new honor bestowed to me, or show I get into. The watermark is always rising, so I tend to expect more prestigious things as time goes on, but it is all great. Some of the greatest things are ones which occur on a small and personal level; like when I give a lecture and someone comes up to me afterward and tells me that what I said really made sense to them. This is especially cool if it is a young girl who I somehow touched or reached.

The Actual Work

What kind of camera do you use most often? Is there anything special about it that has made it your camera of choice?

Mamiya 7. I love this camera! The lens is SO sharp, it is comparable to a 4×5 negative. Since it is a range finder, focusing can be challenging, but I have adjusted to it.

What about equipment and facilities? What are the big ticket items, and how much do they cost?

I have been lucky enough to have access to all the great equipment in graduate school, and now I am in for a shocking reality check getting out with no access. So, I have my nice $2,000 camera but no darkroom. I do a lot of my work in video, so I am buying at G4 so with Final Cut Pro, so I can edit at home, and then I plan to upgrade my video camera to a Canon GL1 (mini dv). The camera runs a little less than $2,000.

For a photographer just starting out, how do you get access to things like enlargers, dark rooms, studios, etc. if you can’t buy them right away?

Ah, yes. Access is the perpetual problem. There are always places that rent darkroom time. In Boston, where I am from, there is even a co-op where you can work a few hours a week for discounted access. Most cities have these kind of things. I also recommend volunteering at a college photo lab for access, if it is possible.

How much of the actual photographic process is now automated by computers and precision machines?

I’ll just answer for myself: None. I am very resistant to digital photography at this point in time, though I realize it is inevitable.

Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your education, including schools attended and degrees or certifications earned. What did you like and dislike? What were the positive and negatives of your educational experience?

I got my BFA from Massachusetts College of Art in Photo in 1997 and my MFA from San Jose State University in photo in May of 2002. I think that any educational opportunity is a gift, so I cannot really nit-pick that much. I will say that the only negative experiences I had were my own fault for not retaining as much of the information that was given to me as I should have.

Why did you choose the programs that you attended? What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a photography school or program?

I chose Mass Art because it is very prestigious and inexpensive. I chose San Jose State for more complicated reasons. These had to do with expanding my ways and methods of working, as well as the opportunities to teach college classes and the inexpensive price.

For choosing a program, I seriously recommend looking at what kind of work the other students are doing at the school. If you like it and/or you can see yourself fitting into that, pursue it. It is a really bad choice to go to a school that doesn’t support the kind of work you want to make. An example would be that at Mass Art: They are very embedded in the tradition of large format, straight photography. They have a hard time dealing with students who want to do other kinds of work, like photo installation. San Jose State is very supportive of doing different kinds of work, like photo installation, but almost to a flaw. There, many photo majors abandon the use of photography completely for this other kind of work. You just need to find what fits your aesthetic most closely.

How should prospective students assess the faculty when choosing a school?

I think the best way to assess faculty is to sit in on one of their classes. If that is not possible, I recommend looking at the schools’ website – that will usually show their work and tell about their accomplishments. Some faculty are great teachers but not so great artists and visa versa. It is good to find a balance. Also, talk to current students about their opinions of the faulty.

How did you finance your education? Did your schools help you, and can you offer any advice to others with regard to finding money to complete their education?

I have taken out many, many student loans. Through both undergrad and grad, I have worked at part-time jobs for supplementary income. That seems to be what most people do to get through school, and it is what I would recommend.

Did your schools offer job placement or career services? Did you use these services, and, if so, exactly what do they do? Do you believe that they are an important tool for students to take advantage of?

Both schools I attended had career services. I have definitely used them. Mostly, they just offer listings to sort through. None of them actually place you in a job. They are great resources, nonetheless.

What do you think are the most respected and prestigious schools, departments or programs for photography in the US?

Mass Art has one of the most amazing photo faculty in the country. The University of Arizona and University of New Mexico both have prestigious programs. There is Rochester Institute of Technology, which is very technically oriented, but great. Most art schools have great faculty, but don’t overlook the fact that State schools and even Community Colleges have some hidden gems tucked away.

The Industry

What are the professional options for someone graduating from a photography program?

That depends on whether someone wants to pursue commercial work or not. I choose not to, so the things I have done or would consider doing are as follows: Photo lab- custom printer, working in a gallery or museum, teaching children, workshops or in a community center, working at a Photo Stock agency, working at a magazine as a photo editor etc.

What are some of the recent trends that you see in the field of photography which could help students plan for the future?

As much as I hate to admit it, I would advise students to arm themselves well with as much digital knowledge as possible. That means be a genius in Photoshop, know Illustrator, video programs etc.

How have computer advancements, such as digital photography, affected your profession? How about the popularity of the Internet?

Digital stuff has made those of use who just do straight photography into dinosaurs in the field. That makes me sad. The internet is great for marketing and showing your work to a wider audience than would ever have seen it before. Use it and use it well.

What are the greatest challenges that artists in your profession face?

The greatest challenge is to do your work and not get discouraged by rejection. There are so many photographers and so few opportunities. Be persistent and tenacious and expect about 90% rejection for a while. Just know that it is the 10% of things (shows, awards, residencies, jobs etc.) that you do get that matters and make your resume great. People need to believe in their work and know that if they stick with it, eventually someone will notice.

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in photography?

My advice is to build a style or body of work that someone can recognize you by or associate your name with. Find your niche in photo. I also will say that it is never to early to start building your resume to get shows. Coffee shops are cafes are great places to start.