Keeping focused on the big picture

Oct 12, 2017

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RIT senior photojournalism major Bryan Bennett covers the end of the 81st annual Cotton Bowl Classic at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, this past January. Eighth-ranked Wisconsin defeated 15th-ranked Western Michigan, 24-16. By Chelsea Purgahn/Kalamazoo Gazette
Thumbnail for Keeping focused on the big picture
RIT senior photojournalism major Bryan Bennett covers the end of the 81st annual Cotton Bowl Classic at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, this past January. Eighth-ranked Wisconsin defeated 15th-ranked Western Michigan, 24-16. By Chelsea Purgahn/Kalamazoo Gazette

by Rich Kiley

RIT’s School of Photographic Arts and Sciences (SPAS) has begun the new academic year on a series of high notes, garnering high-profile honors among faculty, students and alumni for the school nationally recognized for its degree programs.

“You have these points in time — sort of like a constellation — where the planets align,” said Therese Mulligan, administrative chair of SPAS. “We’re certainly hitting many high notes at this time.”’

The ongoing success of RIT’s photography school exemplifies its successful evolution amid decades of disruptive technological change and is a demonstration of the focused commitment to excellence there.

Partnerships with industry

The school’s roots began sprouting at the Mechanics Institute—renamed Rochester Institute of Technology in 1944. The institute offered its first classes exploring photography and design back in 1902 in response to Eastman Kodak’s rapid growth after its founding in 1888. Right away SPAS became a trusted partner of the photographic industry, resulting in a mutually beneficial collaboration that continues to this day. “Photographic industry partnerships have been a long and valued tradition at RIT,” said Mulligan, a Kentucky native who served as curator of photography at the George Eastman Museum for eight years before coming to RIT in 2003.

“Companies look to us when it comes to testing new cameras and technologies,” she added. “Many of our faculty have tremendous connections to industry because they come from industry.”

Responsive to change

As photographic technology moved rapidly from analog to digital over the past two decades, SPAS has had to become adaptive to rapid changes. Today, approximately two dozen faculty teach the school’s more than 150 classes for BS, BFA and MFA students, including courses on augmented reality, editorial photography, virtual reality, drone photography and experimental photobook. RIT’s MFA in Imaging Arts program was ranked No. 4 among photography graduate programs in 2016 by U.S. News & World Report.

RIT photojournalism senior Jediah Plumley sets up a remote camera at the 2017 East Coast Snocross event at Willow Park in Bennington, Vt. By Daniel Vasta

Faculty research and scholarship also has grown considerably in recent years. Denis Defibaugh became the first professor in the history of SPAS or the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences to receive a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for his collaborative photo project combining anthropological, visual and historical methodologies to approach how social, cultural and environmental changes are experienced in Greenland. The award totaled nearly $650,000.

More recently, Christye Sisson, the Ronald and Mabel Francis Professor and chair of photographic sciences, was awarded $826,740 for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) MediFor (media forensics) project to study the fact and fiction of imagery in today’s digital culture.

SPAS also is part of the university’s growing interdisciplinary research focus. Jenn Poggi, assistant professor and former White House picture editor, received a 2017 Provost’s Learning Innovations Grant (PLIG) that will explore the use of virtual reality and 360 videos through experiential student learning.

The school’s 4D Design class, described as a “moving media course,” introduces students to concepts related to narrative storytelling and creating motion content across a variety of disciplines and introducing students to cutting-edge moving imaging technology. The course is taken by nearly every major in the college.

“We no longer focus solely on pictures in photojournalism,” said William Snyder ’81 (professional photography), a four-time Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and administrative chair of the school’s photojournalism program. “We primarily focus on teaching storytelling, and that can take many forms with the use of still imagery, audio, video and multimedia platforms.”

Changing career landscape

Creating enterprising storytellers is essential since the careers now available to SPAS graduates have morphed into the worlds of social media, multimedia, surgical photography, image technologies, picture editing and more.

“Photography has gotten so much more diverse and complex because of the exciting opportunities that are out there today,” said Rachel Jerome Ferraro, an assistant professor in advertising photography. Ferraro graduated from SPAS with a BFA in professional photographic illustration in 1996. “With today’s changing media landscape, one door closes but three more open.”

She added that nothing makes her prouder than to see SPAS alumni “a few years out and happy.”

“They’re posting amazing things on Instagram or Snapchat every day,” she said. “Our graduates are all over the world making an impact.”

Fine art photography's 2017 "Glad to be Wrong" show highlighted the work of 13 SPAS seniors. By Brittany Oliveri

Mulligan said SPAS alumni have played a vital role in the school’s success. “A lot of our ability to stay current and even ahead of the curve is because of our alumni,” she said. “We’re always in conversation with them.”

Alumni also are happy to meet with faculty and students who travel annually to New York City and Washington, D.C. , for learning and networking.

Poised for success

Bryan Bennett, a fourth-year photojournalism student, has enjoyed a remarkable year. Working as a picture editor for Getty Images during Buffalo Bills home games, he recently captured running back LeSean McCoy’s actions during the national anthem before Buffalo’s win over Denver. McCoy was protesting President Donald Trump’s comments toward NFL players.

Bennett’s photos were featured in The New York Times, Time Magazine and other major news outlets, marking more success for the RIT student who won the 2016 Student Clip Contest Photographer of the Year from the National Press Photographers Association.

“Our professors do an excellent job developing us into the best that we can be,” said Bennett, a native of Ilion, N.Y. and winner of several national awards.

Bennett spent this past summer at The Players’ Tribune, an online media platform. Combined with internships at the Erie Times-News in Erie, Pa., and in Michigan, he feels confident to launch his career.

“I definitely know where I want to go after graduation,” he said.

Yasmeen Smalley-Norman captures photos of coral reefs for 3D modeling off the shore of the Philippines. Smalley-Norman, who graduated in 2013 with a BFA in professional photographic illustration and a BS in biomedical photographic communications, was creating the 3D models as part of her Fulbright fellowship. By Alexis Principe

SPAS awards

Students, faculty, staff and alumni of the School of Photographic Arts and Sciences have been earning high praise. Recent awards and accolades include:

  • Associate Professor Gregory Halpern captured popular Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s portrait for the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek magazine earlier this spring. Halpern also is a 2014 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellow whose 2016 book, ZZYZX, won the Paris Photo-Aperture Photobook of the Year.
  • Alumnus Kwaku Alston ’94 (professional photographic illustration), Mark Williams ’97 (professional photographic illustration) and Sara Hirakawa '97 (professional photographic illustration) took a photo of NFL running back Ezekiel Elliott for ESPN The Magazine’s annual Body Issue.
  • Megan Rossman ’08 (professional photographic illustration), was named one of the 2017 Princess Grace Award winners, earning a graduate film scholarship. Rossman is a former multimedia journalist for The Washington Post.
  • Five photojournalism students—including three fourth-year students and two alumni—just returned from The Eddie Adams Workshop, a four-day gathering of the top photography professionals and 100 select students. The contingent is believed to be the largest RIT has ever sent to the highly competitive workshop.
  • Teri Zogda ’17 (photographic sciences) won best student photograph at the Royal Photographic Society’s International Images for Science competition. Her compelling photograph was a micrograph of the head of a port tapeworm.
  • Ellipse, a 2017 editorial class publication, won gold and silver regional American Advertising Awards (ADDYs) and a silver ADDY at the national competition.
  • Walid Raad ‘89 (professional photographic illustration), has been featured in four, one-person international exhibitions in 2017.