I am trying to finish up answering some of the most commonly asked questions that applicants to the Photography MFA program have before the application deadline. One of those questions is about what the structure of the first year is like.
While there is some flexibility in the first year, it is pretty much set. The first semester includes three classes. During two of the six semesters of the program, students are required to take 12 credits (instead of only 9), which means three classes instead of two. It is nice to get those two semesters of three classes out of the way early so that the rest of the time you are here, you can focus more on work.
The first class is a digital class. This class is fairly basic and gets everyone on the same page when it comes to how to work with digital, and mostly film to digital. It tends to be quite important for those students that maybe took time off and didn’t have a huge background in digital while they were in undergrad. In my case, I was actually running a digital lab for a college before coming back to school and “tested out” of the class, so if you do have a deep knowledge of digital, it is possible to not waste the credits.
The second class is an issues/history class. It is not really photo history the way that it is commonly thought of. There is no learning about certain photographers with slide exams to see if you can identify work. It is more of a discussion about the issues that revolve around photo history. You will read a lot of essays, and the class mainly consists of response writings in the form of blogs and discussion.
Then there is seminar. You will take this class every semester for the first two years of the program. It is an all-day class that meets every Friday. This is where you show the work that you are making. It is co-taught by two instructors. Those two instructors change every semester. The rate that you will be showing work will change depending on how many students are in the class (both first- and second-year students attend the class together). Currently, we are divided into three groups and show work every three weeks.
In the second semester, there are two classes that you are required to take. There is, of course, seminar. You will have two new instructors from the full-time faculty, and they may structure the class differently than your first-semester seminar. It is up to them.
The second required course is a contemporary criticism class. This is a lot like the issues/history course from the first semester, but the issues and readings are more current and more about contemporary practice. Again, there is a lot of blogging and discussion.
That’s all that’s required, but I think it is good to take a third class here as well. Last year, I took a book class, and there are a variety of options open for classes to fit into a slot. But you always have the option of taking it slower the second semester, catching your breath, and concentrating more on your own work instead.
That pretty much sums up the first year here in the Photography MFA program at Columbia.