There are plenty of conversations currently about the status of higher education. In parts of the world where people pay for university, we can wonder whether the benefit is worth the price tag especially when coursework doesn't keep pace with real-world trends and demands. That concern can be even more acute in the arts, where students stress about their job prospects upon graduation.
Christopher Kern, an MFA graduate from the Academy of Art in San Francisco, recognized the lack of emphasis on workplace preparedness in traditional degree programs and set out to design a new kind of program that better served its students. Kern, who is a professor and program lead at California Baptist University in Riverside, California (also home to our trusted podcast host), joined Daniel on the podcast to discuss the photography program he leads, its recent expansion, and how it sets students up for professional success.
For the full conversation, stream the episode from Amazon Music, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or ourwebsite. But below we'll recap a few main points from the chat.
E-Commerce Finds its Place Within a Photography Education
In 2005, when Christopher was at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, he gained exposure to one of the only programs offering photography MFAs with an emphasis on commercial photography. "They were at the forefront of dabbling in digital photography,” Christopher says. “So I was able to be a participant in that transition from film photography to digital photography in the commercial world of advertising. And it wasn't e-commerce back then; it was catalog photography, and then the transition into e-commerce photography. It's come full circle."
When Christopher was approached by California Baptist University, the school offered a bachelor's degree in photography, and within that, students could specialize either in commercial or fine art photography. Fast forward to the present day, and the attention to e-commerce has greatly expanded. Students at California Baptist can take courses on digital asset management, for instance—a topic that might seem tangential to many photography faculty members but holds real-world relevance for many students.
Building a Curriculum Friendly to E-Commerce Futures
Christopher joined the California Baptist faculty in 2017 and, by 2019, launched the curriculum in his desired way. When he did, degree concentrations became a thing of the past. "I found a way to create a curriculum and coursework to service students interested in all genres of photography," he says.
He didn't want to support rigid separation students faced in general, let alone early in their college careers. "What's happening is, there's a divide in the coursework, and these students have to pick: 'I want to be a fine artist,' 'I want to be a photojournalist,' 'I want to be a commercial photographer,’” Christopher says. "In reality, at the university level, we're fighting over the same students, which means we're not going to be able to service any one of those genres or concentrations if we're diluting our own offerings."
In place of concentrations was a relatively open curriculum that emphasized a universal: delivering client work, whether in the gallery realm, the editorial industry, or e-commerce.
"I think the day and age of the old local generalist and photography, those days are pretty done," he says. "Observing what happens in the industry, even the most sought-out advertising photographers, they're only hired off of their personal work. The fine artists, they want to create personal work. Editorial photographers, they want to create. They have passion projects."
That's why Christopher has his students worry more about their passion projects than about the contrived all-purpose portfolio so common in college art programs.
"Most commercial programs are creating photographers with portfolios that are outdated even before the time they graduate," he says. Instead of creating the generalist portfolio so common for art school grads, students in Christopher's program had space to specialize, even in e-commerce, and to follow their passions.
"We're providing the space and the tools for them to flourish, and really, that's why I'm spending my entire time trying to fight and provide for them," he says. "Even when it comes to printing, we supply all the ink, and for the most part, the paper too. So that's the majority of my budget, either go to ink and paper or student worker wages."
Out of the Lecture Hall and onto the Set
California Baptist leases an industrial complex of "probably one hundred units" in Riverside for labs, storage, and so on. So when the university's engineering school shifted to a new on-campus building, Christopher identified its vacant industrial space as perfect for his photography program. Now the photo program occupies two adjoining warehouses of about 2,500 square feet each.
"We have one student worker running all the spaces," he says. "They know the studio side. They know what we call the digital dark room. And it's really to be as professional as possible, to mimic what's happening out there in the industry, and to service our internal community, the student population."
It has the feel of many real-world studios, with space to arrange shoots with models, stylists, and makeup artists. The off-campus locale reminds students about the pragmatic aspects of the industry, and the ample space allows them resources to pursue their passion projects.
Optimism for the Future of E-Commerce Education
While Christopher's efforts at California Baptist can be seen as an inspiration, even a template, for improving the role that e-commerce content has within a higher ed curriculum. His support for category crossovers (fine art, photojournalism, editorial, e-commerce, and so on), courses in e-com topics, and studio space to explore and combine genres puts students in a position to enter the workforce more aware of the industry's day-to-day expectations. It's a mindful curation of a program that we'd love to see replicated throughout universities globally.
Feeling inspired to support the future of university photography programs, including Professor Kern? We encourage you to do so. And for more of the discussion, including some endearingly esoteric riffs about Riverside, California, find this episode of The Creative Operations Podcast on Amazon Music, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or oursite.