This feels more like an obituary than an anniversary… an acknowledgement that a language has died, or as John Lennon sang, “Everybody’s talking and no one says a word.”
13 years ago today, I began working at Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara. At the time, Brooks was a visual art college respected throughout the world. If you believe the press reports and Facebook postings, Brooks closed last month. I don’t believe everything I see about Brooks. While working for Brooks, I learned how imagery can be manipulated. I also learned to question the parent company that owned Brooks during the nearly five years that I worked for the school.
I was going to start the post with the phrase, “Life is a paradox,” and so it was with Brooks. Many of us who worked for Brooks were loyal to the college, but not the company. We searched for a safe harbor, so that we could live with the turbulence caused by our dysfunctional parent. I am still searching for the right balance that is part appreciation, part confession and part warning.
While I am heartbroken that Brooks Institute closed, I am forever grateful that I found myself working at the school thirteen years ago. What started as a one year commitment became a five year job with many life long friendships. Earlier this week, I emailed Jim McNay after photographer Marc Riboud died. Jim mentioned something about the New York Times obituary so I waited for it. The obituary explains Riboud’s relationships with his mentor Henri Cartier-Bresson. Riboud learned “which books to read” and “the art of photography.” Riboud learned what made “good photography.” I didn’t have Cartier-Bresson, but I had McNay and many other guides I met because I worked at Brooks.
I can’t overstate my gratitude for working at Brooks. I rekindled my love for photography. I have been able to document the important moments in my own life. I have been able to help others. I have met hundreds (probably thousands) of visual art and journalism educators. I have been fortunate to visit hundreds of classrooms and meet students and teachers at their schools and at conventions. I have known some of the leading visual art educators, photographers and industry professionals. There are times when I was embarrassed by how fortunate I had become, especially considering how underqualified I felt.
I can take a decent photograph now, but when I first started to work for Brooks, I was overwhelmed. I hadn’t taken pictures in ten years and I was working at a college with some of the best photographers in the world. These people were on a different level. This is the first picture I remember taking that I thought might be good. Brooks instructor Paul Myers and I were walking around downtown Nashville when we were at a journalism education conference. I had worked for a homeless relief non-profit, so I knew people, but I didn’t know much about photography. I was embarrassed a few years later when I learned about Gordon Parks’ American Gothic photo and the painting that my image resembles. I was embarrassed often by my lack of knowledge when I worked for Brooks.
I am also grateful that I was able to make a difference in the visual art education field and the college recruiting world. Since I felt that I did not know much, I worked hard. I helped create a college fair in a county that did not have one. When I felt that I was ignorant about photography portfolios, I learned. I learned a lot.
If I didn’t mention someone, I probably did not forget you… I am thankful often.
I tried stop the parent company and save the school. I couldn’t do either. I was hired in September 2003. By early 2005, CEC was featured on 60 Minutes for problems with some of their other colleges. (One of the schools was called Brooks College. Brooks Institute and Brooks College were often confused with each other. I believe that one of the colleges encouraged this confusion.) Later in 2005, Brooks Institute received its own bad publicity. I have included the New York Times article. The publicity was worse locally.
The Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education was investigating Brooks. While there were problems with the way BPPE conducted their investigation, CEC misrepresented the findings. CEC was also tone deaf to the local Santa Barbara community. I had contacted BPPE and ordered a copy of their report. I still have the copy. I had lived and worked in Santa Barbara. I imagined that it was like the 1969 oil spill all over again and Santa Barbara was going to get oil out.
I experienced my own problems with the parent company. In September of 2005, CEC announced that they were changing our employment status and introducing a different way to calculate hours worked. (and by different, I mean illegal) From the beginning, I questioned the legality of the new arrangement. I began kindly. I continued cordially. Eventually, I went to the California Department of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) and provided the legal opinions to support my argument. It still took CEC months to change their employment rules to reflect the law.
While I thought that I was saving the company from another embarrassing lawsuit, I heard that it was not perceived that way. I continually faced roadblocks while working at Brooks. It was the paradox. While the photography industry and photography education community began accepting me, the parent company continually rejected me.
Because I had worked for Walter Capps, I had connections to State Superintendent Jack O’Connell. I contacted him. (The world is small… we later knew some of the same people through Impact Teen Drivers.) I also met with other people who I thought could help. I tried to enlist journalists, but I never knew how to support the college while educating the public. I felt as if I were a whistleblower who did not know how to whistle. I still don’t know.
I could list more problems where the company violated our trust, but nobody seems interested, and it really is not that important to the story. By now, there have been enough stories about for-profit education companies. Someone found the information. I don’t know how.
Lastly, when it was time for me to leave my job, CEC encouraged me to sign exit paperwork that would limit my ability to speak publicly. I refused to sign. It wasn’t worth the money. They weren’t going to buy my silence, even though I remained quiet. As far as I know, I am the only one who refused to sign. I don’t know how regulators and journalists received most of their information. A few years ago, I thought that someone was trying to contact me. I never solved the puzzle. I might have been a little paranoid.
I think it was Mark Twain or Paul Strand who said, “An Instagram filter does not a quality photograph make.” (or maybe that is a new Farleyism)
You might think I am burying the lede by discussing CEC’s problems in the middle, but CEC is not the main point of the story. Granted, CEC was, at best, a bad company. CEC was not “built to last,” and their problems interfered with their ability to advocate for the importance of commercial visual art. But we can’t blame the decline of quality imagery on the for-profit education sector.
We are losing a language. “Everyone is talking and no one says a word.” And nobody seems to care.
When I started working at Brooks, the photography world was transitioning from film to digital cameras. Many of us started to imagine a world that would emphasize quality photography. Brooks was positioned to participate in this new era. Instead, something quite different has happened. The business world built a different model. The education community followed.
I once called this new model the “flickrization” of photography (or something like that). We could now call it the YouTube effect. It is the belief that you can learn everything by watching YouTube videos. That is like us old folks saying, “libraries have lots of books. you don’t need teachers, just drop your kid at the library. you can find everything in books.” Well, sorta. If you happen to find the right books and someone can explain the relevance of Henri Cartier-Bresson and ….
When I was a recruiter, I saw how other colleges and universities recruited. College marketing and recruiting is big business. Most colleges produced glossy publications. Yet, universities tried to save money by not hiring professional full-time photographers. Poor imagery often undermines recruiting, but nobody really cares. Students at Brooks could have created better college marketing materials than those I saw ten years ago. There is a ripple effect when colleges will not hire full-time photographers. Students learn what is valued.
It is worse in school districts. Since I have left Brooks, I have worked for several districts. My children have attended two. The imagery on many official public school district websites does not meet the standards of a proficient high school photography student. You can’t blame this on CEC. I have taught photography at three different high schools the last three years. If my high school students submitted work that appears on most school district websites, I would return the imagery and make the students start over. Educators emphasize the importance of multiple intelligences. (With a nod to Richard Pryor), Multiple Intelligences was introduced by a Harvard professor, so it must be true. The education field values different learning styles, but these differences are not reflected in the official communications. These differences are not reflected in the hiring practices, and there are multiple costs when we lose a language that can be translated so easily.
Strange days indeed…
NOTE: on Labor Day, I added a Notes to a Blog on my older blog