This week’s Questions with an Educator features Mary Farmilant.
Mary is a Chicago-based fine art photographer who is well known for her work photographing abandoned hospitals. She finds the foundation of photography to be in the intention of the work, and with her background in nursing, the intention and meaning of her abandoned hospitals project are extremely apparent. She now holds the position of adjunct professor at Columbia College Chicago, where she earned both her Bachelor of Arts and Masters of Fine Arts. Here, Farmilant details the origin of her teaching career, her curriculum development strategies, and her abandoned hospitals project.
We asked: How did your career in teaching begin? Was teaching always something you wanted to pursue, or did your other career experience open this door to you?
Mary said: I enjoyed a 30-year career as a registered nurse before devoting myself to photography on a full-time basis. Nursing is essentially the skill of seeing, understanding, and educating: we are trained to observe biopsychosocial systems to know what is happening in an entire being and then develop an intervention with the medical team. I made it my personal mandate to provide as much information as reasonable to my patients and their families so that they could make an educated decision about treatment choices. I translated “doctor speak” into language they could understand.
Formal curriculum-based teaching had not been a goal of mine when I entered the nursing field, although I enjoyed educating patients and mentoring new nurses. When I finally finished my BA in Photography (it took me 17 years) I realized that although I knew how to compose a photograph and print in the darkroom, I didn’t know what it meant to be an artist, nor did I have a solid body of work to hang my hat on. I knew I needed to continue my education and that meant graduate school. My personal goal in my MFA program was to develop a body of work that was undeniably art, and told a story. I also wanted to develop a critical vocabulary – to learn how to understand and talk about photography and image making as an art form.
In my last year as a graduate student, the chair of the photography department at Columbia College offered me the opportunity to teach a class. I jumped at the chance. Bob Thall, the photo department chair at the time, was supportive of his students and a great facilitator of their evolution. However, they don’t teach you how to be an art teacher in art school. In preparation for my career as a teacher, I approached several of my professors whose work I respected offering my service as a teaching assistant. I was able to assist and observe in the classrooms of three great photographers: Arthur Lazar, Peter Thompson, and Dawoud Bey.
We asked: How did you go about developing your comprehensive professional practices curriculum?
Mary said: My thesis advisors, Lynn Sloan and Dawoud Bey were my most influential teachers and mentors. In their Graduate Seminar classes, they encouraged us to write artist statements, insisted we develop and keep current a CV as an artist, and demanded that we learn how to write a letter of application for a job, a grant or an exhibit. In retrospect, these principles became the foundation of my practice as an instructor. I began to compile resources on all aspects of the life of a working artist: how to find and apply to shows and exhibits, how to ship work to distant venues, how to curate one’s own portfolio, and a multitude of other skills. I compiled enough of these resources that I was eventually asked to develop three professional practice workshops – two eight-hour days each – for undergraduate and graduate photo students. This exercise harkened back to my nursing days, when I compiled a handbook of procedures and protocols for a busy neurosurgery practice that was published and distributed to the entire medical staff.
The three workshops I developed were Portfolio, Promotion and Business.
The Portfolio workshop focused on portfolio preparation, writing an artist statement, biography and resume, cover letters for exhibition proposals, and how to prepare for portfolio reviews. The curriculum also covered graduate programs and how to find funding for grad school (for undergrads). For the graduate students, we covered teaching applications, academic CVs, and what is included in a teaching philosophy.
The Promotion workshop concentrated on the marketing and promotion of work as a practicing photographer. The class covered self-promotional tools, social media, branding, exhibition opportunities: developing relationships with galleries, museums and non-profit art spaces: professional photography communities and organizations: and physical and virtual publications for and about artists.
The Business workshop looked at the behind-the-scenes of a business practice. This workshop covered setting up an artist’s studio, legal practices for artists, grant writing, commissions, artist’s residencies, pricing and editions. The curriculum also included field trips to artist’s studios. Susan Carr, a gifted photographer and ASMP educator, was a favorite presenter and she spoke about the importance of copyright, pricing, and licensing of images.
The first semester, each of my workshops filled within a few weeks. The following semester, the department opened up a second section of each workshop. These sections also filled right away. The students were clamoring for this kind of information.
We asked: How has teaching impacted your personal photography business and vice versa?
Mary said: Teaching and learning are mutual experiences when I lead a class. As my students get a solid grounding in the fundamentals of each class, I get to learn from them about new social trends, developments in technology, emerging social media forms, and a host of other subjects. They are at ground zero for all things new! I find their energy, enthusiasm, and ability to think outside the box to be a positive influence on my own creativity. The digital lab at Columbia, now sadly closed, was a hub of creativity, sharing of new information from all fronts, and an exciting and vibrant incubator for all who came in contact. The ability to experience the lab was not necessarily a result of my teaching, and did not directly impact my personal photography practice, but being at the school on a regular basis afforded me the opportunity to broaden my perspectives on life in general. It impacted my work as a consequence of being engaged in a thriving intellectual and artistic environment.
I show my work to students as a way to illustrate the lesson of the day. I share the process and experiences of constructing an image, developing the thematic body of a project, the choices I made when making a photograph, how to assess what works and what does not work on the fly. Sharing these procedures with students certainly holds me accountable to the process, while at the same time allowing me to expand my own connection to the way I make work. There is a famous saying from the field of medicine for educating doctors: See one, Do one, Teach one.
I encourage my students to develop their own support systems while in school. The person sitting next to them in class could become part of a collective of artists who still get together regularly when they’ve finished their studies. I am part of a women’s collective in Chicago, called the Stella Collective. We’ve been meeting monthly since 2009, to show each other our work and offer critique. Currently, we are expanding the nature of the collective from monthly critiques to developing group exhibits.
I always ask my students to stay in touch with me after they have graduated. I am still in contact with many former students and continue to send information to them about jobs, calls for work, grants, and other opportunities. If I see something that I think might be of interest, I will make a point of forwarding the information to students who have made the effort to be in touch. By staying connected in this way I am “paying forward” the continued interest my own professors have had in my career. I have made lifelong collegial friendships with many of my teachers, and am developing a new generation of these relationships with my own students.
We asked: Please describe your abandoned hospitals project and where your inspiration for this project came from. How do you encourage your students to find inspiration for their work?
Mary said: One of the most important things I learned about making photographs is to use familiar subjects as my subjects. The Hospital project began after the closing of Columbus Hospital in Chicago, where I had worked for fourteen years. I was able to make arrangements with security staff, who allowed me to photograph the interior spaces for five years. I also photographed the abandoned Ravenswood Hospital, the closed Neuro-Ortho Institute of Chicago and the former Cook County Hospital. I was also fortunate to make arrangements to photograph Hellingly Hospital and All Saint’s Hospitals in southern England, where I completed my nurse’s training.
I do not think of my work as urban exploration, but as storytelling about a time, a place, and an economic reality, the spent usefulness of an institution, the questionable future of the same space. The hospital images tell the stories of a thousand human lives and deaths, and ultimately how the space impacted the people and the people impacted the space at the same time. Like a nursing assessment, the images are the story of the state of several systems frozen at one point in time. I encourage my students to make images of their passionate interests for the purpose of engaging the passion of the viewer. I encourage them to explore ideas that are close to home. I’ve seen many students who wait for spring break to travel and make pictures of a new place, thinking that photographing in a new, unknown place will make a good image. Unfortunately, this is merely the recipe for travel photography, which is rarely more than a superficial record of an unfamiliar place. The continued investigation of a space or an idea is where the depth comes from in a project.
At the same time, I challenge students (and myself) to stretch out of their comfort zone. A recent project of mine has been photographing a glass bowl in various states in my back yard. I am creating the space I am photographing – literally out of nothing – rather than making images of something that already exists in reality. Creating a tangible space out of the emptiness of a glass bowl requires a leap of faith that I will pull the compelling image out of thin air.
The project is both hard and easier at the same time. It’s hard creating something out of nothing. The best part is the creative zone I enter when I am searching for content in the absence of content. Searching for reality in the absence of reality.
We asked: How do you think having a career in a different field before pursuing photography has impacted your business? Would you recommend this path to your students?
Mary said: Nursing was always a means to an end. It allowed me to live in another country, travel, and support my family. It was a high stress kind of job, which enabled me to better tolerate the stress of school. Ultimately, the most valuable “end” to my nursing career was the urgency I felt to tell the story of Columbus Hospital closing.
I tell my students that by simply owning a camera does not mean that person is a photographer. The difference between them and someone with a camera is the intent behind the work. To have something relevant to photograph requires an experience of life from which meaning can be extracted. The technical skills required to communicate in any medium are not as important as the message being communicated. For instance, I was able to experience firsthand the value of a particular space for a particular function, and was heartbroken when this special place was sold for a less altruistic purpose to the highest bidder.
Everyone has their own passion, their own experiences and their own way of processing the experience. The most impactful images are those that come from that interior space.
Find more of Mary’s work on her website.