This week’s Questions with an Educator features Steven H. Begleiter.
Steven is a Denver-based photographer, educator, and photography book creator, who specializes in editorial and commercial photography. His teaching career has taken him all over the country, but he now teaches at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design in Denver, Colorado. He uses his vast career experience as a tool in the classroom to prepare his students for the industry, and thoroughly enjoys learning alongside his students. Here, Steven outlines his path to his first teaching position at the University of Pennsylvania, his experiences with photography book production, and a few of his favorite things about teaching.
We asked: What led to your recruitment by the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design to teach photography? Did you utilize any specific marketing techniques to obtain this opportunity?
Steven said: I had been working as an editorial/commercial photographer in NYC for over 15 years and had published my first book, “Fathers and Sons” by Abbeville Press, with commercial and critical success. Before I opened up my first studio, I had been a photo assistant for 3 years working for Annie Leibovitz and then Mary Ellen Mark. Burning out on the day to day stress of running a busy studio in NYC, I felt I needed a change.
My wife had gone to Penn and really enjoyed living in Philadelphia, so we decided to move there. I also decided that it would be fun to share my experience and knowledge of photography with students. I sent out cover letters and resumes to various institutions in the Philadelphia region with recommendation letters from Annie and Mary Ellen. I got a response from the University of Pennsylvania, Mary Ellen Mark’s alma mater, that they would like to meet with me for an interview.
I had called Mary Ellen to thank her for the letter and opportunity, and she mentioned that she was having an exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art around the time of my interview and that I should meet her at Penn for a party they were throwing for her opening. I went and she introduced me to chair of the Fine Arts department, telling her that “You would be a fool not to hire, Steven.” Embarrassed by her comment, I chose to stay quiet and just smiled. I met with the chairperson and Art department for the interview the next day. They reviewed my work and we talked about my teaching philosophy and experience. The following week I received a letter of employment from the University of Pennsylvania School of Design.
I ended up teaching in the photography department for the next 10 years which leads to the next question.
We asked: How has the production of photography books played into your overall career? Do you utilize these books when teaching?
Steven said: My first book, “Fathers and Sons,” really launched my career as a portrait photographer. Excerpts from the book appeared in magazines around the world, I did a book tour around the country which promoted me and my work and even an appearance on national TV. After the book came out, I got calls from photo editors and art directors for assignment work. The book also landed a national advertising campaign for Readers Digest, that lasted 5 years.
Once I moved to Philadelphia and started teaching at Penn, I realized that now that I was in the academic world, I needed to publish books. I was fascinated with Color Infrared film and the artistic application, and wanted to explore the medium. I pitched the idea to the publisher Amherst Media, my current publisher, and they liked the idea and images I was sending. So we negotiated a contract and a year later “The Art of Color Infrared Photography” came out. I used this book as a vehicle to write and display my work in photography trade magazines, submit to galleries, and even did a lecture, sponsored by Kodak. The next book, “The Portrait Book,” allowed me to market my portrait work and help me grow as an artist by forcing me to critically look at my past work and make the necessary changes to attract new clients. I also used this book as a guide in my lighting classes.
Detour: I was offered a job at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography (RMSP) in Missoula, Montana to teach their lighting and business classes. It was there that I wrote two more books, but this time the books were about specific lighting scenarios a photographer would face on assignments. I learned to distill what was important and how to convey complicated principles of lighting through my teaching of students. The books were entitled, “50 Lighting Setups for Portrait Photographers Volume One and Two,” Amherst Media.
The overall effects of publishing books has really shaped me as an artist by continuing to examine my own work, discover new work, and keep moving forward. It has also helped me attain academic positions, which are more challenging now without having an MFA. I have always considered my assisting years as my graduate work and my books as dissertations. Currently, for example, I am working on a book by Amherst Media, about lighting. As I put this book together, I will run it by my photo students at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design to see what they think and get their feedback. The book will be out next year.
We asked: Please describe your three favorite elements of teaching photography.
- Students…I always learn from my students and being around them keeps me honest and my work current.
- Learning: I have thought of teaching as a way to get paid to learn. There is a lot of preparation and research that goes into the classes I teach.
- Being around like-minded people who have a passion for photography. Being a freelance photographer can be lonely. I really enjoy engaging with other photo educators, exchanging ideas, “war” stories and different points of view.
We asked: How do you maintain a balance between teaching, photography book production, commercial work, and personal work?
Steven said: I don’t sleep much. In reality, I learned early in my career to manage my time. Each day of the week I have a task to accomplish. Those tasks include: marketing, working on my website, bookkeeping, prepping for class, etc… Of course my plans always change when a job comes in. Priorities are my family, then the client, my business, and finally personal projects. I am hoping in time to spend more time on personal projects. My days begin at 6 AM and usually end around 10 PM.
We asked: What is the biggest obstacle you expect most of your students to face in the photography industry as it currently stands?
Steven said: I remember when I graduated from college in 1980, I went to interview at the newspaper and the photo editor lamented that a career in photography was a bad idea. For the last 35 years I have been hearing the same thing. Now, the complaint is that everyone is a photographer who has a smart phone. That is like saying everyone who owns a piano is a classical pianist. I tell my students to learn your craft well and work on your vision. Find a cohesive project that is meaningful to you and create it and put it out there, in the world. One of my mantras to them is “publish or perish.”
My advice is to keep creating and pursue what you love. There are many paths in photography to sustain a career, so find out what suits your abilities best. It may be shooting; photo editing; photo retouching; curating; or photo-assisting. Regardless of your path, keep shooting. As long as you keep shooting, you are learning and growing. Finally, don’t be so hard on yourself; the world will take care of that…be positive and when you’re felling down, listen to music that makes you feel good. One of my favorite songs is “What a difference a day makes” sung by Dinah Washington…
Find more of Steven’s work on his website.