Department Dossier: Charles Traub

January 21, 2011

The latest in a series of one-on-one conversations with SVA department chairs.

In 1988, photographer Charles Traub started the College’s graduate program in lens-based arts, and ever since then the MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department has been looking and moving forward. The program was a pioneer in teaching digital media to photographers, the students and faculty participated in the original beta testing for Adobe’s Photoshop software, and the work produced by students continues to move on and beyond the cutting edge. Traub spoke to the Briefs about the impact of online media on his students’ work and the transformative effect of working on a thesis project.

What makes your department different from other MFA programs for lens-based work?
What makes it different is that we’ve always embraced the technology that is changing and still changing the nature of recording the world through the camera, whether still or moving. We were the first graduate program in the country to really see that the digital world was part and parcel of our creative palette. We had digital classes from the day we opened, we worked with computers, we understood that there was something happening and that we needed to know it. We really led the way in seeing the digital world was going to enable photography to do many wonderful things. We are also different because we hold no one single ideology. We’re not programmatic and we’re not dogmatic about what photography should do and how it should do it as a creative fine art.

The original name of the program was MFA Photography and Related Media. Why did you change it?
We started with a video culture class in the first year, with John Hanhardt, who was the media curator at the Whitney Museum. We brought video into the mix from the beginning. We changed the name because video and photography are inseparable at this point. They are all lens arts, and you can do anything with the equipment. Recording the world requires an understanding of both practices.

What has been the impact of online and digital media on your students’ work?
It has enabled students to reach new audiences through the network—imagery is instantaneous. It allows them to promote themselves, and it takes out the middle man. They don’t have to be reliant on some authority in the production world to realize a full and meaningful body of work. I believe it’s changed our seeing, that we’ve become more, not less critical. We see the image, record it and correct it in a fraction of a second.

What sort of work do your alumni go on to do? Has that changed over the years?
We’ve had students who have been journalists, fine artists, editors and cutters, we’ve had people make big-budget films. In recent years, more and more students have had success in the gallery world. Many of our students aspire to that. The operations of the media are so diverse that they have many options to pursue. But their greatest power still comes from providing real-world witness and commenting on the world.

What impresses you most about your students?
Their diversity. A woman from Singapore was talking to a group of students from overseas about the experience of being a student from outside the U.S. They said it was so strange that the diversity among Americans was so great—being from the Midwest, the South, etc. That mix is what’s great. We have students from all over the world and all over the county, and they’re all doing something different. They’re committed to their art, and that’s pretty inspiring.

What are you looking forward to this semester?
We always look forward to the completion of the thesis work. Something magical always happens in that process. They go from being students to being mature artists. They put their nose to the ground and get it done. It’s always different—installation work, food photography, documentary, conceptual work. And that diversity is all represented at a very high quality.

Image: Photo by Harry Zernike; ©2011 Visual Arts Press, Ltd.

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