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Building the School of Photographic Arts Ottawa

  • Arvelle and Shirley © Vera Saltzmann, an SPAO graduate

    Arvelle and Shirley © Vera Saltzmann, an SPAO graduate

  • SPAO places a big emphasis on print craft, exhibitions and audience awareness. Image © Jon Falloon

    SPAO places a big emphasis on print craft, exhibitions and audience awareness. Image © Jon Falloon

  • SPAO graduate Rachel Gaboury combines photography with watercolour techniques in her landscapes. Image © Rachel Gaboury

    SPAO graduate Rachel Gaboury combines photography with watercolour techniques in her landscapes. Image © Rachel Gaboury

Vision, content and craft are at the heart of the School of Photographic Arts Ottawa’s ethos. As a new director of development is appointed at the Canadian institution, Gemma Padley talks to co-founder Michael Tardioli about the school’s unusual beginnings and where it is heading next

In July 2005, Canadian photography teacher and lecturer Michael Tardioli made a decision that would change his professional life for good. Keen to develop and expand on his teaching methods, Tardioli, who had been instructing photography at a local college in Ottawa, decided to found his own educational institution– the School of Photographic Arts Ottawa (SPAO). With the help of a group of 20 students, Tardioli (whose background is in printmaking) designed, built and equipped the school from scratch in just 43 days.

“Two students became five, and then someone said, ‘Why don’t you open up your own place’?” he recalls. “Five students became 10, 10 became 15, and then we had 20 students.” It was a lot of hard work, says Tardioli, who donated photographic equipment and funded the project using student fees. “We had no air conditioning and it was the height of summer, so it was exhausting, but it was a whole different level of excitement – the kids were really motivated.”

The school, which has recently appointed Tony Martins as director of development, was conceived as “an independent, not-for-profit photographic visual arts school”. Teaching both digital and analogue processes, it currently focuses on part-time study, offering courses and workshops centred around darkroom practice, traditional film processes and digital photography techniques.

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“The fact that we decided to stay with wet labs and insisted on being a process- and craft-driven school really raised eyebrows,” says Tardioli. “People don’t understand why we’re interested in craft. There is a very different optical language [at work] in an 8×10 negative and a digital SLR capture, for example, so we’re trying to evoke and honour new ways of seeing.”

Tardioli sees the school as “a production house for young artists” and runs community collaborations, classes, workshops and exhibitions as part of the school’s programme. With its ethos of “vision, content, craft”, there is a heavy emphasis on printmaking, although students are encouraged to examine and embrace mixed-media practice.

“I work with young artists to cultivate talent,” says Tardioli. “Sometimes this means letting the students be but keeping them [involved] in a critical language. Universities are very concerned with conceptual work, which we’re obviously interested in, but we encourage students to really work with their hands. A student might spend a week making a print and we have a couple of students who are building their own cameras to get the specific look they want.” Tardioli says he has seen increased demand for traditional photographic processes, with students coming in wanting to explore wet-plate Collodion printmaking or large-format capture. “We’re hands-on and very much about analogue,” he says. “The conversations within the work are as critical as [the process]. For example, a lot of the questions we ask are along the lines of, ‘What is the role of the wet-plate process?’ Or ‘Why are you using this approach?’ The students have to be able to explain these things.”

Although Tardioli considers organised classes to be an important part of the school’s ethos, he describes how the students “work under him”, almost in the style of an apprenticeship, where practical work is an essential part. Also important is preparing the students for professional life after the course, ensuring they are ready to face the inevitable challenges that lie ahead. “There is a big emphasis on making work but also presenting work in terms of portfolios and exhibitions,” says Tardioli. “I strongly believe in the business practice of an artist. At the school we talk a lot about the audience – are conservators or curators going to be attracted to the work? I want the school to be a think-tank when it comes to techniques and print processes, and to have a strong conceptual wing.”

This year, the school has started its own residency programme, which is aimed at photographers in the early stages of their careers, offering them the opportunity to develop their work within the context of the school’s infrastructure.

As SPAO enters its next decade, Tardioli hopes to expand and build on the existing programme. He has applied for charitable status for the institution and the school, previously funded by tuition fees, and has sought new revenue streams through a donation fund with the Community Foundation of Ottawa. “

Up until now I’ve been running it like a small business,” he says. “We have been living within our means and not taking big salaries. It’s a small, modest space and we’ve put all the funds into the students’ work, but we need financial help if we want to evolve the place. We cannot compete with the big institutions that receive funding; we can only do what we do.”

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