Aaron Schuman has lived and breathed photography for nearly 30 years. Now, he's heading up a new UK-based Masters programme in photography.
When it comes to photography, Aaron Schuman is a man of many talents. A successful photographer in his own right – most notably for FOLK, chosen by both Alec Soth and Jason Fulford as one of the “Best Photobooks of 2016” – he’s also a well-known curator, writer and educator. In 2014 he curated Krakow Photomonth, featuring nine major exhibitions by artists such as Clare Strand, Trevor Paglen and Taryn Simon; in 2016, he curated Indivisible: New American Documents at FOMU: FotoMuseum Antwerp , including work by Gregory Halpern, Sam Contis and Bayeté Ross Smith.
He regularly writes for magazines such as Frieze, Aperture, and the British Journal of Photography, has contributed to books such as Alec Soth’s Gathered Leaves and The Photographer’s Playbook, and set up his own online journal, SeeSaw Magazine, in 2004. Recently he became a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of the West of England (UWE), and has taken part in live talks and events for Magnum Photos, The Photographers’ Gallery, the National Media Museum and Jaipur Photo Festival.
And now Schuman – along with his colleague Angus Fraser, who won the Bar Tur Photobook Award in 2014 with his work, Santa Muerte – has developed a brand-new MA in Photography, based at the University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol, which will launch in September 2017.
With a chance to create a new postgraduate course from the ground up, within the University’s already outstanding Faculty of Arts, Creative Industries & Education (ACE), Schuman and Fraser aim to situate the programme within the heart of Bristol’s art and photography scene, which already boasts organisations such as IC-Visual Lab, Photobook Bristol, the Arnolfini, Spike Island, Watershed, and will become home to the new Martin Parr Foundation later this year.
UWE’s MA in Photography will be available as both a full-time (15-month) and part-time (24-month) course, and Schuman is keen for the new course to be proactive, productive and hands-on, with students undertaking rigorous research, but making their photographic work the mainstay of what they produce. “There are so many great photo-students out there, but I’ve seen a lot of MA shows in which the artist statements are more interesting and considered than the photography itself,” says Schuman. “I really don’t want this course to be like that.”
Schuman has been living and breathing photography for decades, and has a wealth and breadth of experience that makes him almost uniquely qualified to co-lead the course. Firstly getting interested in image-making when he was twelve, Schuman embraced photography in earnest a couple of years later, when a high-school teacher of his secured a grant to take several students to the Navajo Nation. Schuman proposed going on the trip in order to make a photo-essay, but the teacher – herself a Navajo – was well aware of the complicated historical relationship between photography and Native Americans, and required him to put in some serious research beforehand.
“She insisted that I go to the library and read up on this particular photographic history, so I had to delve deep into images by the likes of Timothy O’Sullivan, Edward S. Curtis and others,” says Schuman. “She also insisted that I couldn’t take a point-and-shoot camera and lent me her old Nikon F, so I had to rapidly teach myself how apertures and shutter speeds worked, simply to get decent exposures.”
During this trip, Schuman truly fell in love with photography and its history. Afterwards, he went on to run his high-school darkroom, and then studied photography at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts from 1995-1999. Furthermore, while at university, he got an internship in Annie Leibovitz’s studio. It was the peak of the mega-budget era for magazines such as Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, and working there was an “eye-opener,” he says. At the same time, he also started working in several galleries in SoHo, including Luhring Augustine and Andrea Rosen Gallery.
“They represented photo-based artists like Wolfgang Tillmans, Larry Clark, Gregory Crewdson, Jack Pierson, John Coplans, Yasumasa Morimura and so on,” he says. “So it was this strange experience of working in a high-end celebrity portrait studio [with Leibovitz] and also in this weird and wonderful emerging art world, which was becoming increasingly interested in the photographic.”
In 2001, fate (and his English girlfriend, who is now his wife) led him to London just as the city was also taking photography to its heart. Wolfgang Tillmans had recently won the Turner Prize, but when Schuman first saw the exhibition he admits, “I just didn’t understand it at all.” Eager to learn more, he jumped at a chance to work for Tillmans as an assistant and colour-printer, and also began pursuing a MA at the London Consortium, an academic collaboration between Birkbeck College, Tate, the ICA, and the Architectural Association.
At the same time, he joined the newly established Photodebut collective, set up by Esther Teichmann and Jan von Holleben with other like-minded young graduates. It was an experience that proved transformative. “I was used to New York, which felt like a very cutthroat, competitive environment,” he says. “If I met up with a photographer and they’d shot for a big magazine, they were always reluctant to share the picture editor’s contacts. With Photodebut, photographers were getting together to form a co-operative; they were working together to support and champion one another.”
Via his Photodebut colleagues, Schuman began giving occasional tutorials and lectures – on Photodebut, on his own work, on SeeSaw Magazine and more – at various universities, and by 2005 he’d secured permanent lecturing positions at both the University of Brighton and the Arts University Bournemouth, teaching photographic history, theory and practice at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. He also occasionally gave guest-lectures at other universities – including UWE Bristol – so when Schuman saw that they were setting up a MA in Photography, he jumped at the chance to help shape it.
“The BA course there is incredibly strong,” he says. “It doesn’t always get the attention it deserves because they don’t shout too loudly about it, but it’s a very smart, dynamic and committed programme, and has produced many genuinely fantastic photographers and creative professionals over the years.”
Schuman and Fraser plan to limit the new MA in Photography to 15 students per year, in order to maintain a specifically bespoke, focused and intimate experience for each student. Furthermore, they’re looking for a group of ambitious self-starters who can come together to form a proactive collective of their own in the spirit of Photodebut, supported by the course but run independently by the students.
The MA students will also attend UWE Photography’s excellent guest-speaker programme – which in the last three months alone has presented Juno Calypso, Martin Parr, Lua Ribeira, John MacLean, Sian Davey and more – and Schuman and Fraser are arranging for each student to have their own “Industry Mentor”, who will meet with them at least four times a year to discuss their work and its progress. There will also be several short masterclasses each year, in which renown photographers, editors and curators from around the world will visit UWE for up to a week, and work intensively with the MA cohort.
He also intends the MA course to support students in finding their way into the international photographic community, the creative industries, and contemporary photographic culture at large. Having produced a substantial body of work over the course of a year, the student’s last term is specifically concentrated on disseminating it within the “real world” – via books, exhibitions, digital platforms, public events or otherwise.
“Even before they graduate, I want the course to help students situate themselves within the culture and industry they’ll be working in,” says Schuman, “so that when they leave us, their work is already out there in the world, and leading to new and exciting opportunities.”
The course is “designed for students who have a confident command of photographic technique, and a general foundation in the medium’s visual and critical histories,” meaning that it’s open to both those who may have formally studied photography in the past, as well as those who may be more self-taught in terms of the medium’s technologies and concepts.
But Schuman is clear that applicants should have solid foundation of photographic knowledge, and an invested understanding of contemporary photography and photographic cultures, as they’ll need to hit the ground running. Ultimately, he says, what will win a place on the course is an informed and passionate commitment to the field itself, a genuinely ambitious and considered idea for a one-to-two-year project, and a promising portfolio of work.
“Our intention is to create a vibrant community and an engaging and supportive environment, in which our students, their ambitions and their photographic work can truly thrive,” he says. “Often, on the first day of term, I like to present students with John Cage’s 10 Rules for Students and Teachers – from my perspective, words to live by. They include:
Rule 5: Be Self Disciplined…
Rule 4: Consider everything an experiment.
Rule 3: (General Duties as a Teacher) Pull everything out of your students.
Rule 2: (General Duties as a Student) Pull everything out of your teacher. Pull everything out of your fellow students.
(And most importantly, at least in regards to our new MA Photography programme…)
Rule 1: Find a place you trust, and then, try trusting it for a while.”