Photography as Science and Art at the Rochester Institute of Technology
Photography as A Schooling Issue
Albertina Museum Press
Professor Michael Peres


This paper will overview operations from one American photography school, the Rochester Institute of Technology School of Photographic Arts and Sciences (SPAS) beginning with its arts and crafts photography classes that were first offered at the turn of the 20th century. The paper will discuss the school’s evolution into the modern era and will focus on one of its specialized scientific programs.

The School’ s programs, specialized facilities, classes, curriculum, and faculty will be overviewed. Today’s students study both theoretical and applied photography specifically in the areas of fine art, advertising, visual media, photojournalism, biomedical photographic communications and imaging and photographic technology. Unique to the School is the Biomedical Photographic Communications program. Its curriculum includes immersive instruction in the making of science images as well as the development of professional practices. SPAS faculty and students alike explore why the making and understanding of images produced in the twenty-first century can be challenging and how science images might also be interpreted differently when viewed outside of the environment in which they were made.

An Adaptive Organization

The future begins with the past and the 100+ year-old Rochester Institute of Technology School of Photographic Arts and Sciences (SPAS)  is a classic example. In 1902, the Mechanics Institute offered its first classes in photography and design. The classes were created to support the growing arts and crafts interests of the Rochester area at that time.   Rochester, New York already was becoming the epicenter of American photography technology and manufacturing in this era. Eastman Kodak opened for business in 1880 and grew quickly. Rochester at the time was beginning to feel the powerful influences from the success of Kodak’s photographic products and the potential for economic opportunities yet to come. The 1898 Kodak marketing slogan created by Kodak founder George Eastman “You push the button and we do the rest” associated with Kodak’s roll film cameras was beginning to affect residents in the community directly or indirectly. In 1902, Kodak had been a company for a mere 22 years and hands-on courses at the School became important to the greater Rochester metropolitan area for many reasons. These classes continued for nearly twenty-five years.            

In 1930, the School of Photography was officially formed as part of the renamed Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute. The name Rochester Institute of Technology was adopted in 1944. There is little doubt that the School operated as a professional school in its earliest times and served an important role for the then growing analog photography industries in Rochester and the entire U.S.     

The RIT School of Photography’s formation was heavily influenced by the actively growing Rochester photographic business community of the time. This community included Bausch and Lomb, Defender Photo Supply Company (now DuPont), Haloid Company (now Xerox Corporation), and Eastman Kodak Company. The business leaders from these companies desperately needed an ever-growing pool of trained employees as their businesses grew. The School’s first classes and curriculum were offered in September 1930 and consisted of twenty-four full time students.

From the beginning, the School’s curriculum included significant coursework in the applications of technology, photographic materials and sciences. The School’s first full time faculty members were photographic inventors and scientists on loan from Eastman Kodak. C. B. Neblette was the School’s first director and Frederick Brehm, an inventor and photographer who worked with panoramic photography and circuit cameras was the School’s first full time faculty member. The curriculum investigated photographic optics, chemistry and materials in ways that were not offered anywhere else in the U.S. The education was focused around tools and contemporary technology of the time. Its graduates became emulsion scientists, engineers and photographic chemists and of course professional photographers. Activities surrounding courses in the fine arts and crafts were minimized as the hard work of building the School from the ground up and focused on career education.

By the early 60s, the School had fully developed two primary tracts: Photographic Technology and Professional Photography, which provided courses in four areas—general professional photography, portrait photography, commercial illustration photography, and color photography. In 1960 there were 400 students in the School.

In the mid 1960’s, the School’s offerings were again revised and included a tract in Professional Photography, a newly formed tract in Photographic Illustration, and renamed the Technology department as the Photographic Sciences and Instrumentation department. There were twenty full time faculty members. At that time, the Photographic Illustration department started a bachelor of fine arts photography program, a motion picture program, a master of fine arts photography program, and the Photographic Sciences and Instrumentation department created a master of science in photographic science and instrumentation. In 1966, School of Photography’s name no longer described the educational philosophy or objectives and was changed to the School of Photographic Arts and Sciences. In 1969 the Biomedical Photographic Communications and Photofinishing and Lab Management programs were added to the School’s portfolio.

In 1969, the campus moved from its center city location to suburban Rochester. There were 1000 students in the School of Photographic Arts and Sciences at that time. The School’s new building consisted of 60 studios, 200 darkrooms and thirty specialty areas, including a photographic chemistry laboratory, a sensitometry complex, a technical studio, a densitometer area, an optics lab, an industrial lab, a biomedical lab, a processing facility, a chemical mix area, a film and TV center, a retouching studio, and a color complex. In 1982, the Imaging and Photographic Technology program was launched to replace the Photo Science program, which left the College of Graphic Arts and Photography to form its own independent organization. In 1997, a new College was formed on campus named the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences to create potential for more collaboration between the College of Graphic Arts and Photography and the College of Fine and Applied Arts. In 1999, the SPAS film program formed its own School, the School of Film and Animation.

The School of Photographic Arts and Sciences: the modern School
Today’s School is part of a very large private University that enrolled nearly 18,000 students in 2012. There were approximately 600 full time photography students enrolled in the School of Photographic Arts and Sciences. The School's programs include the fine arts, applied arts, biomedical sciences and photographic technologies. Students pursuing art degrees sit side-by-side with students enrolled in science curriculums. In the U.S., this is relatively unique for a photography school to be able to offer such programs.

SPAS has a large faculty and in 2011 revised its entire curriculum to form fifteen week courses as part of revised degree programs across the entire campus. This curriculum conversion was not tied to changes in photographic technology but in response to a University mandate for the conversion of its ten-week trimester system into a semester system of fifteen-week classes. The conversion was accomplished in a two-year period. Coupled with the massive transformation of photography’s technologies during the last decade, the new curriculum was designed to allow future changes to be easily made. Students will complete credits in categories of study rather than individual classes in topics such as advertising photography for example. Courses have been organized as core or specialization requirements rather than specific classes. Many questions arose during the re-design phase and that focused on what subjects to include in design of a forward thinking and flexible curriculum. In 1986 when SPAS operated nearly 200 darkrooms, the curriculums and film technology experiences were based in chemistry and creating dark spaces. Organizing courses and scheduling of courses was very different than the work surrounding the teaching of digital technology. Teaching digital technologies has presented the school with different challenges because the large facility it operates was designed for analog technology. The curriculum debate represented a period of intense discussion led by artists and technologists. In the end, the various curriculums became more flexible and interdisciplinary using a balance of technical, conceptual and immersive courses.

At RIT, the School’s operating budget is funded by tuition revenue and there is tremendous pressure to fill seats. This problem is found all across America at this time. Because of the 2008 recession in the U.S., universities are more cautious about expansion and new initiatives. RIT operates on a revenue neutral model, which means at the end of the twelve-month academic year, all fees collected from students must cover all expenses generated by the University. For that reason marketing has become a critical element in the new world of higher education and certainly for private Schools. Achieving a full enrollment affects all initiatives and future opportunities. A significant amount of work, time, and the University’s financial resources are now dedicated to maintaining a high visibility for the School and its numerous extracurricular activities to prospective students. Most schools in the U.S. are heavily involved with social media including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. SPAS and all of its programs have Facebook groups and the School puts considerable energy into this forum. Less than a decade ago, not one University in the U.S. used Facebook and now there are people all across American whose sole responsibility is to produce content used on social media outlets.

Because RIT is a private university, students must pay tuition and fees established by the University. The tuition for one academic year in 2012 at RIT was $31,584. This amount does not include room and board fees. In the U.S., universities can be private or public and they all set their own fees. RIT’s tuition is considered average for a private School. Additionally many states have their own university systems. In New York State, we have the State University of New York (SUNY) system, which costs considerably less to attend than private universities.

SPAS and RIT are tied to the Rochester metropolitan area for many reasons. One reason is that many students from Rochester enroll in RIT. Rochester also offers many employment opportunities for RIT’s graduates. The relationship might be considered one of a small ecosystem. The Rochester metropolitan area has a population of approximately one million. While the industries and economic activities in Rochester have changed dramatically since the 1950’s at Rochester’s height of explosive growth, it still remains vibrant. In 1986, Eastman Kodak Company employed 65,000 Rochesterians. Today that number has fallen to just under than 4,000. Rochester has many important institutions including: Eastman Kodak Company, Bausch and Lomb, Xerox Corporation, the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, Visual Studies Workshop, The University of Rochester and Eastman School of Music, and the Image Permanence Institute. Rochester has been referred to as the Image City for years. Because of the image centric nature of Rochester, things happen here that could not happen at other places.           

Students enroll in SPAS from various educational backgrounds and ages. Students are accepted following completion of their secondary education, typically at eighteen years or as transfer students from other colleges and universities. When students first visit, one of the very first conversations often revolves around their interests to work for National Geographic. It is the most common job first year students seek. At RIT, we call this the front-end fantasy. At the start of every academic year, nearly 180 first year students have that same dream, which is probably true in all photography classes across the U.S. Recruiting for our specialized programs is particularly challenging for the School. Very few students of this age are aware of career opportunities in the photographic sciences or technology fields. Students change majors frequently in our school. The first two years are common for all students pursuing a BFA degree and there is another set of common courses that students working on a BS degree take.

In September 2011, approximately 600 students were enrolled in the School. These students were pursuing a Bachelor of Science, a Bachelor of Fine Arts or a Masters of Fine Arts degree. As one of America’s largest private Universities, students must apply to RIT for direct admission into any of the four-year degree programs. Nearly 500 students apply to SPAS each year for 180 seats in the School’s first year curriculum. Admission is based on a rubric of things. Academic grade point average from secondary schools, the score from a standardized college entry exam, letters of recommendation, and the evaluation of their personal statement as to why they want to attend RIT.
RIT has long prided itself as being an immersive, career-oriented and student-centered University. From its first beginnings, it has focused on teaching excellence and specialized education leading to careers. Today’s attitudes have been influenced by its long history as the Mechanics Institute. There are currently over 200 different academic programs that are offered in nine different divisions or colleges including the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. While many schools in the U.S. teach photography, very few universities have a stand-alone school solely organized around photography. Most photography programs in the U.S. are part of a larger and more diverse organization in either the fine or applied arts. In the golden era of film photography, SPAS did not have many competitors and thrived for decades in a category of one. It was part of very short list of professional schools where a student could experience a specialized education in a peerless facility. In 2012, there are many schools in the U.S. that directly compete with RIT for prospective students. There may be upwards of 100 or more and so filling the freshmen class is hard work and the School’s reputation alone is no longer enough to fill its classes.            

Today the School is housed in a 70,000 square foot building. In 2012, the School maintained thirty B & W and color darkrooms, thirty fully equipped professional photographic studios, and operated 120 Mac imaging workstations. The School operates a full service imaging lab for student use, a large photography gallery, a technology and imaging systems lab, a high speed and instrumentation lab and numerous other specialized facilities including microscopy and ophthalmic imaging laboratories. There is a large north light studio and a historic processes laboratory. More importantly with the revision of the curriculums towards a more holistic learning experience complete, SPAS students now receive a more immersive University education that requires 25–50 percent of obligatory courses in the general education areas. These courses at RIT includes humanities, social sciences, biological sciences, mathematics and other subjects depending on the degree.

Quick Facts about the 2012 School of Photographic Arts and Sciences
Enrollment: approximately 325 female and 275 male students.
Program distribution of the full time undergraduate and graduate students:
—120 Fine Art
—130 Advertising Photography
—100 Photojournalism
—90 Visual Media
—90 Biomedical Photographic Communications
—25 Imaging and Photographic Technology
—30 Graduate students
SPAS has 37 full time faculty with a wide range of expertise including photographic technology, biomedical photography, fine arts, photojournalism, advertising, history and critical theory, visual media, video, ophthalmic photography, high-speed and instrumentation, multimedia, commercial photography, and historic processes. The School also employs numerous adjunct instructors in the areas of studio and commercial photography, digital asset management, underwater and forensic photography, historical processes, scanning electron microscopy, location and social documentary applications.

In the recent past, the School offered nearly 200 different photography classes in the quarter system. In the semester system, that number will be approximately 138. The School also operates a “cage” or equipment lending facility for students. The cage loans cameras, lenses, tripods and any other item that a contemporary photograph student might want or need to use while enrolled in courses. In 2012, approximately 90,000–100,000 transactions occurred at the cage during the academic year.

Biomedical Photographic Communications
One of the more unique programs in the School is the nation’s only bachelors of science program in Biomedical Photographic Communications.With an enrollment of more than ninety students, the curriculum and its delivery are continually challenged by the ‘new world’ of imaging and the needs of the increasingly diversified industry where its graduates might find employment. This program blends science, imaging, communications and general studies into a immersive curriculum.

Since its formation in 1969, the Biomedical Photographic Communications (BPC) program has graduated more than 850 students. The program boasts a placement rate of approximately 85 percent following graduation. Many of the alumni work in human and veterinary medicine, in ophthalmology and related clinical opportunities, in forensic science laboratories or other life sciences-related organizations such as pharmaceutical companies or educational multi-media companies.
The BPC curriculum requires students to complete a range of courses, which includes biology, mathematics, humanities and photographic imaging. Students study in an environment that provides exposure and hands-on experiences exploring digital imaging, web development, multimedia, and the fundamentals of educational media design using state of the art imaging equipment. Several specialized areas of exploration include photomicrography and ophthalmic imaging as well as the production of instructional media. Class sizes are capped at twenty students but frequently average twelve. Students must also complete one paid work-study experience to satisfy the degree requirement. Past sponsors of the work study program would include The University of Cardiff Hospital in Wales, The Johns Hopkins Medical Center, The Mayo Clinic, the FBI, the Smithsonian Institute, Carl Zeiss Microscopy, the Cleveland Clinic and other well-known organizations across the U.S. In the summer of 2012, 35 students were on work study.
Career trends during my time at RIT have changed dramatically. In 1985, a typical class of twelve graduates would produce ten medical photographers, one ophthalmic photographer and one corporate sales/research/business individual. In 2012, the graduating class might include eight ophthalmic photographers, three electronic media and imaging experts and one corporate sales/research/ business individual. I have seen many career opportunities created as a consequence of the new technology during the quarter of a century that I led the program. The job titles of digital imaging specialist or core imaging facility manager might be examples of new careers based on new technologies. This trend will continue for the foreseeable future, which challenges the program to remain vital and more importantly, relevant.

The curriculum leads to the development of highly precise and analytical skills. One could argue that scientific images must be created using scientific methods, which is a fundamental goal of the curriculum. However students are also implored to experiment in solving visual problems and forced to take chances. Using scientific methods requires the selection and use of appropriate lighting, lens and aperture selection, magnification and image processing. Scales must also be included in scientific images. Scientific images must be created using methods that lead to results with no embellishment and the reproduction of an object as accurately as the process will allow. There can be no amplification of features by the photographic process because images will be defined as data rather than pictures. Teaching students how to create images that serve as science facts and not science fiction is carefully orchestrated using various courses, critical feedback and the addition of more complex problems each year. One absolute requirement of a scientific image remains the need for standardization and repeatability.

Art and Science
In many of the classes, critiques of biomedical photography must include discussion about an image’s aesthetics. While not a primary objective, it cannot be avoided. Even though one tries to create images with neutral perspectives, images will always have a visual bias. There will always be an aesthetic component to a science image in addition to its technical execution. Since its invention, photography has been recognized as both an art and a science and linked by the technology through which its images are captured and then preserved. It is natural that aspects of these three components, in varying degrees, would be evident in all photographic images. The extent to which art, science, or technology dominates the photograph is in the hands of the creator and the mind of the viewer.
The intent of scientific photography has always been to make images without the photographer’s personal biases being evident. However, true objectivity is not possible, since someone has to press the shutter, light the subject, and frame the scene. In addition, the myriad of considerations necessary to convert a three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional image are influenced by the photographer or imposed by the technology that has been selected. So while the intent may be completely objective, subjective influences inevitably intrude even into science imaging.
Most scientific photography is done with visible light and cameras, but may also record invisible objects with dimensions of atomic or cosmic proportions, exploiting almost any region of the electromagnetic spectrum and in ways that are unconventional or highly specialized such as holography and electron microscopy. Scientific imaging also embraces the representation of scientific data that may have no visual counterpart, such as in radiography, or purely numerical images such as fractals. Many of the subjects are recorded specifically because they have never been observed before, cannot be observed directly, or simply because an image is the most convenient way to capture a rich stream of data such as in an outward-looking astronomical telescope. Consequently, a frame of reference is often absent from many science pictures, and when presented without scale, title, or context, they may appear as abstract images to the uninformed viewer.
It is clear that scientific photography offers a vast opportunity for anyone with creative inclinations. However, few practitioners of scientific photography would consider themselves artists. Some would not necessarily admit to being a professional photographer in any conventional definition either. Nonetheless, it is hardly surprising that images made for science can be aesthetically pleasing or even inspirational, since they often reflect aspects of the world of nature, of science, and of technology that are not easily observed by the masses. Sometimes this world is inaccessible, unseen, or non-visible, yet leads to images that are mysterious, revealing, provocative, or inspirational to the science community and beyond. Much of this was predicted by the French astronomer Arago, who introduced Daguerre’s revolutionary invention to the French government in July 1839, with the intention of making the details public in return for a generous life pension for Daguerre.  It was clear that Arago predicted the new process to be useful in archeology, astronomy and lunar photography, photometry, microscopy, meteorology, physiology, and medicine, while noting “…its usefulness in the arts.” Thus from the beginning, the value of photography in the sciences was recognized as being able to create visual empirical data in a permanent form.
It is a rather small departure from this idea to deliberately make scientific images that are intended to be aesthetically pleasing but that almost incidentally include scientific subjects and use scientific equipment, ideas, or techniques. There were other early practitioners of science photography whose work was groundbreaking in both its photographic results as well as its aesthetic qualities. In her chapter on “The Search for Pattern”in Beauty of Another Order, Ann Thomas writes, “Mid nineteenth-century French critic Francis Wey (1812–82), while puzzling over whether photography was an art or a science, decided that ‘It was a kind of hyphen between the two.’” In fact, art-science was the term nineteenth century astronomer Thomas W. Burr used to describe the recording of magnetic and meteorological data in 1865. There were many early pioneers dedicated to using photography as a means of scientific enlightenment including John William Draper, Thomas Eakins, Eadweard Muybridge, Etienne-Jules Marey, and Harold Edgerton.
Many of these early practitioners were scientists who turned to photography to add to their understanding. More unusual was the photographer who turned to science for inspiration. The exemplar of this approach might be found in the pioneering American photographer, Berenice Abbott, who made her reputation with her monumental American Federal Art Project documentation Changing New York (1935–39). Berenice Abbott proposed a new role for herself as science photographer following completion of that work. She wrote that photography was “the medium pre-eminently qualified to unite art with science. Photography was born in the years which ushered in the scientific age, an off spring of both science and art.”
When we look at scientific images taken 150 or more years ago, many now seem to be minor works of art, partly because of their rarity, but also because many of those who embraced photography in its early days had some artistic training or temperament. Many of the early processes also had a delicacy of tone or color that lends a grace and style rarely seen today, however, few of the early science pictures that we now see as artistic, neither sought nor received the attention that we accord them today. They were exchanged between friends or colleagues, shown at the meetings of the learned societies of the day, and sometimes exhibited as examples of the art of photography.
Today there are numerous photographers who might be defined as science/art photographers. Swedish photographer Lennnart Nilsson and Felice Frankel’s photographs at high magnifications are examples of photographers whose work has been widely published and exhibited worldwide. (Fig. 10) More than 170 years after the first science pictures were created, there is still an ambiguity associated with this type of photography. Just as the intent of the photographer decides what category of image will be made, so it is the mindset of the beholder that decides if it is art, or not.

In 2007, I served as editor of the revision of the Focal Encyclopedia of Photography (4th Edition), I had access to some of the world’s smartest people and unlimited access to iconic images at the George Eastman House. At the end of the process of revising that book, I learned first hand that very complex issues still remain surrounding photography’s definitions and the future remains a very unsettled place for photographers, photography, and educational organizations. Therese Mulligan, the administrative chair of SPAS, suggested that we consider that this era in photography has practical and cultural circumstances similar to the era when photography was first practiced in the 1830’s. The new is often met with trepidation and this is the nature of change. As we move into the future, questions arise about how digital technologies present new opportunities and new possibilities for interpretation, communication and art. Will these opportunities co-exist with film photography for the foreseeable future? And will they deepen its significance or is the converse the future?
Time will be the judge.

Author’s Note: Portions of this essay were originally published in the Focal Encyclopedia of Photography–4th edition. Content was also drawn from William Soule Shoemaker, History of The School of Photographic Arts and Sciences. Prepared in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Founding of the School, 1980.  

Michael Peres, Teaching biomedical photographic communications into the next century. Audiovis Media Med (= Journal of Audiovisual Media in Medicine), v. 22, no. 4, Oxfordshire: Cafax, 1999, pp. 178–85.

Michael R. Peres, David Malin, “Science as Art,” in: Michael R. Peres (ed.), Focal Encyclopedia of Photography. Digital Imaging, Theory and Applications, History, and Science. Fourth edition. Amsterdam–Boston–Heidelberg–London–New York–Oxford–Paris–San Diego–San Francisco–Singapore–Sydney–Tokyo: Focal Press, 2007, pp. 492–96.

Ann Thomas, “The Searche for Pattern,” in: Id. (ed.), Beauty of Another Order: Photography in Science. London and New Haven: Yale University Press, in association with the National Gallery of Canada, 1997, pp. 76–119, here: p. 76.

Cf. Therese Mulligan, “Introduction,” in: Focal Encyclopedia of Photography4th Edition (as note 3), pp. xxix-xxxii.