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Exposure to Reality

The Hallmark Institute Puts the Focus on Photography and Business
Don Ayotte, George Rosa III, and Vern McClish

Don Ayotte, George Rosa III, and Vern McClish say the Hallmark Institute meets a need for a business-based approach to photography education.

The Hallmark Institute of Photogra-phy in Turners Falls has a cavernous foyer in its educational center that is flooded with natural light, and characterized by the constant din of camera shutters snapping closed.

 The institute also has a 75-page, full-color catalog with images that rival any major magazine, all shot by recent graduates, and a current roster of students who hail from 41 states and five countries.

Outside of the photographic world, the Hallmark Institute has long remained a well-kept secret. But as careers in visual imaging become a greater part of the professional landscape, that anonymity is starting to fade.

 The school was founded 32 years ago by George J. Rosa Jr. to provide artistic and business education for aspiring photographers. His son, George J. Rosa III, graduated from the school in 1980, and has served as its president since 1992. Rosa said his father founded the school because he recognized a need for a comprehensive artistic and business-based education for the photographic community, and today that model persists.

“We are conditioning our students to be professional photographers, with all that entails,” he said.

Most importantly, that means offering a balanced curriculum that prepares budding photographers in an entrepreneurial way. But within an industry that has seen vast changes over the past decade alone, that also means keeping pace with technology, emerging trends within both artistic and corporate communities, and new or evolving career paths.

Developing Talent

In response to those concerns, growth has been steady but controlled at Hallmark.

During his tenure, Rosa has seen the school, which is accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges and Technology and licensed by the Mass. Dept. of Education, grow from a 10,000-square-foot facility to a two-building campus adjacent to the Connecticut River.

In 2002, a 50,000-square-foot educational center was completed at the former site of Mohawk Plastics, including 160 digital imaging workstations, a commercial shooting area, a retail boutique, a research library, and an auditorium. The existing building from which Hallmark’s first 20 classes graduated was converted into administrative offices.

In addition to physical growth, the school’s growing student population and reputation are also making Hallmark a more visible entity worldwide.

The mission to prepare photographers for both the artistic and pragmatic challenges of the corporate world already sets Hallmark apart from most art and photography schools, and that focus attracts a growing number of students from around the globe to tiny Turners Falls each year.

Last year, there were 600 applicants for 225 slots, and the institute plans to increase capacity to about 320 students. Rosa said admissions will likely cap at that number for some time, to preserve an 11-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio. However, the increase has necessitated a new capital commitment, a student housing complex, which is about two years away from completion.

“It won’t house all of our students — maybe 25%,” he said, adding that currently, students from outside of the region are assisted by the school to find housing within the local community. “We hope to break ground in September of 2007. It’s a move toward offering a more private housing situation for some of our students.”

Shutter to Think

Hallmark students attend the school for 10 months, and must complete 1,400 hours of work in an intensive set of courses ranging from Traditional Photography to Portfolio Preparation to Vendor Relations. They work with 17 faculty members, and are assigned projects in a variety of photographic genres, including portraiture, photojournalism, advertising illustration, and aerial photography, among others. Students must purchase their own film and digital camera system (Hallmark offers discounts on required equipment through relationships with vendors), and the typical financial commitment is between $50,000 and $60,000 for tuition and materials.

To maintain an educational environment that is focused on realistic business concerns and practices, assignments are dubbed ‘business contracts,’ and structured much like an agreement with a client would be, complete with an end cost. ‘Dollar credit’ is awarded in lieu of traditional course credit, and while that credit doesn’t translate into an actual check on graduation day, students are ranked based on the amount they’ve earned. They must secure at least 75% of the total amount of dollar credit available, and some of that is attributed to punctuality and attendance.

Don Ayotte, director of Education, said the model is one that can be tailored to students with no photography background or to professional photographers looking for a course that will boost their business acumen.

“All of our students are accountable,” he said. “It’s not enough to just sign on the dotted line; an extraordinary amount of work is required of them. The model has been popular, even among photographers who are already very strong in their craft; many still need to hone their small-business skills.

“And among the parents of our younger students,” added Ayotte, “what we hear most is, ‘what did you do to my child?’ They mature quite a bit.”

Similarly, Vern McClish, director of Career Services and Marketing at Hallmark, said the dollar-credit structure is just one way to give students a feel for real-world transactions and the worth of their work. Classes are modeled after a business day, held from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

“What is needed is a better grounding in the business of photography in order to survive in a very competitive marketplace,” said McClish. “About 60% of the coursework is the craft and technology, and about 40% is the business aspect. In short, it’s a reality-based education.”    

Image Is Everything

While educating students about the business of photography, Rosa said the school’s faculty and administrators also spend a substantial amount of time educating potential students and the public about the school’s mission and its curriculum.

 “We spend a lot of time explaining how different it is,” he said, noting, however, that even as a career in photography evolves at the same brisk pace as other technologically-based industries, the educational model at the Hallmark Institute has not changed very much since its early days.

“Careers have changed, and how photographers arrive at the end product has certainly changed,” he explained, “but the core curriculum has really stayed the same.

“We’ve always had marketing and sales classes, but I’d say there’s 10 times more content in those courses than ever before,” he added. “Once, our students left not knowing how to design a self-promotional piece, but still left prepared. Now, they absolutely need that.”

 McClish added that the Internet has also played a key role in that gradual augmentation of courses.

 “Thirty years ago, no one imagined anything as exciting and scary as the World Wide Web,” he said. “But by staying true to our mission, we’re able to evolve to meet changing needs. Today, our students need to design their own Web site.”

 Keeping up with technology is a challenge for Hallmark, which subsists entirely on revenue from tuition.

But in order to stay ahead of major industry trends, Rosa said the school continuously makes major investments in equipment for its students, including the purchase in 2006 of 250 Leaf Aptus digital camera backs, which are placed on high-end, medium-format cameras. At $6 million, it’s been called the largest acquisition of such equipment ever.

 “We’re at the forefront of digital photography now,” said Rosa. “We made some mistakes early on, but those were necessary for our students and faculty to understand just how large the challenges of this new medium were going to be.”

 Indeed, the most notable sign of the times at Hallmark was the elimination of its darkrooms not long ago. Students still shoot with film and digital media, but Ayotte said removing the black and white darkrooms to make way for more advanced classrooms was simply a manifestation of the direction in which all photography is headed, and not an attempt to be trendy.

 “Our job is not to teach the latest and greatest just because it’s cool,” he stressed. “It’s to educate our students on every aspect of photography that we know of so when they leave here, many doors are open to them.”

Entrepreneurship and Art, 101

As technology becomes a greater force at Hallmark, its students are graduating with a certificate of completion that qualifies them for a myriad of careers in the visual arts; it’s also a piece of paper that has grown to include a substantial amount of weight within the photography, graphic design, and entertainment communities.

“People come here wanting to be photographers,” said Rosa, “and many leave to open their own small businesses. Others take great positions with other photography outfits, and still others leave prepared for jobs they never gave a thought to before — like being a set designer for Law & Order: Criminal Intent, or a production assistant on America’s Next Top Model.

 “I think that’s because while they’re here,” he continued, “they realize it wasn’t just the camera they were attracted to. It’s the discipline and the knowledge of all things visual.”

And vision, which honors the past and the present but prepares for the future, is likely the most valuable aspect of Hallmark’s lesson plan.

 Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]