Last year, two major photography schools abruptly closed their doors: the Hallmark Institute of Photography in Turner Falls, Mass., folded under scandal a few years after the owner pleaded guilty to charges of bank fraud and tax evasion. The Brooks Institute in Ventura, Calif., which was purchased by a large corporation, closed after several years of consolidations and downsizing.
The loss of two nationally prominent photography schools provides an opportunity for other institutions to take the lead, and the locally owned Rocky Mountain School of Photography is looking to fill that role. Andy Kemmis, RMSP's marketing coordinator, says the Missoula-based school has seen an increase in enrollment since its 1989 inception, but mostly the rise has been associated with the school's six-week summer intensive program, where photography enthusiasts from all over the world come to learn the basics of shooting in places like Glacier National Park.
RMSP also offered longer, more career-oriented intensives, but those were harder to fill.
"The numbers would taper off for those programs largely because it was more money, and it's harder for people to take 21 weeks off to do it," Kemmis says. "We decided to take a long look at that and the changing landscape of photography."
This fall, RMSP is rolling out a new professional program that the organization is hoping will serve as a trade school-style alternative for those who want a career in photography, but don't want to invest in a four-year—or even two-year—college. The eight-month course is meant to shepherd participants from newbie photographer to fully loaded professional with a business plan and logo.
When it first opened, RMSP took advantage of its surroundings as a natural place to teach wildlife and landscape photography. Over the last few years, founders Neil and Jeanne Chaput de Saintonge have created programs that appeal to a broader, more cosmopolitan audience, and that work has continued since the Chaput de Saintonge's son, Forest, and his wife, Sarah, took over RMSP last year. The school has brought in high-profile guests, including fashion photographer Lindsay Adler, who will teach breakout sessions in the fall program, along with adventure-sports photographer Michael Clark and advertising photographer Wes Kroninger.
In January 2016, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released numbers showing that while more students are getting high school diplomas, fewer of them are enrolling in college. Part of that is attributed to a recovering economy in which jobs are more available to those without a degree. But it's also true that tuition hikes have made college prohibitive for some families, leading to enrollment in community and tech colleges. Kemmis says RMSP is keeping that in mind. Fine arts and photojournalism schools are still the best route for photographers in those fields, he says, but the RMSP professional intensive is for those who don't want to take that path.
"College down the road might not look like a four-year Michigan State-style experience," Kemmis says. "We're teaching all the technical stuff you need to know so you can apply it to whatever crazy fine-art desire you have, or if you want to be an architecture photographer—it doesn't matter to us. You still need to know your camera."