Sarah Pfohl is an artist and teacher. She utilizes photography, drawing, and writing to examine issues of place, teaching, schooling, and ability. New work from 'The forest rests also in you', Sarah's ongoing photography project, was published as the second issue of Halfmoon Projects' TK series in January 2018. Born in New Hartford, New York, Sarah grew up in the unincorporated territory outside of Hubbardsville, New York on a hill between two cornfields surrounded by immediate and extended family and a whole bunch of forests. She earned graduate degrees from Syracuse University (MFA, Art Photography) and Harvard University (Ed.M., Arts in Education) and an undergraduate degree from Pratt Institute (BFA, Drawing). She has served as Assistant Professor of Digital Photography at the University of Indianapolis since August 2018.
Q&A: UNIVERSITY OF INDIANAPOLIS
Why the University of Indianapolis?
I run the Digital Photography area in the Department of Art & Design at the University of Indianapolis in Indianapolis, IN. Broadly, I think Art & Design at UIndy is great for five particular reasons: We’re a small school and department with funding opportunities (don’t discount UIndy as too expensive because it is a private school!). Our setting within a comprehensive liberal arts university supports interdisciplinary inquiry. UIndy’s mission and service orientation offer a distinct set of core values that are alive on campus. And finally, our location in Indianapolis.
The Department of Art & Design at UIndy is a small, vibrant department with 120 undergraduate art majors and 8 full-time faculty. Undergraduate art majors choose from 4 different study pathways (studio art, pre-art therapy, art education, or visual communication design). Housed within Studio Art, digital photography is one of seven areas UIndy Studio Art majors can concentrate in during their course of study. We’re fortunate to offer our students an intimate setting (photo classes are capped at 12 students) and I work hard to spend one-on-one time with each of my students every week. The faculty, staff, and students in the Department of Art & Design care about maintaining a family atmosphere and UIndy is a hard place to get lost in a crowd.
UIndy’s mission is ‘Education for Service’ and we are affiliated with the United Methodist Church. These 2 features of the university do, in my experience, draw students, faculty, and staff who care deeply about service, community, and finding innovative ways to bridge classroom-based teaching and learning experiences with real-life, situated, meaningful problem solving. Our affiliation with the UMC is expansive—learners of all faith backgrounds are welcome at UIndy, as are folks who don’t have a relationship with organized religion, and there aren’t chapel or contract requirements upon enrollment.
Indy is a great, complex place to live. We’re an excellent option for students who want to study in a larger city with all the opportunities for collaboration and inspiration that can involve but might not be ready for life in a larger urban center. We’ve got lots of museums and cultural institutions, things to do, green spaces, and arts and community-based events with which to engage and from which to learn.
What courses do you teach?
I teach Photo I through Senior Thesis, which at this point in time amounts to 6 undergraduate photography courses. We also offer a Digital Photography Minor at UIndy, so I have several non-art majors in upper-level photo courses which enriches our conversations and brings unique perspectives into the room.
The Department of Art and Design at UIndy also has a Master of Arts in Studio Art program in which I teach. The program has 2 tracks, a non-project and a project/thesis option. The non-project track could be used as a post-baccalaureate portfolio-development opportunity while the 2-3 year project/thesis option culminates in a more formal thesis and exhibition. The program is very self-directed.
As a photo teacher, I want my students to develop outstanding photographic craft, make work that operates in meaningful dialogue with historical and contemporary artistic examples, and most importantly, gain the confidence to offer up and refine their artistic vision.
How does your program bridge the gap between traditional and contemporary photographic practices?
UIndy is a digital photography program. While we don’t have a darkroom I do encourage upper-level students to shoot and flatbed scan small- and/or medium-format film if they are so inclined. The program encourages the use of whatever means allow students to articulate their vision, relative to the network of production we can reasonably support given the gear and facilities we can offer students. We are a small photo area and students who choose to study photo at UIndy have to be prepared to utilize the opportunities they have access to creatively. At this point in time video/audio/time-based media is not built into our curriculum.
Describe the process of output for photographs.
Students in Photo I and II are required to make prints and encouraged to make lots of prints in an effort to develop their sense of how little differences in capture and post can make a big impact in output. Students in Photo III and above generally choose to make prints because that particular physical articulation makes the most sense for their work conceptually and aligns best with their goals as artists. At the same time, if an upper-level student’s vision or ideas took them away from printing (toward a less-traditional output method like projecting photographs or making web-based photographic work, to name just a few examples) there’s support for that. Broadly, the priority is on intentional, thoughtful, precise, resolved articulation.
We have a 13-monitor digital lab, a small lighting studio, and an Epson 4800 designated for student use. All of our monitors have color management software and students in Photo II and above are trained in calibration workflows. We also just got a spectrophotometer and I’m excited to create custom profiles to support more color critical output on a wider variety of surfaces as my summer project.
UIndy recently acquired and began work on a new physical space that will house the Department of Art & Design and our School of Engineering. In short, we’re moving soon and in that move will gain a lot more space in which to work!
Describe the critique format.
Critiques happen predominately, but not only, during formal class meetings. Critique and feedback sessions unfold through self-assessment, peer dialogue, one-on-one formative conversations between me as the instructor and the student, and before the full group (as in a more traditional critique model). I incorporate a lot of structured reflection and self-assessment into my photo courses to help students 1) find language to articulate what they are working on, 2) figure out what they want to gain out of the opportunity of their critique, and 3) focus and refine their making and thinking.
Many of our current art & design majors work across media, so these students might coordinate a conversation across faculty connected to their work. Visitors are welcome to participate in a photo area critique, unless a circumstance arises that precludes visitors (like a student requesting a closed critique).
I have an interdisciplinary background in photography and art education and studied critique and object-based feedback/discussion strategies as a graduate student studying for a master’s degree in education. In Photo I and Photo II I use a variety of different discussion structures to help build vocabulary, focus critique, and ensure conversation stays as meaningful and relevant as possible. In any critique I run I try to be sure each student leaves the dialogue with both a strength and growth area relative to their submitted work.
Currently in the upper-level photo classes I teach we’ve landed on a structure that includes setting a timer for 15 minutes for each student when we run formal critiques and adhering as closely as possible to that schedule. I’m surprised this works as well as it has (I thought it might feel artificial or too rigid), but several students have commented on how much they like knowing everyone gets the same amount of time. The primary expectation for any student sharing work during a critique in my classes, especially in upper-level courses, is that they take some responsibility for clarifying to the group what they want/need out of their time. In upper-level photo classes the question with which I usually open each student’s review is some variation of, “How can we be helpful to you today?”
We do host visiting artists from time to time and they might conduct portfolio reviews if time allows.
Where can we keep up with your photo department online?