Photography is a swiftly changing field and its nearly 60-year history at RISD bears this out. As early as 1951, black and white photography was taught in the Painting Department, well before the medium was widely accepted in U.S. studio art education. In this context, the medium was taught primarily as an optical method to stimulate artists to see the familiar in new ways. In 1957, the Graphic Design Department incorporated darkroom photography into its curriculum (click any image to enlarge).
In 1961, when RISD decided to establish a degree program in photography, David L. Strout, Vice President and Dean of the College, hired photographer Harry Callahan from the Institute of Design in Chicago (ID) where he had trained and taught under the New Bauhaus influence of Moholy Nagy. By the 1950s, Callahan had achieved a significant national reputation as an American modernist photographer. Over the next eight years, Callahan established an undergraduate photography concentration in the Graphic Design Department and in 1963, established an MFA degree in photography.
In 1971, Callahan hired his former Chicago ID colleague, Aaron Siskind, and the two men taught together for five years until Siskind retired. With Siskind’s hire, Photography became an independent department in the Division of Design. Callahan served as department head from 1970 to 1971, retiring in 1976. He was followed by Bert Beaver (1972-1980) and later Gary Metz who was hired from the University of Colorado, serving from 1981-1993 and then 2001-2005. In 1987, the department moved from its old quarters in Benson Hall to the newly renovated Design Center, a building shared with Graphic Design.
In 1985, Siskind funded The Aaron Siskind Center for Photography within the Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs, a specially designed Museum study area. Before his death in 1991, Siskind donated a major portion of his personal collection to The Center. Today, the Siskind Center holdings comprise over 4,000 photographs and objects related to photographic history from its beginning to the present and Museum curator Jan Howard continues to build the collection through gifts and acquisitions. Recently relocated in the Minskoff Center for Prints, Drawings and Photographs in the Chace Center, The Siskind Center remains a tremendous resource for RISD students and faculty.
In 1992, the Photography Department moved to the Division of Fine Arts. By the mid-1990s, with faculty turnover and growing student interest in interdisciplinary projects, the department began offering video as an elective and opened the curriculum to diverse photographic forms and ideas including video projection, installation, and performance work that incorporated photographic images. In 1994, graduate students acquired studio spaces as well as darkrooms and in 2001, photo grads became the first tenants of the renovated Fletcher Building—pioneers of what later evolved into RISD’s downtown Graduate Center at Weybosset and Union Streets.
In 1996, the first course in electronic imaging was offered as an elective, becoming a major requirement by 2001. In 2009, the department launched a new BFA core curriculum that acknowledged the centrality of digital technology to photographic imagemaking, production and distribution and renovated its facilities to accommodate this latest change in photography’s continuing story at RISD.