University, Art School, or Straight to Work?

Christopher Armstrong Posted by Christopher Armstrong on March 28, 2015

I’ve been asked this question hundreds of times over the years. I think that the answer is different for nearly everyone and depends on an infinite number of variables.

I’ll never be the one that says getting a college education is a waste of time, but I’ll also never be the one that says it’s absolutely necessary — it really just depends on what your goals are and if you see yourself working as a photographer or possibly something else.

I knew as early as junior high school (or as kids today call it, middle school) that I was destined to be a photographer or in my case, something related to the profession. In high school, I was fortunate to have an amazing mentor/photography teacher that really pushed me and gave me a head start in my career and to develop a passion that would carry me through (Thank you Tim Brehm. He not only taught the “how” and the “why”, he would also push us to throw it all out and look for new solutions to technical and creative challenges whenever possible. He was very quick to point out when something didn’t work, but that was his point — failing in order to succeed. Without those failures, you can’t figure out what actually works. Without those failures, you will more likely than not, fail.

I attended Art Center College of Design for a very short time and found it intriguing, exhilarating, and extremely expensive. I didn’t have help paying for tuition and supplies and ended up working three jobs in order to pay for it, three soul killing jobs that had absolutely nothing to do with photography. This led to a change to the night program and the loss of studio privileges. At this point, my attitude was, “why am I here?”. I subsequently left Art Center and quit my three jobs (selling television commercial air time, retail at Banana Republic, and delivering refrigerators on the weekends). While this was MY experience and everyone chooses a different path, it wasn’t until I made these changes and was able to get myself back on track to getting to where I knew I wanted to be.

I assisted numerous photographers and directors on shoots ranging from automotive to food to fashion and would study every move they made. While I had to eat and would usually make a standard day rate (anywhere from $150 to $200 in the late 80’s and early 90’s), I would also seek out the best photographers I could find and offer to work for free if it meant watching them do their thing. I even found myself knocking on the studio door of Nadav Kander in London (who I idolized at the time — and still do), but wasn’t able to get a job with him as he had several full-time assistants already. This was still a fantastic learning experience as Nadav took the time to sit down with me and offered his advice on how to further my career.

Beyond assisting and volunteering to get involved in every aspect of the business, I found myself drawn to client relations. I started working with a lot of television, film, and commercial production companies in L.A. I was tenacious at getting in the front door and soaking up as much knowledge as I could. I was lucky enough to work with some amazing directors including the late Tony Scott of RSA Films and the legendary Robert Altman. Again, getting to watch these people work up close and react to situations was something that I could never have expected to learn in school. Watching the way that they achieved their vision was priceless and watching the way they dealt with clients and/or crew was eye-opening — eye-opening in the sense that you could very quickly see what worked and what didn’t. In retrospect, this was by far the best education I could have possibly asked for.

Now that I’ve led you down this path of why going to school wasn’t necessary, I’ll turn it around and show you an example of where it helped me in a big way. Like I had mentioned, I was working with a lot of commercial production companies and being interested in client relations, I found myself knee deep in the company of advertising creative folks. I was working with some truly great art directors and creative directors and was fascinated with their roles and the projects they worked on. Some of these projects were stunning works of art that told a story and some of them were as boring as a 20+ hour day pushing some disgusting fast food chain on location in Death Valley in 118º F heat.

During this time, I decided to switch sides and see if I could make it as an art director. It took a few years of working at some low level studio production jobs, but I put together a portfolio (mostly spec work) and started shopping it around. Fast forward a few years and I had worked at some of the top ad agencies (Deutsch LA, Publicis Seattle, Wunderman) on the west coast, numerous design firms, and a few clients of my own. While my portfolio was always my greatest asset, the mention of attending Art Center opened many doors — in fact, “Where did you go to school?” was almost always the first question a creative director would ask and it usually resulted in a fairly long conversation about my time at school. Even without graduating, the ad agencies wanted to see an education (although I’ve never once heard of a photographer being asked about their education).

Again, fast forward quite a few years, and I left the world of long hours working on some mind-numbingly boring campaigns for clients that I didn’t care much about and became a rep. I knew how to manage the expectations of clients, the egos of art directors, and the moodiness of photographers as I at some point in my career had been in each and every one of these roles. This really was the perfect experience for a rep to have and it suited me perfectly.

There have been times when I’ve looked back at my career and found the time I spent at the ad agencies a sidestep or a detour from my true love of photography. But truth be told, if it wasn’t for this time, I wouldn’t have found my way to being a rep and I wouldn’t be where I am now. Without this experience, I wouldn’t have the understanding of the creative process that I now have.

I’m not a believer in fate, and I definitely don’t believe that all things happen for a reason, I am where I am, in part because of my short stint at Art Center. Had I not had that on my résumé, I may not have made it into some of the most creative ad agencies on the planet. I may have been successful on a different path working as a photographer without any school but what matters is that I’ve been successful on the path that I took.

So to get more to the point of this post; Can you succeed as a photographer without going to college? That would be a resounding YES! Real life experience with photographers you respect, workshops and events with professional photographers, even working as a digital tech for some technical experience — these can all take you far and get you the knowledge you need to be successful. On the flip side of that, if you have the opportunity to go to college, do it — if you're not able, don't beat yourself up as there aren't any prerequisites to succeeding in photography or for that matter, in life. Success is mastering your reactions to your own situations.

To repeat one of the most overused (and appropriate) quotes by John Lennon:

"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans“


No matter what you plan to do with your life, there’s an almost certain chance that it’s not going to happen the way you think it will. Your priorities will change, your interests will evolve, and life will throw some pretty crazy curve balls your way. At the end of the day, it’s up to you to make the best of it and find a way to succeed. There are no set rules on how to get there and believe it or not, everyone is just winging it all the way through their careers — no matter where they went to school (or didn’t go to school).

Cover Image: Art Center College of Design by Craig Ellwood