When photojournalism professor Keith Graham asked his students what other types of photography they wanted to explore, three distinct themes emerged: the outdoors, travel and fashion. While January in Montana might not be the best time to teach class outside, the three-week winter term is perfect for delving into the world of fashion photography, first offered in January 2011.
Globally, the fashion industry is worth over a trillion dollars. Graham says fashion photography crosses commercial and editorial borders, so it helps stretch opportunities for photojournalists as editors and freelancers.
Kira Vercruyssen, a UM senior from Honolulu, Hawaii, said that the class was a fun break from traditional journalism, since students had the chance to trade their role as a reporter for one of a creator. “It was really fun to make these ideas in your head come to life,” she said.
Students directed their own photo shoots, using friends and co-workers as models. However, for the first project Graham made students step in front of the lens and take their own self-portraits. Vercruyssen said it was good for them to understand what it felt like to be a model, and that it helped her when she had to direct her models and capture strong angles.
Once Graham revealed the theme for each photo shoot, students had no other restrictions “besides time and imagination.” Themes ranged from Coco Chanel’s classic “little black dress” to “red” to “replication,” where students had to find a professional fashion shot and capture the same image with their models. “It might look easy,” Graham said, “but can you try to re-create it?”
Both the “denim” and “futuristic” shoots led to more iconic shots, including Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 Born in the USA album cover and Grant Wood’s portrait of the American Gothic.
These shoots gave students the freedom to work both in the studio and around town. One of the highlights for Vercruyssen was getting permission to shoot inside the old Mercantile building in downtown Missoula. She also rented a collection of vintage hats from a local theater company for her final free-topic project.
Graham challenged the class to create narrative arcs within each campaign and consider what made their images visually and emotionally compelling for an audience. In addition to these spreads, they experimented with diptych photography, where two photographs are placed side by side to make an artistic statement.
With a standard week’s schedule compressed into a single day, all this kept the class busy.
“This kind of immersion is a very useful way to learn,” Graham said. “They produce stronger, better work as a result.”
Vercruyssen chose to attend the University of Montana for its strong journalism program, which is currently ranked 8th in the nation. For her, this class was “like a breath of fresh air” that re-charged her passion for photojournalism as she prepares to graduate this spring.
by Jana Wiegand