Profs. Mary Beth Heffernan, Amy Lyford and the AHVA Department



Mitch Cde Baca states that we lack “art” in our liberal arts education at Oxy. We sympathize with student complaints about the relative paucity of our offerings in photography, because we, too, recognize photography’s critical importance to modernity and transnational culture. We would love to offer more courses focused on photography, but to do so means hiring new faculty and finding lab space within the AHVA buildings that are bursting at the seams with the courses we currently offer.

Mitch does, however, get a few things wrong in his letter, and we wanted to correct the record.

1. Setting up and maintaining even a small wet darkroom is incredibly expensive. A consultation with LA’s premier academic photo lab builder identified these baseline physical plant requirements: floor drains, hot/cold water, electricity and HVAC (especially exhaust) to meet OSHA standards. Hazardous waste permits, collection and disposal classification are difficult and costly even for a small lab. He noted that OSHA will shut down and fine an institution for even small infractions like improperly labeled chemicals, or tiny amounts (Parts Per Million) of chemicals found in drainpipe testing. He estimated that building a darkroom adequate for a single art class would cost $400,000.

2. Unlike Mitch Baca’s home darkroom setup, a single institutional workstation will cost $4,000. Equipping a modest wet lab that will accommodate an art class would cost $160,000. This brings our start up costs to $560,000, and this does not include the expenses of the professor’s and lab manager’s salaries, maintenance, chemicals and disposal costs.

3. Mr. Baca seems to have an outsized sense of the strength of our endowment. The photo lab alone described above would require an additional $3,200,000 in our endowment in order to generate the 5% drawdown to establish the lab. After the one time set up costs, we would still need the $3,200,000 in the endowment to fund annual faculty and staff salaries and maintenance costs. This is not just a challenge to modest endowments. We know of Ivy League schools that are making tough decisions to shut down their wet labs due to budget constraints and environmental concerns.

4. At a liberal arts college more than anywhere else, faculty (like us) believe that the practice of art making and art writing depends upon conceptual rigor as well as technical development. While the pleasure of seeing a latent image emerge miraculously from the depths of a developing tray is enthralling, the technique of doing so cannot drive an argument, nor reframe the way someone understands the world they live in, and the crucial role photography plays in this. Mitch seems to have misread our course descriptions, or conveniently left things out of his piece, in order to make his point sharper. But sharp isn’t the same as accurate. Photography Against the Grain is a course where photos are made and analyzed. History of Photography, while an art history course, includes a hands-on photography project. Our printmaking area offers an entire course devoted to photo processes in addition to integrating photography into other printmaking courses like silkscreen. Teaching photographic practice alongside theory and history is the standard in college-level curriculum. We find it odd that Mr. Baca lauds the College’s “esteemed” curriculum while pining for a content-free technical-school course.

5. Occidental College students have access to outstanding analogue/wet photography labs through our course exchange with Art Center. Our course offerings emphasize the strengths of a liberal arts education, and do not attempt to duplicate Art Center’s.

Ultimately, the answer to Mitch Baca’s question can be found in a lesson from his own major. As Economics Professor James Whitney teaches on the first day in ECON 101, “Economics is the study of how to make decisions when you can’t have everything you want. Economics would not exist without scarcity, which requires us to make choices that involve trade-offs, which are measured in terms of “opportunity costs”.” [Emphasis in original.] The AHVA budget can barely fund the courses and labs it already has on the books. The “opportunity costs” of establishing a wet lab are untenable for the department and the College. Given that we never had a teaching wet photo lab (or a ceramics facility), we decided to put our limited resources into digital. It’s more affordable, easier to maintain, with less environmental impact.

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