The past year-and-a-half has not been easy to say the least. The pandemic has made an indelible mark on every aspect of life across the globe, exposing inequality and drawing attention to the fault lines in our society. For students, it has been a particularly strange and alienating time as school buildings shut their doors and classes migrated online. For those studying photography, the restrictions placed on physical movement imposed some very real limitations on how to continue working.
And for those finishing Master’s degrees, the common existentialism that colors postgraduate study took on a sharp edge. The self-interrogation of one’s position, ideas and practices became embroiled in new questions—both philosophical and practical. What was it like to spend the past year in a hotpot of vulnerability, experimentation and growth? How did students work alone, together? What helped? How did their processes and practices change? What was it like to graduate as the class of 2021?
In this special feature for LensCulture, artist and writer Dylan Hausthor takes an intimate look at the experience of doing an MFA, as they speak to fellow classmates Jackie Furtado, Alex Nelson, Nabil Harb, tarah douglas, Rosemary (Rosy) Warren, Max Gavrich, Mickey Aloisio, Ronghui Chen, and Annie Ling about the challenges of their final year studying on the Photography MFA at Yale School of Art in New Haven.
A few years ago I was living on a small island off the coast of Maine. I was renting a tiny, 12’x12’ shed from a professional clown who lived across the street and I would go into town twice a week to work at a farm to make my rent money. Other than working, I was able to spend nearly all of my time making photographs. After a couple of years of living this way, I started to see my friends move away—getting jobs, gallery shows, and winning awards. My future as an old Maine island photographer drinking cheap beer on salty rocks started to feel confining and a little grim—not freeing and as limitless as it once did. I distinctly remember one morning in 2018 as I lit my camp stove to make coffee on the porch of my house—trying to figure out how to continue a life that revolved around photo-making but take a step into a place that I was less comfortable.
That night I started filling out my first application to graduate school. By the deadlines that winter, I had applied to eight schools. I had a bleak and naive vision of the world that I was applying to. I was worried that I was diving into a white-wine-soaked world of judgment for the sake of itself. I imagined a room of people with expensive haircuts holding toothpicks with a tiny ball of blue cheese perched on the end and droning on about how much New York City has changed—professing rejections of neoliberalism and capitalism while accidentally dropping their steel credit cards on the gallery floor. I graduated from Yale with my MFA last week. While I was a student, I did see glimpses of the ugly, supremacist art world that I imagined—one that took artists for granted and seemed to darken the room with a lack of nuance. But so much more importantly, I also saw the light that my classmates came into those rooms with.
During our two years, we went through a pandemic, a series of protests, school on the internet, sickness, lack of resources, and active institutional changes together. There was a point in the semester in which we were not allowed to leave the city limits of New Haven. We somehow made it through this making the most innovative and inspiring work that I had ever seen grace a white room (or, in most cases, a PDF shared on Zoom). The cohort of students that I found myself embedded in felt collective and deep. I’m still unsure of how, and exactly what, lessons I have taken away from them, but the light that they have each brought into the dark room that I was nervous about has left me blinking and astonished.
Dylan: I for one have had new levels of anxiety during our time here—and I really saw that manifest in my work. Have you made something in the last two years that has really surprised you?
Jackie: Any work that I’ve made near and around my home here in New Haven has been incredibly surprising. Escapism has always been intertwined with my previous modes of making yet the onset of the pandemic implemented a mandatory and stationary position. The windowsills and backyard of 188 Dwight Street and the abandoned lots nearby all felt too familiar yet this very closeness and recognizability prompted a new photographic investigation.
tarah: It sounds silly to say, but I made way more pictures than I thought I would. During our first semester, I was making all kinds of stuff and felt a bit aimless. During our second semester, I started mostly taking pictures and licking my insecurity wounds that revolve around traditional photography and my own images. Dealing with my own qualms about the medium through making helped me figure out how to incorporate other materials like sound, collage, sculpture vs starting the other way around. I took a lot of pictures of myself too which is something that I had never done before.
Ronghui: Before I came to Yale, I had taught myself photography. Many people misunderstand that self-study photography is a more free route. In fact, due to my personal preferences, I have a pretty distinct style. When I came to Yale, I began to experiment with all kinds of photography, both in the studio and on the street.
Max: A frame that sweats.
Mickey: My work feels drastically different than what it was when I came here. I guess if I had to pick one, it would be a video piece I made with my dad, and not so much the piece itself, but the sort of performance of the crit. I brought my dad into the crit room and handed out goodie bags to the panel. I think I called him and asked him to come up the night before and I guess that moment surprised me the most. I just never would have thought that big bad Paul Aloisio would be in the crit-hot-seat of the Yale Photo Pool.
Alex: So much that I have made has surprised me. One thing, in particular, was the collaborative video piece I made with Nabil. We built sets, wrote, shot, and edited in under two weeks. It was such a joy and made both of us realize that art-making can be fun. I think we both needed a reminder of that at that particular moment. In terms of process, starting to work with black and white imagery as well as color, using archival material and appropriation, and discovering a newfound love of writing.
Dylan: At Yale we have critiques every five weeks, and are usually expected to have new work each time. As prolific as that necessitates us to be, it’s made me feel like I’m leaving school with a pile of half-baked ideas. Have you begun a project that you think you may have abandoned too quickly?
Nabil: Yeah, most of them.
Ronghui: All of my projects or experiments have been about finding the deepest part of myself. It is acceptable for me to give up or stick to a project because I have learned something from failure.
Alex: Too often. There are still a few loose ends I need to tie up from my time at Yale. I have a bad habit of abandoning ideas before I even start making the pictures. I’ve been trying to adopt a zero impulse control policy when it comes to making work.
Jackie: My stroll through Connecticut graveyards looking for my step grandfather’s family. Drone footage of a game of tag between 20 art students. Running alone in a parking lot. The dam. Alex at the kitchen table. Headlights at night. I haven’t forgotten about you.
Max: All of them. I get very excited with ideas and concepts and throw myself at new projects. For me the real challenge is taking an idea as far as you think it can go, abandoning it, giving it time to breathe, coming back, and reshaping and reorienting the thing you made. The structure of the program is a five-week cycle of making between critiques. It’s very hard to see a thing clearly while you are still wrestling with what it is. Publicly presenting work that you’ve made in a matter of weeks (or days) can feel good in the immediate present and unsatisfying in retrospect, or vice versa. Paul Valéry wrote that artwork is never finished, only abandoned. So I try to be okay with pushing things to the side, knowing that they can be picked up again later.
Annie: In the beginning, I was playing around with collage and filled my shelf with library books I wish I had spent more time with. I was visiting wolf sanctuaries around New England before the pandemic hit, and also had to pause a portrait series in collaboration with undergrads on campus before school shifted online. There is also an arborist I’ve been meaning to call. I also plan to continue my mediumship studies and research, beyond that spooky office building off the highway.
Dylan: I wonder if anyone can identify with how much I feel like I’ve needed to get more comfortable with discomfort during our experience here. I think the word ‘vulnerability’ might have come up more often than any other during our crits. Has anything embarrassed you during the last two years?
Jackie: I think a lot about my first year in school and how uncomfortable I felt. It made me contend with my creature-of-habit nature. And though I like the idea of change, sometimes newness has the ability to swallow me whole. I spent too much time walking around wide-eyed—not in amazement but as in containment. I was tight-lipped and afraid of how I felt, or not really sure how I was even feeling—delaying a more present self that I feel closer to today. Especially as I type this sluggishly on my couch.
Ronghui: I’m not very familiar with American photography, sometimes I can’t keep up with the pace of the class. As a photographer from Asia, Asian photography is a kind of hidden state in the US.
tarah: I’m always really embarrassed about something. I feel pretty embarrassed about how insular I got being here though. It’s a lot of intake and processing that looms over everything and I couldn’t turn that off sometimes which kept me way more to myself. It’s been nice to get that bubble popped since being done and get back into the world.
Dylan: More than half of our time as graduate students has been during COVID. Some of us even got sick. How has this terrifying paradigm shift affected your work?
Rosy: My work has changed dramatically during the pandemic. I feel more in touch with what I want from my work than I used to. Maybe these changes have come from a shifting of personal stakes (fuck it, in a world of unknowns, I am just going to make exactly what I want) and learning how to separate from what I perceive others want or expect of me (like actually physically separate). At the end of the day, I am the only one who has to be happy with what I make, and that has been much easier to access when I close my laptop screen after a crit and it’s just me and my work again.
tarah: It pushed me to work more elementally. Things got really paired down. Being inside for so long and more in my own thoughts got me really picking apart various ways of seeing and pushed me to explore how visually loaded a simple gesture or object could be in a particular moment.
Mickey: Covid has affected our work in so many ways. I know this may sound corny or even unbelievable, but I assure you that I really mean this: In a way, I’m grateful for the challenges that covid has asked of us as it relates to our artistic practice. I think working within the very particular circumstances of the covid world has really pushed my work to a new level, that deals with some of the same concerns I have always been interested in, but in much more complicated and nuanced ways.
Max: When I started grad school I was exclusively making pictures out in the world, what I call ‘walking around photography’. The early pandemic forced me to find ways to work inside, sitting all day on the floor constructing objects in my living room, pulling huge amounts of images from the internet, revisiting hours and hours of old videos. 2020 was a year of reckoning for all of us—it was awful. I want to acknowledge that, and also recognize how it forced me to question my routines, reorient my practice toward something more haptic, more touch-based, to interrogate what it is I think we do, and hopefully reconsider what matters.
Annie: Making work through this difficult time forced me to lean more into invention and improvisation which revealed how much I value this way of working. Limited travel outside of New Haven and the state for most of this period has no doubt shaped my backyard investigations and image-making. Lately, I’m also considering how my images have evolved into objects, and I wonder how much of that desire for presence and a physical encounter has to do with all this distance we’ve had to negotiate. Isolation has also cultivated a deeper desire to exchange ideas and experiment more intentionally with others.
Dylan: The restrictions that we have had manifested in surprising ways for me—I usually look inward to find the things that really matter to me, but have caught myself looking outward more. Do you rely more on your internal world? Or the external world?
Rosy: I think I would say an equal balance of both. I am a big-time introvert and do my best art thinking alone in the bathtub watching reality TV. But at the same time, metabolizing an external pop-culture world is at the core of my current practice, so there would really be nothing without all of the external.
Alex: Oftentimes I hope that my fantasy internal world will spill over into the external world.
Nabil: I don’t think there’s a huge difference between the two for me. Not being able to go home during the pandemic, whether it’s Palestine or Florida, has made this clear.
Mickey: I previously thought external, but now I’m not so sure.
Max: It depends on the day. An interest in one often prompts a need to delve into the other—it’s a messy game of tag, a constant feedback loop.
Dylan: What is a moment that you have had during the past two years that you will never forget?
Mickey: There are so many unforgettable moments. Maybe those three days we all spent together on the Vineyard. Could that be considered a ‘moment’? That meant so much to me. We all really needed that and it’s one of those things that looking back on it now, seems sort of shocking that we were actually able to pull it off.
Rosy: In Ben Donaldson’s ‘Photographic Practice and Production’ class, at the end of our first semester, our final assignment was to do stand-up comedy, however we interpreted that. Sitting in the pool that afternoon laughing for hours while Max ‘roasted’ us by telling us what meats we all were, while Nabil did impeccable impressions, while Dylan drank beer out of a rubber hand on their foot as tarah played Old Town Road on the ukulele, and everything else. That was like the moment when you say ‘I love you’ to someone for the first time. I felt like so much of my weird insecurity and stress and pressure cleared and I was just able to see what an incredibly talented, hilarious group of people I was bonded to through this experience and I felt (and feel) so lucky.
Alex: I will never forget when Mickey’s father came for his crit in the Pool. And the goodie bags he brought the panelists. Also, the backyard of 188 Dwight Street holds so many important memories for me, from my 31st birthday which I most definitely won’t ever forget, to the smaller moments of smoking cigarettes around the fire after crits.
Max: Clinging tight to Jackie and Rosy squeezed into the truck bed of Dylan’s borrowed Tacoma while they hit the throttle and whip the tail back and forth across the yellow line and we go screaming through the night fog back toward Mermaid Farm.
Ronghui: Too many good things have happened in the last two years. Perhaps in the studio watching the sun rising, is a very unforgettable thing.
Nabil: I’ll never forget what it felt like when my community expanded and grew. Feeling the edges of myself. I met so many new people who taught me more than I could have ever expected.
Annie: I’m too exhausted in the immediate wake of everything to pull out any single moment, except to say I feel extremely grateful to have my classmates, community, conversations, and collaborations that will continue to shape us past these two years.
Jackie: Moments of really being seen, and the moments of seeing others. The gracious and hard moments of growth, moments before the pandemic. Where life and art-making were in sync. Moments of karaoke, ‘family’ bed, family breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Moments that left headaches and heartaches—still lingering. Photos hat, Boston Post Road, 188 Dwight. The good, bad, and the ugly. The Gathering.
Editor’s note: Dead Letter Office, the thesis show of the recent graduates of the 2021 Yale MFA Photography program is on view at Marlborough Gallery in NYC until July 2nd, Casemore Kirkeby Gallery in San Francisco opening at the end of July, and at UP Gallery in Taiwan at the beginning of 2022. You can also see work at the class of 2021 website online.