In a world in which billions of images explode across social media every day, Photography and Imaging Chair Everard Williams (BFA 89) is quick to acknowledge the power of photography. And, as an alum, he understands the value of earning a degree in the field.
“Photography is the center of everything,” says Williams, sitting on a large, gray exercise ball-turned-chair in his Hillside Campus office, framed against a wall overflowing with pinned prints of his photographs, including a gauzy, sepia-toned portrait of Eazy-E for Vibe magazine. “It’s the most efficient way to communicate an idea across any channel, be it a magazine or digital.”
The close-knit Photography and Imaging program, with 30 part-time and full-time faculty members, emphasizes creating professional work, making industry connections, and learning about storytelling, lighting, composition, location and business strategies, says Williams.
“We talk about a picture being worth 1,000 words,” he continues. “That’s never been more true than now. Cell phones, as a device to capture images, are available to so many people, and that’s left a void that we can fill with storytelling, which is not tool specific.”
Alumni—including notables like Garrisson Peña (BFA 19), Daria Kobayashi Ritch (BFA 15), Gizelle Hernandez (BFA 14), Yu Tsai (BFA 97) and Melodie McDaniel (BFA 91)—have forged successful careers in advertising, editorial, fashion, fine art, sports, food, digital imaging, events, architecture, transportation, photojournalism, archiving and more. And alumni go on to work at a range of companies, including Nike, CBS, Los Angeles Lakers and Stitch Fix.
Growing up in Altadena, and taking photos from a young age, Williams fine-tuned his own artistic voice as a Photography student after getting a degree in business administration. “What I valued here was being able to make high level work, but with an element of discovery and play in it,” says Williams, who has maintained his professional practice since 1991, specializing in high-end, experimental photos for advertising, design and editorial clients.
He became Photography chair in 2022, after working as a longtime professor, and serving in a number of other roles, from faculty director to interim chair. A co-founder of ArtCenter’s inaugural Council on Diversity and Inclusion, Williams was honored at the College’s 2023 Black Alumni Reception for his service to the local community, and his leadership working towards more diversity, equity and inclusion at the College.
“There's tremendous value in diversity, and in making sure we let people know about ArtCenter as a place to exercise their talents and get better,” he says. “I prepare Photography students to be creative problem-solvers and lifelong contributors to society.”
With access to professional camera equipment and facilities, including a digital imaging lab, a black-and-white lab with large darkrooms, a color lab, and a 2,500 square-foot photo stage, Photography students get hands-on training to boost their knowledge, create gallery quality images, and to slow down and hone their craft as engaging storytellers, says Williams.
“Students now are itching to do something tactile, with so many of them having lived in a digital landscape,” says Williams. “In their first semester, they’re asked to use a 4x5 camera that’s big and cumbersome, and requires them to pay attention to detail in a way they've never been asked to. They’re not just taking a picture. They’re learning to craft every element of a photo.”
Using the program’s black-and-white lab had a deep impact on then-student Amanda Villegas (BFA 22), which she credits with helping her to create powerful narratives. “Shooting in black and white—with its contrast and grittiness—tells more of a story,” she says. “There’s no distractions from color. You really feel the emotion of your subjects.”
It's a week before Grad Show, and Villegas is nervously excited. Sitting outside at Hillside Campus’s Sinclaire Pavilion, which overlooks the San Gabriel Mountains, the Photography and Imaging major—graduating with minors in Creative Writing and Social Innovation—holds a Nikon 85 mm camera in a case on her lap.
An aspiring photojournalist, Villegas is the recipient of ArtCenter’s 2022 Douglas R. Burrows Memorial Endowed Scholarship for Photojournalism. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and other outlets.
“I love photographing people, ,” she says of the black-and-white photos she’ll be showcasing at the Pasadena Convention Center. “I love their vulnerability when they open up to me.”
Dangling from her neck is a gold locket containing a picture of her late husband Chris, who died in 2019 from aggressive bladder cancer, in his 20s. Villegas documented his final days in hospice in an emotional photo series that, in 2021, helped pass an amendment to California’s End of Life Option Act, the state’s legislation for terminally ill patients who wish to end their lives through medical aid. “I don’t want to sugarcoat anything with my photos,” she says.
Raised in nearby Glendora, Villegas briefly studied theater, then took ArtCenter Extension (ACX) courses in photography, including a portraits course taught by Professor Ken Merfeld (BFA 76). “He taught me to embrace light and narrative, to take my time with subjects and to have an authentic connection,” she says. After one term in the degree program, she took a break, then returned in 2019, after her husband’s death, to finish her degree.
In one of her photos, a 3-year-old cancer patient at Children’s Hospital cradles a toy shuttle in his arms. In another, Villegas gently places her hand on Chris’s forehead. Other series include photos of women—raw in their grief—who have miscarried, and, on the other end of the spectrum, people with their pets. “Photographing people with their animals—having this really beautiful bond—brings me joy,” she says. “It balances me emotionally, since I also photograph people going through loss, illness and grief. I want to capture all sides of life.”
In 2021, Villegas co-created a campaign for Detectable Preventable, a Designmatters studio course focused on promoting colorectal cancer screenings within the Filipino American community. The course was part of a partnership between the College and Cedars-Sinai Research Center for Health Equity. Villegas’ work led to her getting a Cedars-Sinai fellowship.
“This program prepares you for any situation you'll be thrown into, whether you're going to be a photographer, a grip, a retoucher, or an assistant,” says Villegas. “You leave with the skills you need to do any type of shoot.”
Storytelling through photos, says Williams, spans all different styles and disciplines, including commercial product photography. “It's just another way to display the story, another way to share it,” he says. “When you think about the ability of photography to contain an idea, you can look at a picture and understand exactly what that thing's about. That applies to photographing cars, food and more.”
Pasadena-based alum Yuya Parker (BFA 16) grew up painting in a small oceanside town in Japan, and later studied architecture in Tokyo. Moving to Los Angeles to study landscape design and English led him to taking an ACX photography course, and then to the College’s Photography degree program. A student internship at Gearys Beverly Hills, in which he photographed luxury watches, jewelry and tableware, set the stage for his career as a freelance product, lifestyle and architecture photographer and director.
Parker has shot online, social media and print campaigns—both photos and motion—for a range of agencies and brands, including 72andSunny, Smirnoff and Starbucks, while working on his own fine art photo series Food as Contemporary Art.
“I try to include playfulness and cheerfulness in both my commercial work and personal work, because my goal is to brighten people’s day a little bit,” says Parker, in a large, white-walled Pasadena photography studio, as he sets up a product shoot for U.S. sake distributor and digital platform Tippsy.
Parker’s photographs spring to life with bright color, and he surrounds products with flowers, plants, vegetables and fruit. For this shoot, he points his digital camera, on a shiny gold tripod, towards a teal backdrop. A table in the foreground is covered by paper painted in silky shades of blue and white. Nearby are product stands of various shapes.
“My use of color is influenced by a mixture of the culture in Japan and in Los Angeles—those old, vibrant colors of graffiti and architecture,” he says. “With product photography, I have a lot of control. I take my time looking at an object, thinking about it, moving it.”
For a 2021 website and print campaign for the queer- and Asian-owned canned wine brand So Gay Rosé, Parker shot the cans with a variety of pink colored objects: a sprinkled donut, raspberries, gummy orange slices, wine glasses and rose petals.
During the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, Parker did remote shoots at his house, working with prop stylists via Zoom. He credits his flexibility and ability to toggle assignments to ArtCenter, where a Photography Production course taught by Associate Professor Ann Cutting (BFA 87) and a Food Photography course taught by Associate Professor Pornchai Mittongtare (BFA 97) inspired him. “They gave me a sense of creative freedom,” he says.
With AI-generated images and technology on the rise (Cutting, for example, has created multiple series of conceptual AI images), the world of photography is changing rapidly.
“AI is not going away,” Williams says, noting that while technological change has always been a part of the discipline—including more recent changes, from Instagram to NFTs—human-driven storytelling remains central. “We need to keep up with how AI works, and be mindful of the ethical and copyright issues attached to it. But in the end, what’s important for any photographer is the final image that sits on the page or on the screen. Does it communicate and tell a story? Is it emotional and sticky to the degree that I can't stop looking at it?”
Freelance fashion and editorial photographer and director Joyce Charat (BFA 19) agrees when it comes to the high demand for creative human-made images. “AI will never take away from the uniqueness of one person’s vision,” she says.
Sitting in her one bedroom Hollywood apartment, near Netflix’s Los Angeles office, in a busy neighborhood north of Sunset Boulevard, Charat laughs while watching her cat Simba pose on a stool in front of a blue backdrop in her living room. For the first month of the pandemic, which happened shortly after the French Jewish alum graduated, sets were closed down and shoots had come to a standstill. During that time, Simba and another pet cat were Charat’s main subjects. “I was taking photos of my cats every day, experimenting with lighting, and trying to keep busy,” she says.
Now Charat is very, very busy. Her stylized work includes the cover of Juicy J and Wiz Khalifa’s 2022 album Stoner’s Night, sultry photos in Las Vegas of G-Eazy for Playboy Australia, a resort campaign for St. John, and photos of model Nyanjam—shot with a fisheye lens—in the windy desert, wearing fringe-trimmed clothes, for fashion photography magazine Contributor. “My style is edgy, in your face, with a lot of motion and color,” says Charat, who has a tattoo of a camera on her finger. “With every shoot, I take photos and video. It’s crucial to do both, for posting on social media.”
Born and raised in Nice, France, Charat was a competitive skateboarder as a kid, and stole her mom’s digital camera to photograph her friends. Just out of high school, and not knowing English, she moved to L.A. to take film courses at a local community college, and started taking more photos. One of her professors suggested that she go to ArtCenter for Photography.
In the program, she focused on fashion, and was especially influenced by Photography alum, photographer, creative director, director and Film Associate Professor Matthew Rolston, who was first discovered by Andy Warhol. In his course The Power of Pleasure, she absorbed old books and films and created a spec commercial for Yves Saint Laurent perfume, featuring models in vinyl and leather outfits. “That course changed my life,” says Charat, who started doing shoots her last term for high-end shoe brand Tamara Mellon.
Rolston’s forward-thinking point of view and disciplined approach elevated her own directing and photography, she says. His work ranges from fine art portraits and glamorous shots of celebrities for magazines including Interview, Vogue and Rolling Stone to music videos for artists like Madonna and Beyoncé, and campaigns for brands including L’Oréal and Revlon. In his course, Charat learned how to do detailed video treatments—breaking down a video step-by-step, from story and styling to lighting and make-up.
“Being in the Photography program taught me technical skills and how to work hard for what I want,” she says. “As a freelance photographer, I can wake up and make my own schedule. I go to the gym, come back, work, hike, surf, and work again. That’s the freedom you have.”