In the 1950s and ’60s, tens of thousands of students across the US were receiving an arts education by mail, through correspondence courses designed and distributed by the Famous Artists School on painting, illustration, and cartooning. In 1961, 13 years after the Westport, Connecticut-based school’s founding by Albert Dorne, students could also learn about photography under the guidance of some of the field’s most famous names, from Richard Avedon to Irving Penn. Known as the Famous Photographers School, the offshoot lasted for just over a decade, closing in 1974. Researchers at Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG) are now digging deeper into its history following the museum’s acquisition this month of the school’s massive archive of photographs, notes, contact sheets, teaching materials, and other documents.
For over four decades, the archive had sat in storage, undisturbed in the school’s more than 125 original steel file drawers and cabinets. Yale received it from Artists’ Market‘s Jeffrey Price, who first came upon the archive five years ago. The YUAG’s curators now face a multiyear project to sort through the objects, with a plan to eventually digitize the entire collection, which will be made available to researchers by appointment at the start of next year. For now through the end of summer, a selection of 19 photographs are on view in the Galley’s lobby.
“The school was an exemplar of the correspondence school model, which became very successful in the post-war period due to the GI Bill,” Judy Ditner, Yale University Art Gallery’s Richard Benson Assistant Curator of Photography and Digital Media, told Hyperallergic. “Students received a series of coursebooks by mail. They completed the lessons and assignments on their own and returned them to the school for feedback. Developed by the faculty photographers, the lessons included a range of topics from fashion photography, portraiture, architectural photography, creating dynamic compositions, and capturing movement, among others.”
Directed by the commercial photographer Victor Keppler, the Famous Photographers School boasted on its faculty roster — aside from Avedon and Penn — the instructors Alfred Eisenstaedt, Philippe Halsman, Arthur d’Arazien, Richard Beattie, Joseph Costa, Bert Stern, and Ezra Stoller. Yes, they were all men, although Margaret Bourke-White served as their presumably badass advisor. Each photographer helped to shape the curriculum, which amounted to 24 hardbound lessons covering everything from working with light and color to instructions on advanced or experimental techniques. Each arrived illustrated with over 2,000 photographs, often from the photographers’ own collections. Some of these images were captured specifically for the manuals and, therefore, remain unpublished elsewhere. Preliminary explorations by Yale’s researchers have so far revealed a drawer of celebrity portraits by Avedon; a charming, class portrait of the 10 men posing with their cameras, captured by Penn; and a stunning example of d’Arazien’s photographic research on lightning at a General Electric plant in Pennsylvania. Even audio recordings have emerged of never-before-released interviews Keppler had conducted with each faculty member.
To promote itself, the school sent salesmen to pitch the courses, like Avon women, to people across the continental US. It also published ads, such as one printed in a 1964 issue of LIFE that featured a delightful illustration of the 10 photographers with their cameras. These typically emphasized the success and fame of the photographers, as well as marketing the learning experience as being in “a class of one.” There was, however, still a proper enrollment process: interested students would have to complete a free, mail-in, 12-page aptitude test devised by the 10 photographers.
“If your Test shows you have the visual judgement needed for success in the Famous Photographers School, you may enroll for training,” Keppler wrote in a 1967 LIFE feature to promote the institution.
Once those students deemed promising enough completed their assignments, they would return their photographs to instructors. The faculty members did not personally mark up these prints; that was the task of practicing professionals they supervised. In addition to placing transparencies over students’ prints and scribble notes on them, these instructors would pen long letters of feedback.
At its peak, the Famous Artists School had over 40,000 students spread across the continental US, according to Ditner. It still exists today, and its archives have resided at the Norman Rockwell Museum since 2014 (Rockwell was a founding faculty member, along with the likes of Stuart Davis and Rube Goldberg). Its success, however, was also the reason for its decline, Ditner said. Not only did it expand to create the Famous Photographers School but also the Famous Writers School and Famous Cartooning School; and in 1972, unable to sustain itself, the institution filed for bankruptcy.
As the New York Times reported, the Famous Artists School survived as Cortina Learning International purchased its assets in 1981, but photography is no longer available, and enrollment is far from what it was in the school’s heyday. Although it had a relatively short run, the Famous Photographers School managed to bring a valuable and creative education — one it hoped would also provide financial success — into homes around America. The emergence of its archive will undoubtedly highlight significant, once-lost moments from photography’s history.