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  • Robert S Bradshaw

What the Brooks Institute of Photography Meant to Me

Updated: Feb 27

Brooks Institute

Originally Written on August 15th, 2016

On January 4th, 2000 I arrived in Santa Barbara for the first time. I had no idea that I would spend the next 12 years of my life being a part of one of the greatest photography programs this world will ever see.

I was due to start the Master of Science program in the spring of 2001. Having drastically underestimated the cost of school and living in California, I was not sure that was a possibility. That’s when September happened.

I was sitting at a light table, as we used to do, when Bill Robbins and Bryan Watt came over to me. They offered me the graduate assistant position and a partial scholarship for the graduate program. What that meant to me was that I could complete my education. However, the year ahead would shape the course of my life to this day.

I taught my first class at Brooks when I was 24 years old. Yes, I was a bad teacher and yes I almost lost my job. One of my first student reviews was so bad they had to turn the page over to continue their constructive criticism. I deserved it. I was called into our Deans office and we read the reviews together. I was certain that I would never get another chance to teach. That was the first time in my life that I had been truly held accountable and given an ultimatum.

The next ten years were filled with unbelievable photography, amazing students, friendships that will last a lifetime and a Brooks Bocce Championship! The proof of our decisive win is on the wall of Arnoldi’s in a 5x7 frame. It makes me smile to know that it will be there forever. The friendships I made there are like none I’ve known in this life.

What I loved about teaching at Brooks was that you knew exactly why the student was there. We were at our base a trade school and our trade was photography. I don’t know of another institution like that in the world. You could push students in a way that only a true Brookie could handle. Yes, there were some tears, some WIPS, some RS’s but then success.

Things moved too fast at Brooks. You remember. There simply wasn’t time to not give everything… student or teacher. That’s why Brooks was considered the best photography school in the world. That’s why we went there. There was accountability everyday, seven weeks at a time.

Brooks was such a unique and demanding place to learn and teach. Everyone, student and teacher alike were paddling in the same seas. The same waves rolled by every seven weeks. A very consistent break on a reef we will call Brooks. Waves like Six Pack, Blue Spheres, Gray Box, Black Glass, Rim Ambience and of course the Mission. These words filled every hallway and every studio. Brooks was building photographers that had shared experiences. The formula had been tested for generations. Brooks weaved us into their history by demanding exactness. What other school would require you to shoot four magazines and a cereal box on a tennis court? I remember what it felt like to get all four magazines sharp for the first time. I hope you do too. So many went through those assignments. Everyone had to reshoot them. I sure did and so did you. Our patience and character was tested weekly. It might just have been the best place in the world to love a camera.

The bond I feel to a fellow Brookie is very hard to describe. Maybe it’s that I know you love photography as much as I do. You have to. We both moved across this country to a small beach community we couldn’t afford, bought Polaroids before food and probably got a RED DOT along the way. That makes you my family.

I will miss so many things about our little photography school. Knowing that my friends were laughing and teaching together always made me smile. I have always missed the students. Just knowing that they were out there walking the hallways made me so happy.

However, I think I might just miss a chair most of all. Just a few steps from the darkroom at the Montecito campus was the office of Nick Dekker. Maybe you remember him. He was a tough friend to make and it took time, but one day he asks me to sit down. Maybe it was the smell of the darkroom. Maybe it was the students constantly coming in to seek his advice. Maybe it was the low murmur of students talking about their work in the hallway. Whatever it was, to me that chair seemed to hold all of photography together. I sat with him like that for years. I miss my friend and that feeling.

In hindsight, it turns out that Brooks wasn’t a reef at all but rather a sandy beach break that lasted 70 years. It wasn’t long enough, but it was the best ride in the world. I grabbed a handful of sand when I passed through. I bet you did too. So Brooks is with all of us.

I prefer to think that Brooks didn’t really close. Rather it setup little campuses inside everyone that ever passed through the halls. When you take a photo or help someone with their camera, the doors open up a little bit.

To attend Brooks was truly a dream. To teach at Brooks was one of the greatest honors of my life. I should have kept that light table.

Your Fellow Brookie,

Robert S Bradshaw

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