RITs art, design
and photo schools took root 100 years ago
These were exciting
times. Change appeared destined to remain the only constant.
Building, circa 1950
Rochester was all about
change in the early 1900s. The horse and carriage were making
way for the horseless carriage, and George Eastmans
Brownie camera began paving the way for the Eastman Kodak Co.
to take its place among the great American corporate success stories.
The city found itself
in the midst of rapid expansion. In a few decades, the population
of 160,000 would double as Rochester developed into a leading
A cultural renaissance
was also gaining momentum, inspiring greater emphasis on artistic
While there was
an increasing appreciation of the fine arts, such as painting,
sculpture and printmaking, the greatest advances came in those
areas where the arts were applied to human needs, explains
Stanley Witmeyer, longtime director of art and design programs
at RIT. The arts of any culture have been most meaningful
and enriching when applied to daily living.
During the first years
of the 20th century, Mechanics Institute the forebear to
RIT took giant steps toward meeting those human needs by
creating a department of fine arts. It also introduced its first
One hundred years later,
these milestones are acknowledged as the seeds that germinated
into the School of Art, the School of Design, and the School of
Photographic Arts and Sciences all within RITs College
of Imaging Arts and Sciences. The centennial celebration, incorporating
numerous events throughout the 2002-03 academic year, pays tribute
to the ongoing achievements of these programs.
Witmeyer has played
an important role in documenting the history leading up to this
celebration. The Institute benefited greatly from generous community
support in those early days, he notes. One benefactor was Susan
Bevier, widow of a prominent New Yorker. An art collector with
an interest in art education, Mrs. Bevier bequeathed her estate
to the Institute, designating that a building with a gallery,
classrooms, workshops and an auditorium be constructed as a memorial
to her daughter, Alice. The building opened at the former downtown
campus in 1910. Today, her legacy is commemorated through the
Growing out of that
first photo class in 1902, RIT formally introduced its photography
program in 1930. It was a natural fit in Kodaks hometown,
and the program quickly earned a lofty reputation.
Anyone who was seriously
interested in photography came to RIT, says Richard Zakia
56. Theres no other school in the world like
After leaving the Navy
in 1952, Zakia enthusiastically joined the RIT student body. During
that period, the photography department was introducing a bachelors
degree program, with Zakia among its first graduates.
It was a magical
time to be a student here, he recalls. RIT had the
best faculty, including Charlie Arnold, Ralph Hattersley, Al Rickmers,
Bill Shoemaker, Les Strobel, Hollis Todd and Minor White. They
were very inspiring and really cared about the students. I didnt
realize it at the time, but that was grooming me to go into teaching
and to carry on that tradition.
Zakia joined the RIT
faculty in 1958 and taught for 34 years. He says the strength
of the photo program was highlighted by the success of its early
graduates. Alumni such as Bruce Davidson 54, Pete Turner
56, Jerry Uelsmann 57, Carl Chiarenza 55 and
57, Peter Bunnell 59 and Irv Pobboravsky 62
earned international reputations.
Since 1979, seven RIT
photo graduates have won a combined 10 Pulitzer Prizes. Anthony
Suau 79 was a young photojournalist at the Denver Post
when he was honored in 1984. Now a photographer with Time
magazine, he says RIT provided the technical expertise that allowed
him to develop creatively as a professional. It also offered an
environment that promoted excellence among students.
They were all
very ambitious, intelligent and creative, states Suau. Looking
back at my friends at RIT, I got about 50 to 60 percent of my
education from them. It was an exciting atmosphere for learning
The inspiration behind
the success of photographic education at RIT belonged to C.B.
Neblette. Initially the director of a 2-year non-degree program,
Neblette guided his department through the development of an A.A.S.
degree, B.S. and B.A. degrees in photography, and eventually the
creation of M.S. and M.F.A. degrees.
was an early pioneer in photographic education, states Zakia.
Few people realize that he accomplished all this and more
without having a college degree but with a generous amount of
intuition, talent and leadership.
art programs also produced more than their share of noteworthy
representatives. Students such as Craig McArt 32, Anthony
LaRocco 49, Ronald Senungetuk 60 and Henry Gernhardt
56 received Fulbright Awards, while faculty such as Franz
Wildenhain, Fred Meyer, Wendell Castle, Albert Paley and Ralph
Avery were recognized with numerous honors.
In 1950, RIT enhanced
its creative environment by adding the School for American Crafts.
Witmeyer, director of the School of Art and Design from 1952 to
1978, says the relationship between these sister schools offered
a number of benefits.
The spirit, energies
and achievements of these years of growth and change were remarkable
on the part of both the faculty and the student body, recalls
Witmeyer. And art students remember how they thrived in the dynamic
Laura Seeley 80
took the skills she honed as a design major and created her niche
as an author and illustrator specializing in childrens
books. Attending RIT, she says, remains the best mistake
she ever made.
In theory, I
attended the wrong school, Seeley reflects. RIT didnt
have an illustration program at the time, so I grabbed every illustration
course available. But to be a good illustrator, you have to be
a good designer. You need to train the eye to look at the whole
picture to see the negative space and to incorporate light
and shadows. I was learning a lot more than I was aware of at
And today, technology
offers learning opportunities that students from those first 100
years couldnt even dare to imagine. Curricula in art, design
and photography now enjoy resources such as digital imaging and
numerous computer software programs that are extending creative
limits. But these enhancements will never replace the foundations
of human artistry.
An exhibit of works by current and former faculty of the School
of Art took place in January at RITs Gallery r in downtown
Rochester. From left are Tom Lightfoot, chair, SOFA; Zerbe
Sodervick, coordinator, gallery r; and John Cox, chair, art
and computer design department, NTID.
It all comes
down to expression in one form or another, explains Joan
Stone, dean of the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences. For
example, the painter thinks about color in one way while the graphic
designer thinks of it in another and the photographer in yet another.
But all of these individuals are engaged in visual expression.
That becomes a unifying strength of our college.
As Stanley Witmeyer
reminds us, CIAS enjoys a great inheritance from the past,
and the promise of a great future.