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Picture this

RIT’s art, design and photo schools took root 100 years ago

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These were exciting times. Change appeared destined to remain the only constant.

Bevier 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 Eastman’s 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 industrial center.

A cultural renaissance was also gaining momentum, inspiring greater emphasis on artistic education.

“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 photography class.


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 RIT’s 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 Bevier Gallery.

Growing out of that first photo class in 1902, RIT formally introduced its photography program in 1930. It was a natural fit in Kodak’s hometown, and the program quickly earned a lofty reputation.“


Anyone who was seriously interested in photography came to RIT,” says Richard Zakia ’56. “There’s no other school in the world like it.”

After leaving the Navy in 1952, Zakia enthusiastically joined the RIT student body. During that period, the photography department was introducing a bachelor’s 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 didn’t 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.

circa 1950

“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 photography.”

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.

“C.B. Neblette 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.”

Similarly, RIT’s 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.

circa 1915

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 atmosphere.

Laura Seeley ’80 took the skills she honed as a design major and created her niche as an author and illustrator – specializing in children’s books. Attending RIT, she says, remains the best “mistake” she ever made.

circa 1950

“In theory, I attended the wrong school,” Seeley reflects. “RIT didn’t 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 the time.”

And today, technology offers learning opportunities that students from those first 100 years couldn’t 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.

Above: An exhibit of works by current and former faculty of the School of Art took place in January at RIT’s 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.”

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Paul Stella

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