The 15 Most Promising Photography BFA Grads of 2013: From SVA, Pratt, Parsons, MICA, and RISD

The first day of my first photography class in art school, Henry Horenstein told me, “People always like the early work.” I have since found this to be true. I tend to identify more strongly with the raw emotions of photographs made in the throes of hormones than those benefitting from wisdom gained by age. The work is usually rougher, more risky.

With this thought in mind, I decided to schlep to art schools in the New York City area and go to every thesis show I possibly could. I sat in on senior critiques, asked department heads and current students to recommend standout work among graduating seniors, and scoured the websites of over 200 photographers getting a BFA this year. Hailing from SVA, Pratt, Parsons, MICA, and RISD, here are 15 students who caught my eye with their fresh approaches to image making.

School of Visual Arts (SVA)

Photo: Brian James Kip

Brian James Kip’s Life Studies extract moments from daily life and combine them to make a richly colored and multi-dimensional portrait of his experience. Created with a meticulous approach that combines a graphic sensibility with a finely tuned sense of color, the images are just the right balance of the real and surreal.

Photo: Supranav Dash

Supranav Dash’s series Small Trades documents Indian citizens daring to live outside the caste system in a style that blends real life subjects with a polished studio aesthetic. Currently earning a second bachelors degree—his first was in commerce—Dash has a background in commercial photography, so it makes sense that these images look ripe for commissioning. They are reminiscent of Irving Penn’s Worlds in a Small Room, but the background is painted neon colors and inserted into earthtone lives of Indian laborers.

Photo: Ilona Szwarc

Ilona Szwarc has had quite an exciting and successful year, garnering much attention for her series American Girls, which is currently on view at Foley Gallery in New York through July 3rd. Every aspect of the photos is accounted for, exposing truths about American culture and the conditioning of gender identity. She recently had a solo exhibition at Claude Samuel Gallery in Paris, won a World Press Photo award, and was just awarded the Center for Photography at Woodstock’s 2013 Photography Now Purchase Prize. Szwarc will begin Yale’s MFA program in the fall.

Photo: Francesca Tamse

Francesca Tamse’s work was especially unique. It seems more like the kind of art coming out of a Visual Studies Workshop in the 70s. Perhaps Aspen Mays’ work may be a more contemporary counterpart. The work is malleable—at the SVA mentors show, images were projected onto an arrangement of rocks on the floor, but the same project can also be installed as a web of connected imagery on the wall. Tamse’s combinations of images are insightfully precise, and her abundant use of beach imagery complements the summer perfectly. Her book neo Ancient Sites is available at Printed Matter.

Parsons The New School for Design

Photo: Jose Raul Valencia

Arresting and ambiguous, Jose Raul Valencia’s odd frames capture evocative moments on the faces of New Yorkers. Film grain is used to create a richly murky pointillism, and Valencia’s compositions amount to an ominous vibe, making me reflect on surveillance in urban centers. They also make me think I should be paying more attention to the people around me.

Photo: Santos Munoz

Working in black and white has become quite rare among art school graduates. General knowledge seems to dictate that black and white is an effect, the logic being that it’s the 21st century and photos should be in color unless there’s a particular reason they need to be monochrome. I tend to agree. But Santos Muñoz reminds me that black and white is another way of seeing, and the sheer grace of his silver prints is ample justification in and of itself.

Photo: Elena Montemurro

Having just covered Elena Montemurro’s work, she is fresh on my mind. Suspenseful, humorous, and relatable, the vividly colored images channel our own experiences of being a teen. Montemurro’s precarious and ambiguous scenarios lure us in, and we’re never quite sure of what’s around the corner.

charles caesar
Photo: Charles Ceasar

Charles Caesar’s photos hit you on a gut level. They work a little like Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s Evidence, but they’re personal snapshots, so they carry more pathos. While they are relatable in their human-ness, the scenarios depicted are bizarre and uncertain. The grainy 4×6 prints channel the joy of looking through a stack of snapshots you just got back from the lab, except each and every one is a strange and miraculous accident.

Pratt Institute

Photo: Sacha Vega

Sacha Vega’s series SEE SAW is a light-filled exploration of places pasted into each other, working breezily around the way photographs transport space. The images walk the line between photographically represented space (the space of the picture plane), and real, actual physical space. In her thesis exhibition at Pratt, Vega employed sculptural installations in low relief to great effect, inviting a fluid relationship between our space and hers.

Photo: James Gentile

James Gentile forces family photos, staging stiff compositions out of friends and relatives in familiar places. Gentile challenges accepted notions of relationships between people, simultaneously trying to place himself within this structure through photography. The photos are warm and humorous, offering a fresh take on the family as subject.

Photo: Paul Brodeur

I’ve looked at countless photos while researching this overview, but this one by Paul Brodeur has floated to the front of my mind more than any other. Perhaps it’s just the nudity and the desert imagery, but I can’t help but think of the work of Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keefe. Lush, provocative, and haunting, Brodeur’s projections on nudes deliver.

Kelley McNutt is part of a growing movement of what I’m calling “Garbage Girls.” They’re young artists involved in a conversation about female identity with an often nostalgic focus on youth and the 90s. A dreamy neon haze pervades their pictures, and the use of “low” culture themes, a cluttered aesthetic, or literally garbage, are presented to produce meaningful reflections on the experience of being a contemporary girl. I’d put artists Lauren Poor, Signe Pierce, Elizabeth Renstrom, and even whiz kid Olivia Bee in this category as well. McNutt’s art is more interrogative of social constructs than it is introspective. And while it clearly grows from a very personal place, there’s an element of hyper-reality here, and seemingly a lot at stake. McNutt’s work is some of the most exciting I saw this year, and certainly the most bizarre. This video piece sums it up—unsettling, annoying, alarming, and at the same time completely entrancing.

Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA)

Photo: Zhenia Bulawka

Zhenia Bulawka’s self-portraits cleverly expose frustrations of modern womanhood. Her series Fail is a staged vision of domestic mishaps in which the artist’s telling facial expressions hold the pictures together, creating a sit-com of her everyday trials.

Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)

Photo: Morgan Palmer

A standout of this year’s RISD BFA crop was Morgan Palmer. Palmer’s pictures are pleasant, poppy, and polished. Thirteen, a surreal documentary series about her sister is a fascinating portrait of a tween girl who’s assuming the persona of a much older woman. Palmer says about the work, “my sister and I are both seduced by a vision of feminine perfection that we are also highly critical of.”

Photo: Elliott Romano

Elliott Romano’s series Proof is a humorous look at UFO imagery. An exercise in (perhaps justified) paranoia about government drones, this series addresses what we see—or what we think we might see—when we look to the sky. One summer in Brooklyn, Romano noticed something that may just have been a child’s balloon floating away into the atmosphere, and began to question what he was actually observing. This sparked the project; his resulting photographs scour the sky for signs of intelligent life and play with the notion that photographs are inherently accurate. In the mode of Antonioni’s 1966 film Blowup, Romano exhaustively looks for evidence of something that may or may not be real.

If you’re from a school not included here and would like to be considered for a follow-up article, please contact Feature Shoot.

Feature Shoot Contributing Editor Matthew Leifheit is an independent writer, curator, and photographer based in New York City.

  • Liz

    Where are the NYU/Tisch BFA’s?

  • karl baden

    re: sacha vega. reminds me of joseph jachna from the early ’70s

  • ALL

    Where are the VCU photo majors?

  • Elizabeth

    In response to Liz and ALL: I believe these are the most promising BFA graduates from ART SCHOOLS in the NY area. Tisch is still technically part of NYU. If not, perhaps no one from Tisch caught his eye? There are a handful from SVA, Pratt and Parsons, two from RISD and only one from MICA. It is difficult to pick just 15. Someone is bound to be left out.

  • Liz

    Parsons is part of New School, just like Tisch’s relationship to NYU. Of course students are bound to be left out, but Tisch Photo seems like a big hole in this list (with alumni like Hank Willis Thomas, etc).

  • Steve

    Ok, I have to say it. As someone who earned a BFA in Photography, the majority of this work is crap…absolute crap! I’m am so tired of looking at this snapshot quality, poorly lit, trendy bullshit! Where are the aesthetics? Where is the nuanced sensitivity to light? Where is the well designed composition?

    Kip’s photos do not “combine a graphic sensibility with a finely tuned sense of color.” It’s banal, trite subject matter shot with straight on raw flash. It’s a mug shot at best. Ceasar’s snapshots are more of the same lazy approach to aesthetics. Bulawka’s self portraits? I have two words for you…Cindy Sherman! She’s already beat that dead horse.

    The only ones that have promise is Dash’s “Small Trades” series, but of course I would expect good work from someone with a background in commercial (oooh, commercial, such a dreaded sell-out word) photography; someone who has a sensitivity and control of light, shadow, and color. This is beautiful work!

    Munoz’s photos have a stark quality that lend themselves to black and white. I suspect the reason art school student don’t practice black and white because they’re lazy! It takes hard work and constant study and practice to visualize and interpret the world in monochrome.

    And, I agree with your critique of Brodeur’s abstracts. Lush, provocative, and haunting indeed!

    Overall, this is pretty disappointing work coming from art schools that more than likely charge a quarter of a million dollars for student’s to grace their hallowed halls for 4 years. Overpriced, pretentious bullshit!

  • Elizabeth

    Tell us how you really feel, Steve. For that matter, put your money where your mouth is. Let’s see YOUR “original” portfolio. Everything in photography has already been done–pushed to the limit. Dash’s “Small Trades” is good but it is nothing that hasn’t already been splattered across the pages of National Geographic. Want to be a harsh critic? That’s fine but be prepared to be put on blast as well. Let’s see what you’ve got, Steve. Clearly, you can run circles around these recent grads. For the record, while Brodeur’s photos are lovely, any second year photo major can take projection shots. There is nothing remotely innovative about them. You could have at least been fair with your critique. Instead, you just picked favorites–and so I ask, who are YOU to judge?

  • Elizabeth

    To clarify, my intention was not to negatively criticize the work of the students Steve had singled out as the lone two talents with “promise,” but to prove a point. We’re witnessing 15 graduates’ blood, sweat and tears, here–every single one of them with his own, unique vision. While we will not always be captivated by everything we see, who are we to criticize’s someone else’s vision? I suppose it is fair to argue technical skill level but let’s be realistic. Content and originality? Those are a matter of OPINION, and yours, Steve, although I’m sure you would vehemently (with teeth gnashing) disagree, is not always right.

    Also, I’m fairly certain “lazy art school student” is an oxymoron. As “someone who earned a BFA in Photography,” surely this is something you are well aware of so do everyone a favor and ease up on the venom. You lack class and tact.

  • charles

    Steve nothing is more lazy than not proofreading your own criticism, it’s ‘Caesar’ not ‘Ceasar’. Lets see your site!

  • Horatio

    C’mon Steve, you can admit it. You spend your days musing over Ansel Adams photos.

  • Dan

    I agree with Steve… this is just more snapshot crap. How this @!#$% winds up in mags I don’t know!!

  • Farina

    Are these photos really representative of the 15 most promising photography BFA grads of 2013? I don’t think it really matters that everything has already been done in photography – unprofessional snapshot looking photographs don’t belong in an article claiming to showcase The Most Promising Photography Grads.

    There is a reason why legendary photographers are legendary – because they didn’t produce amateurish photographs under the premise they were professional images in disguise.

    That said, I have to say the best photo of these 15 is the black and white one belonging to Santos Munoz.

  • Jade

    Farina, who are you to claim any photo is the best of the 15? What are your credentials? What makes you an expert?

  • Whether or not any of these images are good, bad, or mediocre doesn’t matter nearly as much as the current marketplace for photography, and the responsibility that art schools (should) have to their students.
    More than ever before, art schools are cranking out photographers and illustrators at an alarming rate, saddling many with enormous amounts of debt, with the promise of a career in the glamourous world of commercial art.
    In some ways, one could say that the market for photography and illustration is growing from pre-recession levels, but look carefully and you’ll see that much of that growth is based on use of stock images, often for pennies, or just a few dollars. And I think that few people here will suggest that most of the commissions that are still made, have healthy budgets.
    Yes, a few will make it and do very well, probably even some of the people in this article (whether or not you think they deserve it). But the vast majority will leave school with a huge debt load, and enter a market that can’t even properly support the current numbers of ‘working’ artists.
    There is plenty of blame to go around: the recession, giant stock agencies (and the photographers who foolishly supply them), the shift of ad dollars from print to digital, etc. etc. But we simply cannot ignore any longer the absurd numbers of new students hitting the market this time every year, desperate to be published.
    It’s a buyer’s market, and most students graduating in this new era will not be paying back their student loans with art-based income.
    Is there a solution to this problem? I don’t have one.
    We can’t tell every school to lower their fees, or turn away applicants.
    This problem is of course not limited to commercial art, but this is a field were a ‘degree’ is rarely necessary, unless you intend to fulfill this cycle and become a teacher.
    Perhaps we can ask schools (in all fields) to post realistic estimates for employment after graduation.

    Rant of the day over, thanks.


  • attention moderator: in re-reading my previous post, I realized that I shouldn’t have stated “pre-recession” levels, rather it should be simply “recession” .

    Also, my intention was to italicize only the word “are”, and not everything after it.

    If you are able to change those two things, I’d appreciate it.



  • Carla

    Evidently the writer has made some controversial selections. Good for him. I always find it amusing when people get all bent out of shape about something that doesn’t directly concern them. While there might be a few trendy photos in the bunch, I don’t see how anyone could find anything remotely “snapshot quality” about Montemurro nor Bulawka’s work, for example (nor Munoz’s for that matter). Between the attention given to color palette, the beautiful lighting and their overall composition, the technical proficiency is more than apparent. They most certainly have an eye for aesthetics.

    While other commenters may have missed the boat, it is fairly apparent that the premise is to showcase “promising” photographers and not perfect ones. I’m finding it difficult to believe that some of these commenters have taken the time to examine the students’ portfolios. It is a bit harsh and hasty to dismiss them all as “trendy” and “snapshot” quality. There is quite a bit of quality work to be seen here, even some of that elusive black and white photography that’s “…become quite rare among art school graduates.” One photo does not a portfolio make. Click the links and explore the websites. No need to pass judgment prematurely.

  • Malcom

    I agree with Steve. Most of these images are of total rubbish. I’d be embarrassed to have most in my portfolio. Hundreds of thousands of dollars spent & this is the best of the best? That is truly sad……

  • Phil

    Very impressive! Looking forward to seeing their portfolios grow and wish them much success.

  • Very diverse collection of unique works by emerging photographers. Thanks for the list and I wish them much success.

  • John

    “I’m am so tired of looking at this snapshot quality, poorly lit, trendy bullshit! Where are the aesthetics? Where is the nuanced sensitivity to light? Where is the well designed composition?”

    Unfortunately Steven I am so tired of hearing from hacks who can’t back up their words with work talking about “composition” and “lighting” without looking at the actual CONTENT of an image. Snapshot or not, an image could be as powerful as if it were taken with $50k+ equipment so get off your high horse and put your money where your mouth is.

  • Paul

    Very provocative…looking forward to observing the future work of these young artists.


  • VCU needs to be added to the list!

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