‘There’s this sense of pushing the edges’: Inside Falmouth University’s Institute of Photography

View Gallery 17 Photos

Named The Times and The Sunday Times’ top ranked arts university in 2023, Falmouth is home to eight photography courses – but what is it that sets each of them apart?

When I first arrive in Falmouth on a freezing Thursday afternoon in mid-January, the Cornish town feels somewhat bleak. Yet, despite the weather, the town’s restaurants, pubs and bars fill up quickly. Soon the sound of buskers beating steel drums can be heard above the bitter wind. And none of this is unusual for Falmouth – Thursday here is ‘student night’ and it appears that sub-zero temperatures have done little to quell enthusiasm for the weekly tradition.

However, even with Falmouth’s high street bustling, the groups of young people wending their way from pub to pub account for only a tiny percentage of the town’s student population. Over 6,000 undergraduate and postgraduates attend Falmouth University, named The Times and Sunday Times’ top ranked arts university in 2023, and over 650 of them are part of its renowned Institute of Photography.

Courtesy of Falmouth University.
© Arabelle Zhuang - Press and Editorial Photography, Falmouth University.

“It’s not just one BA in photography split five ways for marketing purposes”

Inside the institute

The Institute is by far the largest photography department in the country – which explains why, when we meet the following day, the head of photography seems like a man with rather a lot to do. Clutching a travel mug of coffee, photographer and publisher Oliver Udy shows me inside the university’s multi-million pound photography centre.

“I’ve worked in places where the approach to learning photography is quite outdated,” Udy tells me as we make our way inside the large, modern building which, at its highest points, offers impressive views of the surrounding Cornish countryside. “It might teach you how to be a wonderful artist, which is great, but it doesn’t perhaps teach you the skills you need to  put that into practice.”

We pause for a time outside the department’s photography stores. A doorbell rings each time students enter and exit the cavernous room, where two cheerful staff help them to hire kit from a selection worth several millions. All loans are free-of-charge – the newest digital Hasselblads and mirrorless Fujifilms are particularly popular just now.

The head of department has been in post for three years. He completed his own master’s degree at Falmouth some years previously, and has always lived nearby. “I’ve seen how things have shifted and changed,” Udy explains, as we wander through corridors lined with students’ images, and vitrines filled with classic cameras. “I suppose the biggest thing now is how many courses there are.”

©Harry Lawlor. Courtesy of Falmouth University.

The paradox of choice

Indeed, the Institute of Photography offers a grand total of eight courses. Prospective Falmouth students can choose from undergraduate degrees – lasting either the traditional three years, or four with the newly-introduced placement year – in commercial, fashion, marine and natural history, and press and editorial photography, alongside a ‘classic’ photography course. As of September 2023, the latter will also be available online, joining a photography MA/PGDip and a one-year photography top up course. I ask Udy if all this choice runs the risk of becoming overwhelming. Can each option really offer something different?

“It’s not just one BA in photography split five ways for marketing purposes,” he says, as we enter one of the Institute’s nine studios. This one is average in size, but, Udy tells me, the largest fills a warehouse. “If you want to be a high end, commercial product photographer, then there’s almost no relation to a career in galleries using conceptual photography.”

The focus on post-university life drives the differences between each of Falmouth’s photographic pathways. Those studying BA Commercial Photography – the newest addition to the Institute’s roster – will be prepared to become advertising or product photographers, as well as creative directors and studio managers. Their teaching has a particular focus on industry standard technical skills such as Capture One.

© Jordan Kilford - Photography, Falmouth University.
© Jessica Banks - Falmouth University.

Meanwhile, BA Fashion Photography students are, Udy explains, prepared quickly for the collaborative nature of this area of the industry. “When I worked in another rural institution I always said that if you wanted to study fashion photography, you’re better off studying in London – unless the course is embedded in a fashion department,” he says. 

And so, while they have full access to the Institute for Photography, Falmouth’s fashion photography students can most commonly be found on the other side of the sprawling arts campus, at the Fashion & Textile Institute. With a focus on studio and location practices, high-end retouching and editing techniques, students go on to shoot for the likes of Vivienne Westwood and Elle, as well as to roles as casting directors and film producers. Recent graduates include Alice Kasinather-Jones, now a Junior Producer with Partner Films working on campaigns for Gucci, Prada and Dolce & Gabbana and Torgeir Rorvik, who received the Fashion Photography award at Graduate Fashion Week 2022.

“The ethos is tied to these overarching ideas about engaging, ethical, sustainable things, which are really fundamentally important”

Film, fine art and photojournalism

We step outside of the studio, and I am led past rooms filled with processing sinks and drying cabinets, and into an open plan workspace just outside the department’s darkrooms. The space is bustling with students. They crowd around processing machines and pore over light boxes, while several of the department’s 20 technical staff rush from urgent query to urgent query – it is, afterall, assessment season.

Over the hubbub, Udy recommences his run down of Falmouth’s photographic offering. BA Photography, he tells me, produces students who are not only industry ready, but who are taught with a greater focus on fine art and performance, alongside modules on social documentary, architecture and editorial photography. This broad, art-based learning readies graduates for careers as photographers, but also as curators, exhibiting artists and filmmakers. 

Then there’s BA Press and Editorial Photography, soon to be renamed Documentary and Editorial Photography – “I think because of the toxic nature of the word ‘press’,” Udy ventures. At its core, it’s a course about communication and storytelling, which the head of department describes as having become increasingly sophisticated over the years. 

Today the programme offers training in documentary, sports and events photography, alongside all elements of photojournalism and a strong focus on journalistic rigour and multimedia narratives. Graduates now work as photographers at The New York Times and Shutterstock, and as picture editors at The Telegraph and The Times.

Courtesy of Falmouth University.
© Linsell Pace - Press and Editorial Photography, Falmouth University.

Natural talent

Before we discuss the next and the largest undergraduate course, Udy is keen to show me a room which would have otherwise been easily missed. The BA Marine and Natural History Photography course hosts around 280 students across all three years – compared to an average of around 120 across other courses – and its storeroom is nothing short of fascinating. Filled not just with all the specialist equipment needed for underwater photography, but with much of what the dive itself would require, it feels a little like stepping inside a well-equipped submarine. 

“This is a world of photography that isn’t part of the mainstream,” Udy says, gesturing at the intimidatingly large and complex-looking rigs that line the walls around him. “The world of natural history photography was excluded from what was the mainstream photographic culture of Britain, so they’ve had to build their own world.”

The course’s students have, it would seem, been wholly successful in this regard. An uptick in applications, driven, Udy believes, by the increasing urgency of the climate crisis, has seen several graduates go on to work on David Attenborough’s acclaimed BBC documentaries. “Half of the BBC’s Natural History Unit is our graduates,” he adds, sounding both proud and excited in equal measure.

Experimentation and the student experience 

Leaving the tightly crammed stores and making our way upstairs, a small stairwell opens onto a refreshingly open space. Students sit grouped around computers loaded with the latest, industry-standard software, or curl on bean bags, laptops and notebooks in hand. Nearby, the walls of an open gallery space are covered with hastily pinned up prints – remnants of group discussions and critiques.

All of this, Udy says, is designed to create a greater sense of community and collaboration throughout the Institute of Photography – an approach which is key to the department’s culture. “The ethos is tied to these overarching ideas about engaging, ethical, sustainable things, which are really fundamentally important,” he explains. “And underneath that, there’s this sense of pushing the edges.” This, he adds, is what he believes sets Falmouth’s photographic teaching apart: not defined by any one style, the department is free to place experimentation at its heart.

© Eleanor Ryder - Marine and Natural History Photography, Falmouth University.
© Tony Sutton - Marine and Natural History Photography, Falmouth University.

Across this open space is Udy’s office. Our tour has been a long one – his travel mug of coffee is now dangerously close to empty. But, thinking back to the grey scenes of my arrival, I decide to squeeze in one last question. Despite the nightlife I witnessed, can a small seaside town on the Cornish coast really offer it all, when it comes to the wider student experience?

“Sometimes they will have to make their own fun,” Udy acknowledges, “– there’s less nightclubs, but more house parties than I’ve ever seen – and I think that leads to really creative stuff.” I tell him about the previous evening’s revellers, and the steel drum players who had braved freezing temperatures. 

He smiles and nods in response. “You come here and you’re going to be living with people studying all kinds of different creative things – musicians, actors, designers, architects,” he replies. “What a cool bunch of people to have around you – and really, I think that’s the joy of Falmouth, isn’t it?”

24 Hours in Bethnal Green, an exhibition by second year Press and Editorial Photography students at Falmouth University, is on show at Oxford House, London, throughout April