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Q&A with Visiting Artist/Scholar Diana Stoll

Diana Stoll, who served as a visiting/artist scholar for the MFA in Photography and Integrated Media program, provides an insider's view of the contemporary art world.

The Cover of Aperture Magazine Issue 210
Aperture Issue 210, edited by Diana Stoll

Diana is an editor, writer, and curator who specializes in contemporary photography and photo-based art. She has edited five books of photography in the last five years, including Robert Mapplethorpe: The Photographs and a biography of photographer Michael Nichols; and she has published two original works. She was also the senior editor of Aperture magazine, one of the leading photography publications in the world.

In 2017, Diana participated in the MFA in Photography and Integrated Media's acclaimed visiting artist/scholar program, during which she shared insight into the world of contemporary photography during critiques and workshops. In her Q&A, she talks about her experience teaching at Lesley, the importance of curiosity, and more.

Q: How do you approach mentoring and teaching?

A: I think one of the most valuable things a teacher can offer is frankness. I try to respond to the students’ work and ideas candidly, but encouragingly. I engage in conversation about what they are doing; I want to hear how they understand what it is they’re creating, and see if it parallels my experience of their work.

I like introducing students to other artists’ work that resonates on some level with theirs, and books or texts that might deepen their vantage point, helping them to draw connections. I’ve encountered a few young artists in my life who worry about somehow tainting the purity of their vision by overexposure to other ideas. I think that’s specious, lazy, and cowardly. The more you know, and the more you see, the more you’ll be able to understand and articulate what it is you are creating. And how what you are doing differs from anyone else's work.

I believe it’s crucial that students (especially in graduate school) learn to speak about their work clearly and unpretentiously—and partly for that reason, I think that what they read is as important as what they see. I always ask what students are reading, and I tend to make lists of texts that might interest them—literary, poetic, critical, humorous, whatever—in the hopes that they might key in to something.

"The more you know, and the more you see, the more you’ll be able to understand and articulate what it is you are creating. And how what you are doing differs from anyone else’s work."
Diana Stoll, Visiting Artist/Scholar, MFA in Photography & Integrated Media

Q: Did you find that Lesley's MFA candidates brought unique perspectives to their craft that differ from how more established artists approach their work?

A: Certainly in terms of craft, the MFA students at Lesley are at ease in a range of modes, from the virtual to the craptastic and everything in between. They seem hungry for new possibilities—partly because there are so many interesting choices, and partly because they have not yet settled into the groove (or rut) of their own work yet. It’s exciting to encounter people at this point in their creative development.

There’s a wonderful aspect to working with students, as opposed to veteran artists: young people tend to be less jaded. (Though not always!) They have not yet faced some of the more daunting challenges of what it means to be an artist—the competition for attention, the difficulties of surviving as a creative person. So there can be a refreshing fearlessness in younger artists. They just do the thing they want to do, without necessarily worrying about diplomacy or treading on toes or overreaching.

We’re living in a particularly challenging moment socially, politically, ethically, and I believe the artist has a responsibility to respond forcefully to what is going on, and has the power to do so more efficiently than anyone else. So it’s gratifying to see these young artists, who are taking up the mantle from their “elders,” getting ready to do that job. Treading on toes might just be what has to happen—at the very least. I hope they retain their fearlessness.

Q: What did you like most about working with the MFA in Photography and Integrated Media program?

A: I loved having the opportunity to meet with the bright graduate students at Lesley and to bring some of what I’ve learned during my career in photography publishing into the classroom. The students are so creative, inquisitive, and open to new concepts. I’ve been particularly impressed by the diversity of what they are making and pursuing—I think that’s a testament to Lesley’s faculty, and the juried reviews in midyear and end of year, not to mention having a great city like Boston as a campus.

The students are exposed to a lot of inspiring ideas and insights, and they synthesize those through their work, each in a different way—ranging from straight documentary photography to performative video to installation work to hand-wrought crafts to creative Internet memes. That variety makes the job of teaching both challenging and interesting.

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More About the MFA Visiting Artist/Scholar Program

The Visiting Artist/Scholar program is an integral part of Lesley University's MFA in Photography and Integrated Media. Our visiting artist/scholars expose students to the rigors of a professional practice and work with students to facilitate their artistic development.

The goal of our visiting artists/scholars is to help our students move their art forward. Every visiting artist/scholar meets with all of our students in class and in one-on-one mentoring sessions. They also participate in critiques and juries and act as resources in support of the core faculty.