Work by Professor David Goldes
Work by Professor David Goldes

David Goldes, a longtime photography professor at MCAD and a student favorite, shares with us his unique transition into the arts, describes his studio practice, and points out some exciting changes that have taken place at MCAD during his thirty-two years here. 

David Goldes, Photography Professor


Hey David, thanks for talking with me! So, how long have you been here at MCAD?

I’ve been here thirty-two years. I started back in 1985.

Have you been teaching this whole time?

I’ve been in the Media Arts Department since I arrived. I was a visiting faculty member my first year, and then I started as an associate professor. Pretty straightforward. So, I’ve been teaching for all this time except for the, I think three, sabbaticals that I’ve had, as well as leaving when I had grant support from various foundations.

I understand that you, like most MCAD faculty, have a studio art practice outside of teaching here; what is it like being a full-time artist as well as a professor?

Challenging, I would say. It’s one of the reasons why I went to two-thirds time, because it was just not enough time in the studio. They’re two different worlds, as well. One is much more social and exciting, with all the students. The other is solitary and exciting, and very different.

“An exciting part about being here is the four-year development of a student. Sometimes people start out wobbly in the first year or two, and then they transform themselves.”

What is your favorite part of each world?

I think my favorite part about being at MCAD is the remarkable flow of wonderful students that come from who knows where. And they keep coming, you know? I think of their parents, and suddenly and somehow out of the orbit of the family comes this young person who wants to ask questions that don’t have obvious answers. Another exciting part about being here is the four-year development of a student. Sometimes people start out wobbly in the first year or two, and then they transform themselves. I’ve seen that time and again, people who start out unsure. It’s a very heavy workload, and students today in 2017 often have jobs, even families, these tremendous challenges, and the vast majority manage to overcome these challenges. And that’s pretty amazing. And to have some hand in that, it's special. It’s not like any other activity.

Being in the studio is somewhat related. Sometimes I go into the studio and—like a student who’s not sure what they’re going to do—by working there I make discoveries. I’m a kind of obsessive individual, so I could work things over and over and over until something further is revealed that is exciting and interesting.

I’ve been to your studio several times, what is it like bringing students in for a visit?

I brought a small class by last week, actually. It’s interesting to see what they enjoy, because I can’t really see my studio, you know, it’s where I work. I make coffee, and I have my fish, and I draw, read, make things, and make photographs. It’s like anything in anyone’s home, it becomes invisible after a while. 

For the students, I think it’s always interesting to see a fuller part of somebody; to just see that I have the same kind of challenges they have, except I’ve been at it longer. Maybe it gives them something, a form, that they might imagine themselves in. That they could actually do this. It’s not easy, it’s still not easy, even at this point. It’s a long path to maintain a studio and to work all the time. But, we’re in Minnesota where there is a tremendous amount of economic support in many places. I also have a gallery that puts some of the work into a larger public conversation and generates funds to support the enterprise. I think it’s helpful for students to see that their instructor has to think about the same kinds of things they do. To ask the same kind of questions that get asked in critique, about intention and motivation and production, it feels like I would be lying if I didn’t apply those same questions to myself. It’s ongoing, it doesn’t end with school. It shifts, at the end of school you have to find other ways of continuing that dialogue in some fashion, or not. But you have to find a new path. And know that there are people like myself in studios that do this, it is possible.

A number of former students also come by and visit from time to time. Because of social media, I’m in touch with a lot of students from the past, and that didn’t used to happen, so it’s nice. Many times the people who come by are people that I’ve worked with before on something, and maybe I can help them with something too. For example there’s a student who moved to Los Angeles, and she comes by once or twice a year, and every time she comes I write down a list of people she should see or maybe find out about in Los Angeles. Sometimes I think it takes three visits before she gets the courage to actually try to contact these people.

“I think it’s helpful for students to see that their instructor has to think about the same kinds of things they do.” 

It’s amazing that you make yourself available for former students to come by and visit.

It’s great for me too. It goes both ways. 

You’re retiring at the end of this year, right? After teaching for three decades?

Yes, I am leaving at the end of this year. It just felt like the right amount of time for me. I also know that I’ll miss being here, the students and some classes. Who knows, maybe I'll come back in some new version of myself.

How did you decide it was time to retire?

Working in my studio during the school breaks and the summer is always interesting. But what’s interesting about unbroken time in the studio—there's a very interesting thing that happens—is that the work can evolve without interruption, and therefore you can take it to another level. It doesn't always happen. And there are other aspects of my life besides MCAD. I have a son, a wife, a family, and so there’s less of a balancing act in the summer when school is out, and that’s what I hope for in the future.

You have a background in science; how did you make the transition into art?

I would say that when I left the science graduate school was the beginning. Around 1974. Doing scientific research isn't so different from being an artist, but I began to think it wasn't so interesting, the answers that I was pursuing. I had this kind of crisis of belief in my own data that I was generating, whether I should believe it, or if it was just an artifact of the experiments I was doing. At most points I felt like somebody else could be doing the experiment just as well, and maybe I would like to do something more psychologically, emotionally rewarding with answers that were more unique, not so generalized. Alan Lightman, the author of the book Einstein’s Dreams, came to MCAD once and made this point that science asks us to define what an electron is. He’s also a scientist who left the field because he felt somebody else could answer that very specific question. But art tries to ask these bigger questions with multiple answers. Like, what are these things we call hatred, or love, or being alone? Different kinds of questions with multiple answers that maybe tie more directly to the artist, the individual. It was the time, I think, too. I was on this track and it was a decision that was almost made for me. I grew up in the post-Sputnik push in American science. The Sputnik was a Russian satellite launched in the 50s, and because they did it before the United States, there was a lot of money suddenly invested into science. As a result, there was a push to go into a science field, and to do pure science research.

“It was a very unusual program. People voted if you were going to get your degree or not, and your peers voted for or against you.”

Do you have any advice for students who have interests in two or more very different fields?

That’s an interesting question. My son has asked the same thing, you know, “Dad, should I major in something I know I’m not going to do, like you did?” No, I think a better idea might be to major in something you think you will do, but there are ways to pursue other outlying interests. Maybe you need to be a mathematician too, or a fiction writer, or follow an interest in philosophy. A person can have multiple interests—just be careful about your time. 

In my case, it was a big transition. But I went to a graduate school that was very into nontraditional students coming into the arts from other fields. It was called Visual Studies Workshop, in Rochester, New York. It was a very unusual program, very interesting. People voted if you were going to get your degree or not, and your peers voted for or against you.

What changes have you witnessed at MCAD that you think have been the most beneficial?

I think one of the big beneficial changes at this school is the much more active Visiting Artist Program. It seemed like there were hardly any visitors in my first years here, and slowly these lectures became part of the curriculum. There’s a talk on Friday, there’s one next Monday, there are so many that students sometimes can’t take advantage of them all. And I’ve been involved with inviting people in that I think are good for students to hear and see; I like doing that.

Regarding changes to photography, much has been said about the shift to digital photography. I think what is interesting about it is it has integrated photography into all other fields. Because the photograph is on a screen it can be utilized in many different places in many ways. It’s introduced people to the 3D shop with the laser cutter, for example, and it has heralded a new era of electronic bricolage.

What are you working on currently?

I’m working on a book entitled Electricities that will be published in late summer by Damiani, and then there will be an exhibition in conjunction with the book in Bologna, Italy. I’m looking forward to seeing the work in print.

Thank you David! I know I speak for the whole school when I say it's been wonderful having you here at MCAD, and I hope retirement treats you well!