Student Spotlight: Joe Small, MFA Candidate in Photography

Author: Amy Thomas

Joe Small, 2009

The arts community at Notre Dame is an intimate and thriving creative environment—one that is enriched by the work of Joe Small, a second year MFA candidate in Photography, in the graduate program of Art, Art History, and Design.

Small’s interest in photography stemmed from a high school art class, but it was not until he attended Drexel University as an undergraduate that he considered photography as a potential field of study. Drexel’s unique approach to the art of photography is not through the liberal or fine arts, but instead is heavily influenced by science, which inspired Small to enroll as a photography major and earn a bachelor’s degree in the subject.

While he was looking at potential graduate schools, Small was offered the opportunity to interview at Notre Dame, where he met Professor Martina Lopez. Professor Lopez is a photographer who works with digital images and media in her approach to photography. Her art is concerned with superimposition, which interests Small greatly. “I had seen Professor Lopez’s work previously and was compelled by the chance to study with her,” says Small of this experience. Small found Notre Dame’s photography program to be a small, intimate one with “good vibes” and a committed faculty who prize interaction with their students.

Holes in History -- Joe Small, 2009

Though he applied to many schools, most of which were focused art schools, Small’s decision to attend Notre Dame hinged upon this intimacy, as well as Notre Dame’s unique ability to host programs that beat with vitality and commitment to their student artists. Within a small program, there is the inevitability of working closely with focused and talented faculty and classmates, an aspect of life at Notre Dame which Small finds crucial. He says, “I also appreciate that Notre Dame offers an interdisciplinary approach to its teaching of the arts. I take courses with painters, sculptors, and other visual artists, and I have the option of taking literature and other liberal arts classes. I am also extremely happy that Notre Dame puts such a focus on their graduate students teaching. I’m teaching right now, and teaching is definitely something I’m thinking about for the future.” He also believes that the resources, both financial and otherwise, available to Notre Dame students are indispensable. In fact, Small and his photography can generally be found in the shared studio he occupies at Notre Dame, a unique feature made possible with a small program.

Small’s current artistic endeavors center on his interests in science, cultural studies, and anthropology. He is very much interested in the idea of belief in science, and says that, “Science demystifies nature and myth, but in the process creates more myth.” He plays with this idea through toying with scale and proportion, superimposition, and high contrast within his photography. He favors large projects—projects large with this demystifying and remystifying. His influences range from literature to film to classic and contemporary visual arts. He cites author Haruki Murakami, 16th and 17th century Dutch and Flemish painters, and films like The Illusionist and The Prestige as major influences, alongside photographers Laura Letinksy and Abe Morell. Notre Dame, according to Small, supports this kind of varied influence and kaleidoscopic lens through which to view art.

Even before receiving his graduate degree, Small’s photographs have been included in the permanent collection of Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, as well as in the Center for Fine Art Photography (Fort Collins, Colorado), and various private collections. His work has been exhibited at many institutions, including the Woodmere Art Museum (Philadelphia) and The Perkins Center for the Arts (Moorestown, New Jersey). Small’s work is currently being shown in Chicago at the Catherine Edelman Gallery (Superior Street), as part of The Chicago Project. He recently received the Society for Photographic Education’s Freestyle Crystal Apple Award for Outstanding Achievement in Black and White Photography.