More than 30 years ago, Neil and Jeanne Chaput de Saintonge founded the Rocky Mountain School of Photography, devoting their lives to teaching students the technical and artistic aspects of photography while their son, Forest, looked on. And while Forest says his parents never pushed him into photography, he came to love the art, his parents’ school, and the family of staff and students. As a toddler, he spent more time at RMSP than he did at daycare, eventually working as a studio assistant.
As a child grows up, so too does a school, especially one in an ever-changing industry like photography. Forest remembers the day his parents phased out the dark room portion of the school.
“I was 16 years old. We had 35 enlargers in the dark room,” he explained. “We had a moment of silence for the end of a big era in photography.”
And while a major change calls for a certain amount of nostalgia and respect, over the years RMSP and the Chaput de Saintonge family have learned to make quick changes and adaptations to their school and its programs to remain not only relevant but cutting-edge in the business of photography education.
Forest and his wife, Sarah, took over as directors of RMSP in 2016 at a time when enrollment in the school had been on a decade-long decline. During the same time period, several prominent photography schools in the US permanently closed their doors.
“Sarah and I said, ‘What do we need to do to correct the ship?’” Forest said.
He explained that a long-term goal of RMSP was to earn accreditation as an educational institution, to be able offer college credit like other arts and trades schools. As they watched the industry change, though, they shifted course.
“We decided not to be accredited. We’re almost proud of that,” Forest said. “We can adapt our programs with new technology and software. We have no red-tape to keep our school up-to-date.”
That flexibility comes as a great benefit to RMSP. Instead of navigating a bureaucracy of accreditation requirements, Forest, Sarah, and their staff can make quick changes to keep themselves on the forefront of photography education.
Rocky Mountain School of Photography had long offered a career training program—a long-term, a la carte study of photography. While it was meant to train professional photographers, Forest said that its pick-and-choose nature allowed students to skip over important portions of their education, especially the business side of photography.
In 2017, he and Sarah scrapped the career training program and introduced the RMSP Professional Intensive, known as PI.
“We looked at the top photography programs at four-year colleges and added up the hours those students would learn about photography and business,” Forest explained. “The average was 250 hours of classroom time over four years. In PI at RMSP, we offer over 1,000 hours of instruction time in eight months.”
And that’s where the “intensive” part comes in. PI students devote 40 to 50 hours per week over eight months, immersing themselves in a specialized trade school program for photographers.
“If it doesn’t help you become a professional photographer, we don’t teach it,” Forest said. “And if it does, we do.”
Professional Intensive is geared toward photographers who want to make a career in photography. The application process is designed to focus not on an applicant’s photography skills, but their drive and focus to build a business.
“We want people who may or may not have photography experience; we don’t require a portfolio to apply,” Forest explained. “We’re more interested in whether or not they are willing to hustle and willing to grind it out. We want proof they are a hard-working individual.”
Forest said that by nature, many artists struggle with the business and entrepreneurial aspects of a photography career.
“Our Professional Intensive is about 30 percent business and marketing. On Day One, maybe five of the class of 34 students have a good idea of what they want their business to be,” he said. “By the end, the vast majority of students have a well-defined business plan. That is so cool to see, especially among our students who are just out of high school.”
Students from all backgrounds and age demographics are drawn to RMSP, not only for the Professional Intensive, but also for the school’s Summer Intensive, short courses, and online courses, the latter three geared toward hobbyist photographers.
“We have students who come from all over the country,” Forest said. “It’s really cool. Missoula is such a beautiful place. It’s a lure for students.”
In addition to the special Missoula atmosphere, students at RMSP become a family: recent high school graduates building bonds with mid-life career changers and retirees—an environment that the Chaput de Saintonges are proud to foster. Many program graduates return to RMSP as instructors, offering technical, artistic, and real-world expertise to new crops of students.
In the summer of 2020, RMSP moved from its flagship home on Higgins Avenue in downtown Missoula to a 10,000-square-foot warehouse on Expressway, expanding classroom, office, and studio areas and signaling a visible growth spurt for all of the school’s programs.
“Our passion lies in our Professional Intensive,” Forest said of he and Sarah’s revisions at RMSP. “We built it and we love it. Enrollment has ticked up every year. That’s been really amazing to see.”
Forest hopes that their dedication and forward-thinking motivations will propel RMSP to the forefront of photography education.
“We want high school kids to know that Rocky Mountain School of Photography is the place to go to become a professional photographer,” Forest said. “It feels really good to have so many happy students. It was a good road to get here.”
For more information about RMSP and its programs (including an upcoming partnership with Missoula Public Library), visit them online at www.RMSP.com, or schedule a tour of their facility at 301 Expressway, Suite A.