From math major to expert photographer

Winning the Photographer of the Year award from the University Photographer’s Association of America is an elite achievement. But McKay School of Education alumnus Mark Philbrick has achieved that honor eight times, twice the number of any other photographer.

Philbrick graduated from BYU with a bachelor’s degree in communications (photography emphasis) in 1975 and a master’s degree in education in 1978, blending these studies to become one of the foremost authorities in the United States on university photography. He said that he has loved every second of his career.

Philbrick’s first experience with photography came when he was a sophomore tutoring a senior in a high school math class.

“The senior I tutored was always missing class, and I thought ‘I want a gig like that,’” Philbrick said. “So I found out that he was working on the yearbook, and he got me an interview. I got on the yearbook staff my junior year, but I couldn’t write and I couldn’t spell worth a hill of beans. I couldn’t sell ads or do those things, but they asked if I could take pictures, and I said, ‘Well give me a camera and I’ll see if I can.’”

That experience proved to be life changing for Philbrick, and from the time he first touched a camera, his world has never been the same.

Math Aspirations

When Philbrick began at BYU in 1971, he was majoring in mathematics and didn’t know any other options available to him. But after an experience he had with his calculus professor, he thought there must be something else he could do.

Philbrick walked into the first day of calculus with wild ambitions to be successful in the math department. On that fateful day his teacher marched to the board with a piece of chalk in each hand and wrote out a formula. Philbrick thought, “Okay, this is way beyond where I want to be.”

After that experience, Philbrick picked up the camera again and started working on BYU’s yearbook The Banyan. He changed his major to include photography, and he has had a camera in his hand ever since.

Photography and Education

To relate the intersections in his career path—math to photography with what may seem to be a side trip for a master’s degree in education—he offered the following.

I love mathematics and figures, and I think that’s how most of photographers see—in shapes and designs—and so there’s an element of trigonometry or at least an element of math associated with photography. You see angles and shapes and repetition; there’s lots of things a good photographer will see, and that was probably my mathematics background. As for the education side of things, I feel I basically had a touch of everything in communications that I needed, and I wanted to enhance that with the education side of things. I wanted to be able to take these skills farther. And the idea of teaching teachers how to teach impressed me. I liked the idea of being able to work and create and pass on that knowledge. I guess it’s my math major stepping in again to look at the flow and the function of how things fit in the right spots and the steps it takes to get to the right places.

Philbrick hopes that his career in photography has made a difference not only to other photographers, but also to those who have viewed his work.

“If I can take pictures and communicate more than I ever could in writing, that would be wonderful. Because when you see quality, it stops you and takes your breath away,” Philbrick said.

Philbrick believes that “everyone is a photographer” in one way or another. His advice to aspiring photographers is to “inspire themselves” to find what they want to do and to “create something beautiful.”

Writer: Eric Sackett

Contact: Cindy Glad (801) 422-1922