Deep Springs College is the most unusual college in America. Arguably, it is also the best. It is located in such a remote place in the high desert in eastern California that its mailing address is in Nevada — and the nearest gas pump is thirty miles away over a mountain pass. There are up to twenty-six students who hire and fire the faculty, design the curriculum, select the incoming students, do all of the work on the college’s organic farm and ranch, cook the meals, work in the office, and generally maintain the school. Tuition is free. Does this sound like a 1960s college run by ex-hippies? Far from it. Deep Springs has been in existence since 1917.
Academically, Deep Springs is virtually unrivaled.The students at this two-year, all-male school are invited to apply from among the top two percent of College Board score achievers, though others may also apply. In a recent poll, Deep Springs College ranked third academically, behind only Princeton and Yale.
Internationally acclaimed photographer Michael A. Smith discovered Deep Springs College quite by chance after photographing in California’s remote White Mountains. He eventually went back to Deep Springs to teach for a term. While in residence he created a superb photographic portrait of the college. Since at Deep Springs the students are the college to a degree unapproached by any other college or university, Deep Springs is shown through portraits of the students. Smith’s photographs impart a deeply personal vision and capture the essence of America’s most remarkable educational institution.
Michael A. Smith, born in Philadelphia in 1942, has been working in photography since 1966. Less than a year later, in 1967, he began photographing exclusively with an 8×10-inch view camera, committing himself to the contact print. Later he added both an 8×20 and an 18×22-inch view camera.
During his second year as a photographer, he began teaching his own seminars and workshops, but after seven and a half years, he stopped teaching to dedicate himself solely to the making of his photographs.
His photographic journeys during the past five decades have taken him to every state in the continental United States, western Canada, Mexico, and Europe. The results of these remarkable odysseys are included in the permanent collections of over 125 museums in the United States, Europe, and Asia, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Art Institute of Chicago, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
His commitment to the medium has resulted in over 200 exhibitions. In addition, he has twice received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and he has been the recipient of major commissions to photograph five American cities. In 1981, Smith’s first book, the two-volume monograph, Landscapes 1975–1979, was awarded Le Grand Prix du Livre at the Rencontres Internationale de la Photographie in Arles, France. At that time, the Swiss publication Print Letter commented, “For the first time in the 11 years of the Rencontres, a deserving book has won the book prize.”
Dr. L. Jackson Newell has served as President of Deep Springs College since 1995. He is also Professor Emeritus of Higher Education and former Dean of Liberal Education at the University of Utah. A celebrated teacher and authority on the history and philosophy of higher education, Newell went to Deep Springs as a student in the late 1950s, taught there in the late 1960s, and served as a trustee of the college from 1986 to 1994. His recent works include: Creating Distinctiveness: Lessons from Uncommon Colleges and Universities (1993), Maverick Colleges: Fourteen Notable Experiments in American Higher Education (1994), and Matters of Conscience: Conversations with Sterling McMurrin on Philosophy, Education and Religion (1996). Newell’s many honors include the Joseph Katz award for distinguished leadership in American higher education.
William T. Vollmann, former Deep Springs student, is the author of six novels, four collections of stories, and one work of nonfiction. His most recent novel is The Royal Family. He lives in California.