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EXPOSING THEIR WORLDS--AGAIN
This article is a re-post from Aug. 16, with updates on the show's new run at the Spectrum Art Gallery. Check it out!
When I was a kid and started playing around with cameras, I remember that people would tell me a picture is worth a thousand words. If you believe that old proverb--like I did then and still do--then you should definitely consider seeing the ongoing exhibit Photography Meets Writing.
The exhibit originally opened downtown at Fresno City Hall this past fall, and is currently enjoying a second run at the Spectrum Art Gallery in the Tower District. This second run is expanded to double the exhibit's original size.
The show features photographic prints by local kids from the Zimmerman Boys and Girls Club in south Fresno. Program director Autumn Lencioni and her volunteer team led two sessions with drop-in students at the club, an eight-week run last spring and a seven-week run this past summer.
The program was funded by a grant from the Fresno Arts Council and supported by the Spectrum Gallery and local businesses and individuals. Lencioni, a studio artist at Spectrum who teaches high school and junior college art classes, ran the workshops with five volunteers.
I have a soft spot in my heart for photography, and I will never forget the first time I picked up a real camera. I was in the eighth grade and my uncle's friend, who happened to be a photojournalism professor at Cal State Northridge, gave me an old, beat-up Pentax ME-Super as a gift. The university was phasing out some equipment for new and better stuff, but the camera was the perfect starter for someone like me who'd never taken anything fancier than snapshots.
I took that Pentax everywhere, to family gatherings, school events, and even to daily lunches on the quad all through high school. I went through rolls and rolls of film, and it must have cost my parents an arm and a leg to get all those photographs developed.
Artists and board members at the Spectrum Gallery, a fine art photography gallery in the Tower District, also know about the power of photography with young people. They had run a similar program for kids before, according to Lencioni, with positive results. So the current program was a natural.
"The kids' imaginations are so uninhibited," says Lencioni, who drew up the curriculum for the Spectrum program to complement the other arts courses that the Boys and Girls Club use to build character and educational skills.
Simple assignments like using shadows as subjects or finding things with visual repetition, in addition to more advanced concepts like still-life compositions, gave students a chance to link events and objects in their everyday lives with something artistic.
Student Cindy Pompa, 15, who also works at the club, photographed a striking shadow that was cast by her bicycle one evening. The picture--titled simply, "Bike"--made it look like there were two bicycles rising from the ground from the same source, growing perfectly and identically in two different directions.
"When you take a picture of a shadow, it can be bold, edgy, and sharp," Pompa wrote of her photograph. "The bike caught my eye because my wild side comes out when I ride bikes with my brothers."
Another student, Mindy Lor, mixed a funny faces assignment with a still-life assignment to create her print "Lemon Eyes." The grinning subject obscures her own eyes by holding up thin, misshapen lemon slices above her silly grin.
"Photography meets comedy in this picture," wrote Lor, a Fresno State student who also works at the club. "It was interesting combining both funny faces and still-life [elements] into a work of art."
After originally seeing the exhibit, I starting thinking about why photography is such a powerful visual form, especially for young people. Almost everyone I know had a photography phase while growing up, and some (happily) never really grew out of it.
A friend of mine suggested that photography is popular because it's such an accessible art form. You always seem to hear people say they can't draw or they can't paint, but it's unusual to find a person who says they aren't willing to snap a picture, or at least try.
Lencioni has a slightly different take.
"It depends on the person," she says, "but visual literacy is different than [the ability] to work with a machine. The camera itself sometimes creates intimidation."
That's where the writing can come in. The Spectrum program slips in an additional educational component, as written reflection on the images. This way, students start to create both a visual and a verbal vocabulary at the same time, analyzing what they're seeing through the viewfinder and figuring out what it means, its significance.
"Art isn't just bonehead stuff," Lencioni says, rolling her eyes at people who used to claim that a photography class meant an easy A. "We can link it with words and other areas and then extend it."
Some of the students preferred simple commentary to describe and reflect on their photos.
Jimmy Lor, 8, who wrote that his hobbies included sports, dessert, and taking pictures, described his shadow-puppet photo called "The Dog" this way: "The reason why I like the picture is because it's sharp. The blue and black looks nice together."
Meriteza Gallardo, an eighth grader at Yosemite Middle School, described her still-life photo called "Tiger With A Plant!" by saying: "I like the picture with the tiger with the plant in its mouth because it is cool!"
(I ignored the fact that Gallardo's composition depicted a plastic lion--not a tiger--with a carrot, which is not exactly a plant, because I just could not disagree with her zestful assessment of the photograph's incredible coolness.)
Students would work with Spectrum Gallery volunteers for two-hour evening sessions once a week, consisting of a short lesson, a brainstorm session, a snack break, and then time for the volunteers to go out with students to shoot the photos with digital cameras. When they got back, the students would download the photos and then do some kind of writing activity to reflect on their work, critique each other, and build both their critical skills and their confidence in the process.
"This is not exactly a technical photography class," Lencioni says. "It's expressive, fun, and playful."
Students also had take-home assignments with disposable cameras. Even though the volunteers warned them to be careful, at least half of the class came back with photos that had their fingers in the images, Lencioni said.
The botched results reminded me of the old Flintstones cartoons, when Barney Rubble would often take snapshots and his thumb would turn up in different positions in each and every frame, always managing to cover up the most important part of the picture.
But for the most part, students were very successful at putting their photographic senses to work. Lencioni said many of the photographers seemed enjoy the free-choice assignments best, as most students ended up taking pictures of themselves and each other.
Student Alicia Garcia's self-portrait was chosen for the show. She wrote, "I like the picture where I took it by myself and of myself because it came out in focus, and that is the most decent picture I've taken."
Garcia's photo reminded me of the thousands of self-portraits on MySpace and other online social networking sites, where a person can just stick out their arm at all sorts of funny angles and photograph themselves. These funky "MySpace angles" have created a new form of self-documentation, I think, one that is distinct from a more traditional self-portrait because of an uneasy and self-conscious feeling that somehow now reveals itself in the positions of the subjects.
Students also made scrapbook collages with three photos and a text block on each page, helped by the volunteers, as a keepsake from the program.
"The students get hooked pretty easily," Lencioni said. "It's about their relationship [in that instant] with the camera and themselves. It's immediacy. With one snap, it really narrows down the world. They can think, 'Wow, this is what I saw.' "
That's what I've always loved about photography. For someone like me, who has photo collages all over his house, photography captures visual artifacts that trigger moments of understanding. These students have put together a beautiful representation of their lives this year, snapshots that have sparked their creativity and frozen time so the rest of us can take a peek.
The show runs through Jan. 21 at the Spectrum Art Gallery, including January Art Hop, at 1306 N. Wishon Ave.