This is part 2 of an interview by guest contributor Matt Valentine
Read part 1 of the interview here.

A lot of your previous work was done with a square format, 6×6 camera, and usually not cropped. The photos in this book are rectangular, obviously partly because of the different format of the camera. Were you composing differently, thinking about cropping, since you were used to shooting in a full-frame square?
I usually compose my images in the camera utilizing the full frame and most art directors and photo editors I’ve worked with have great respect for the photographer’s original concept and cropping of the pictures. I teach my students the concept that “content dictates design”.  This means that the art being used in a layout for a publication not be compromised in terms of the photograph’s original content by cropping or altering the images.

However, it is not a perfect world, and when working with publications the photographer must be aware that layout and design has space limitations and compromises are sometimes inevitable.  So, when photographing for certain venues I have become more aware of how some images must fit the space that will be provided and I often pull back a bit to provide post cropping opportunity for the designer while still trying not to lose my original interpretation.  Don’t misunderstand, I do believe in post visualizing an image and making any changes necessary to complete the interpretation of the subject, but personally I feel it should be the job of the photographer to do so.

I was really fortunate when working with DJ Stout at Texas Monthly — he’s the guy that kinda kickstarted my editorial work back in the early 90s — he was very careful, and most of the Texas Monthly art directors are the same, in not cropping the photographs that come in

I was really fortunate when working with DJ Stout at Texas Monthly — he’s the guy that kinda kickstarted my editorial work back in the early 90s — he was very careful, and most of the Texas Monthly art directors are the same, in not cropping the photographs that come in. They take them for face value, and usually produce them as the photographer intended. I’ve even had calls from a couple of people at publications before, “Do you mind if we crop this a little bit?” Which I thought was unusual, you know, because they did buy the image; they can pretty much do what they want with it at that point in time. It was a very nice consideration.

In schools all over the country, photographic education is evolving as technology changes. How has your approach evolved over the past few decades teaching at Kilgore College?
In our program at Kilgore College, we’re still teaching film and have a beautiful wet lab — just an amazing wet lab, with over twenty enlargers, stainless steel sinks and trays, temperature control, film processing area and printing area. It’s a beautiful facility and we’re gonna continue to use that as long as we can get the film and we have cameras to put the film in. I find that to be, still, a really good fundamental approach in teaching the photographic process. Right now, it really is considered an alternative process. Those applied photographers, those who are in the commercial business, probably would suggest just eliminating the wet lab entirely. On the other hand… it teaches the discipline. It teaches control. And it’s very historically significant in the photographic process. And you never know when a student is going to come through and absolutely fall in love with this so-called “alternative” process, using film and silver gelatin paper, and do something wonderful with it.

Those applied photographers, those who are in the commercial business, probably would suggest just eliminating the wet lab entirely. On the other hand… it teaches the discipline. It teaches control.

Digital imaging, however, is a wonderful way for students to see very quickly some of the camera functions and techniques and so forth and what the possibilities are, and the workflow there. By the way, I compare the wet lab workflow with the photo digital imaging workflow, and there’s significant comparisons there that help benefit a young student coming in for the first time, even having never actually processed an image. And so it’s very positive in both directions, and we’re going to try to clarify those qualities and those variables and how they relate and still work together as an educational tool.

The photojournalism departments in some schools are no longer teaching photography as a discreet medium. Students aren’t photojournalism majors, they’re multimedia students, working with video and audio as well as still photography. Do you think it’s reasonable today for somebody to want to just be a stills photographer? Is there a realistic future for that student in the world or journalism?
I think there’s opportunity in both of those areas. In the world of journalism, the media is using more and more video. Writers and of course photographers are going out and shooting video quite often. It’s interesting that you’d mention that, because this is the summer that I’m actually going through tutorials and learning to work a little video with a DSLR so I can incorporate that into my photojournalism classes. It’s an important aspect of applied photography that’s happening out there. But at the same time, in our program at Kilgore College, we teach a variety of students. We teach journalism students, photography students, graphic design students, and fine art students. So it’s important for me in my program to have a variety of mediums for them to choose from and work with and become aware of so that they can choose what medium best fits their needs for their future goals. So we’re going to try to do it all, and enjoy every lovin’ minute of it. It really is a blast. I love the new technology, and I’ve benefitted from it.

At the same time, I feel so privileged to have been able to come up during that time where you’re processing film and making prints in a wet lab and so forth, because again, I can’t emphasize enough how the discipline of doing something like that is so important—especially in today’s digital world—it’s so easy for photographers to go out and shoot tons of images and then edit through tons of images instead of taking their time and being very selective and discriminating and making a few exposures of a subject rather than just a ton of images that they would just edit later and eventually hope to get something that’s worthy of what they want to interpret of that subject. So that by combining the wet lab in our program, along with the digital imaging, we hope to accomplish a sense of discipline in the photographic process whether they’re doing wet lab work of course, or digital imaging or video. I think it’s important to continue to stress all those areas in an educational program, even though I realize—and I’m up against a wall with many of the applied photographers out there who are saying “look, who’s going to bother to do film in the applied world, especially with magazines and publications and that sort of thing?” Well, they’re right, but you have to understand these are new students who are learning the whole photographic process—which you may already know, and understand and have a grip on. So it’s important, I think, that we continue that tradition as long as we can. I’m not saying that we’ll always have wet labs at Kilgore College — probably not, but as long as I’m there I hope to have it there.

What’s the best, most realistic expectation a student should have now, starting out in photography?
Well, we have students from all walks of life. We’re over here in a very rural area in East Texas. They may have when they come in an expectation of wanting to do portraits. Maybe they want to work for a publication. Maybe they want to do, you know, “fashion.” That sounds very glamorous, so they want to do “fashion.” I’ve found more times than not that students aren’t really sure what they want to do yet. They may have an idea because of what they’ve seen in publications, or what they’ve read about from other photographers and that sort of thing, but they don’t really realize the work that’s involved in it, what it takes, and the discipline that’s involved—not only learning the craft but learning to see and visually interpreting the subject, having a sense of visual literacy and that sort of thing. So we start out from the very beginning, and we have such a variety of students that I’m not sure how important it is what the first goal is. Because they’re going to discover a lot of new things about the photographic medium and the business itself perhaps, that may change their minds about what direction they want to go and how they may want to use photography in the future.

At Kilgore College our photography program gives the student the opportunity to explore a variety of photographic themes within the various classes offered. They study the still life, portraiture (editorial, environmental and studio practices), photojournalism, the human condition, landscape and form and figure.  The program is also balanced with considerations in both applied commercial and fine art approaches. Importance is placed on learning to see and be aware of lighting possibilities that will not only illuminate but also light’s use as an interpretive tool in terms of direction and quality.

Photography is quite different than becoming a lawyer or doctor. You don’t necessarily have to be certified to hang that shingle out on the door. The proof is in the work that you get done.

Photographic education should be alive and well. And, you know, I don’t think that photographic education has to always be that “formal” thing, going to school, going to college and so forth. I know a number of students who will come come in and take a few classes and then take off and have done quite well with their own personal education. I’ve known others that want to transfer to a larger university and continue the process and go from there. Photography is quite different than becoming a lawyer or doctor. You don’t necessarily have to be certified to hang that shingle out on the door. The proof is in the work that you get done.

Several of your former students have become professional photographers. In their early work, did you see anything unique that made you think, this person really has the talent or the sensibility to make a career out of photography?
Sure. There’s a fella here in town, in Longview, Texas. His name is Scott Campbell. He was an early student of mine back in the early 80s. I can remember the first photograph he submitted in a photography class at Kilgore College back in 1981, maybe 82, and I knew when I saw that photograph that this guy was thinking. It’s important for photographers to think, and not just take pictures, but to have some kind of thought process in being able to interpret a subject, not just simply observe a subject. I knew that he had that in him when I saw that first photograph of his, and sure enough he’s still producing some wonderful work — still lifes and landscapes as well, he has incorporated fine art photography in his life as well as his applied work. He has been published in Lenswork for some of his fine art and still life interpretations.

It’s important for photographers to think, and not just take pictures, but to have some kind of thought process in being able to interpret a subject, not just simply observe a subject.

Scott’s wife Tammy Cromer-Campbell is doing some wonderful photographs also. They were married shortly after Scott graduated from Kilgore College as a matter of fact. But Tammy came through our program and has authored a book and has been published in Texas Monthly and does quite a bit of commercial work in this area

You [I Love Texas Photo] interviewed Jonathan Zizzo not long ago. And he was one of those guys who was quite different than Scott. Scott went through the whole formal education at Kilgore college, whereas Zizzo came in for a couple of semesters or so maybe, and again when I saw his work I said, “Okay, this guy’s coming around. He’s really going to be seeing some really nice things.” But he didn’t hang in there with the formal education very long and he went straight to Dallas and started working in sales, and he’s doing some wonderful applied commercial photography.

What’s your next project?
I’m gonna be continuing some barbecue work of a different nature, sort of. We photographed a lot of community barbecues. I’m gonna revisit some of those with a little bit different approach. Perhaps even pull out the old square format film camera and do a series on community barbecues. It’s kind of a dying thing, this old BBQ pit stuff. The community BBQ is maybe the last holdout on that sort of thing. I’m thinking about starting a series just on community barbecues only. It’s kind of a long term project because you’ve gotta hit ‘em when they’re having ‘em and you can only be at one at a time. Often times they occur in sort of a similar timeframe, you know—Father’s Day is one, forth of July, Juneteenth. I’m gonna go down to Mama Sugar’s down close to Houston and photograph the Juneteenth celebration at Mama Sugar’s. She’s renowned for her Juneteenth celebration with BBQ. And I’m putting together another series of photographs I’ve been working on since, oh, the early 90s, on yard art Santa Clauses. Every year I photograph a different Santa Clause that interests me and I’m gonna put together a little holiday series on that. I’ve got plenty to do during my time away from school this summer.


While completing his MFA in Creative Writing at NYU, Matt Valentine worked full time for the Department of Photography and Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts, designing and maintaining their “digital darkroom” facilities. He continues to pursue simultaneous careers in writing and photography. Matt’s short stories have won national awards, including (most recently) the 2012 Montana Prize for Fiction. His portraits of writers have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Men’s Journal, Boston Review, Outside Magazine, O (the Oprah Magazine), and on dozens of book jackets. A Lecturer for the Plan II Honors Program at the University of Texas at Austin, he teaches two undergraduate courses: “Writing Narratives” and “Photographic Narratives.”

 

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