No Cliches and No Cropping

Today I want to share some ideas that aren’t mental health related, but had a big impact on who I am as a person and artist.

My college career has been tumultuous at best. In 2014, I departed for Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, FL. I lasted a full three weeks before drugs and a sexual assault landed me in treatment for about 6 months.

After treatment, my parents, therapist, and I decided I was not well enough to live on my own in a dorm, so I enrolled at Daytona State College, which used to be a community college, and is now technically a state school, despite its open enrollment policy.

I was dismayed. I felt that this was my fall from grace, so to speak. I’d gone from elite liberal arts student to taking an English class that didn’t require the students to read any books. In fact, in that English class, taught by the wonderful Sam Goldstein, we spent about a week learning how to use quotation marks, something I’ve known since way back when. Professor Goldstein’s redeeming quality was that he assigned a lot of personal essays, which are my favorite things to write for school. I wrote an essay titled “Never Trust Drunk Lesbians,” which (in my humble opinion) is one of the funniest things I’ve ever written. Professor Goldstein liked it and gave me an A.

At the time, I was enrolled in DSC’s photography program, where I encountered the photographer and professor Gary Monroe, who shaped the way I see photography. He was my biggest influence as I developed my craft.

Gary, as his students called him, had two rules. 1. No cliches, and 2. No cropping. When he told us “No cliches,” he meant that he wanted us making art, not Hallmark cards. No pretty sunsets, no flowers, no cute cats. “Take a photo that means something!” he would often say.

He taught the first two photography classes I took, the darkroom class where students shot with analog (film) cameras and developed our own black and white film in a darkroom. He also taught Introduction to the Digital Image, which is the first digital photography class students in the program take. The class acquaints students with the basics of how a camera works, and how to shoot in full manual mode, as well as some very, very basic Photoshop skills.

Gary is well-known for his work with the Highwaymen, a group of self-taught African-American artists who earned their name by selling their work to white customers near the highway.

(Read more about the Highwaymen here.)

One of the hardest things about Gary’s classes were the weekly critiques. We met twice a week, and during the first class meeting, we’d work on either developing or editing our photos, depending on which class it was. But at the second weekly class, everyone was required to come in with at least five prints (two in the darkroom class) and hang them on the white board under the studio lights.

It was madness. All of my classmates were incredibly talented. And I started to believe in the possibility that I was talented too. The students would talk about each other’s work in awe, and Gary always had helpful words as well.

But it wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies. Sometimes someone would come in with a blurry photo–maybe their shutter speed was too slow to capture the subject’s movement. No one was slow to point out these rookie mistakes. It was the only way to improve as a photographer.

Gary’s second rule, “No cropping,” was something he took quite seriously. The camera doesn’t lie. If you’re trying to capture a surfer riding a wave with a zoom lens, but there’s a trashcan in the corner of your shot, you’re screwed. Cropping the image will make it a weird size, but it also makes you a liar. You can’t just remove things from your images that you didn’t mean to capture. It’s just wrong.

I was defeated by a class called Photography as an Art Form. The class involved drawing with charcoal, and genuinely awful project referred to as “the squares.” The squares functioned as the final exam of the class. We students were to represent different elements of design (and there are a LOT of them!) using only square and circle stencils, Sharpie, and plain white paper. It was hell. In a colorless wasteland I toiled, cursing my stencils and shaky hands. When the class first started, there were about 17 people in it. Four of them passed. I was not among them.

After that, I delved into the college’s teaching program, only to discover that children are more fun to play with, and teaching them is not for me.

I’m now back in the photography program. I’ll start up again this summer, and I can’t wait! Gary retired a year or two ago, but his influence on me is strong.

I haven’t been in school since last May when I graduated with my Associates degree. I completed about half of the Elementary Education program, and while some people in my life encouraged me to finish the program and get my Bachelors as a teacher just so I could have a secure job, I know that’s simply the wrong path for me.

Over the summer, I will be back in the photography program, where my passion lies. Because I already have my Associates degree, I only need to take the program-specific courses in photography to earn another Associates degree (this one in science instead of art), and then I can transfer to University of Central Florida to pursue a Bachelors in photography, and ultimately–if I have the academic stamina–a Masters either in photography or art history so I can teach at the college level.

These plans feel so lofty and far away for me, someone who had to take Speech three times to pass with a B, someone who got a mark of “Satisfactory Progress” in three photography courses because I simply stopped going to class, and my professors took pity on me instead giving me a failing grade.

But I also feel that I’ve had a shift in my attitude towards my education. The feeling of victory as I walked across the stage in my cap and gown was something I’ll never forget. I made my parents proud, but I also made myself proud. And the kicker is, the whole time I knew I could do it if I put my mind to it. I just wasn’t applying myself. There’s nothing fun or cool about repeating classes because my attendance was so poor I got an F for the entire class. My History of Photography professor once remarked that I was one of the brightest, most curious students he’d ever taught, but that I “had better start coming to class regularly if I had any hopes of progressing.” I hated that class because it consisted entirely of memorizing dates and learning terms like “silver gelatin prints,” which did not interest me at the time.

I spent the entire day today taking photos at different parks in my hometown and at the beach. I shoot with my grandpa’s Canon AE-1, a workhorse of a camera that’s served me well since high school. I’m a little worried about how my photos will come out because the light meter has been acting up, but maybe I’ll get lucky.

I long to take photos with meaning. Lesbian photographer Berenice Abbott photographed those “on the fringes of society,” circus freaks, midgets, and female impersonators. Catherine Opie did an entire series of LGBT+ couples in their homes. She has also created some rather disturbing works involving images and patterns cut into her flesh.

I’m reading a biography of Berenice Abbott right now, and each sentence is packed with names of artists and writers who mingled in Greenwich Village. I can barely keep up, and I feel like I should be writing all of their names down so I can Google them later.

These artists, and so many more inspire me to do what I was meant to do and become an amazing photographer. I don’t want to do weddings and bar mitzvahs for a living, though it’s true that every artist needs a “bread job,” as Bukowski put it. I want to make images with meaning, like Gary inspired me to do.

Someday I will get there.

(The cover image is by Gary Monroe.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s