It has been quite an interesting past two months. I’m off the road for a bit, will be back on it soon, but let’s recap recent events…
In March, I set out on the 2016 #mmwYOtour, a speaking tour I’ve done for two years now for the Maine Media Workshops. Last year, I spoke to ten high schools through New England and the Mid-Atlantic about the Young Artist (YO) program that I teach in every summer at MMW. There are a wide variety of workshops available for high school students, ranging from filmmaking to the darkroom, alt pro to digital and more. For my part, I’m teaching Advanced Young Digital Photographers and Young Studio + Advertising Photographers. To promote this upcoming season of YO workshops, I decided to do the new speaking tour through Florida, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
The trip started in West Palm Beach. For a fun personal tidbit, upon arriving to the region a day before my talk, I stayed with my father’s friend from back in the Vietnam War. They haven’t actually seen each other in about thirty years, but it was pretty incredible to meet someone I’ve heard of for years, get to check out parachuting photos from the war, and finally get to interact with this social circle that has always been part of my life but never in person until now. Also, he and his wife’s next door neighbor was Vanilla Ice. No, I didn’t get to meet him. I’ll just sing “Ice Ice Baby” at the next karaoke event (but that’s what I do anyway).
The first school I visited was Dreyfoos School of the Arts. When I was originally planning out this trip and where I should stop, I inquired to former YO students where I should visit. Two students’ responses led to actual visits. One was from Victor Paytun, who was in the Scholastic Portfolio course last summer in Maine. This was his high school. It was a great kickoff location. Their media classroom was something really special, where they dove into a variety of formats. They did photography, animation, video, motion graphics, everything. Fantastic stuff. I spoke to two classes, and gave them what would be a fairly consistent talk across all of the schools I visited. The presentation consisted of an artist talk overview, collaborative work made within the classes, presentation of YO student work, and also information about signing up for one of the many workshops available and opportunities to do so. I also showed them a variety of videos made either as part of or in support of the workshops we have going on, such as this video:
After wrapping my visit, I started the drive up the Florida peninsula. Just outside of Orlando, Winter Park was my destination for the next day’s visit. I had about six hours to complete a two-hour drive, so a lot of time was spent on back roads photographing the diversity of landscapes I encountered. I’m working on a new photography series that I’ll provide more details on at a later time, but for right now, I’m basically a fulltime landscape photographer for the first time ever! I even stopped off at a nature reserve and found myself carefully tiptoeing past sun bathing alligators along the pathways.
In Winter Park, I met with the students at The Geneva School. So with some schools, I already had connections with current or previous students to grant me access to speak to classes. In other situations, I found these schools through traditional research and contacting instructors to see if they were interested in having a guest speaker. Geneva was one of the latter. I spoke with one group, which turned out to be a multiple classes in attendance for my talk. Students were spilling out into random chairs or standing in the back of the room. Definitely a large, excited crowd to be in front of. This school was a private institution with a dress code. I remember, at the start of my talk as I stood up at the front in rolled up pants and a pair of flip flops, commenting how their snazzy dressing made me consider the fact that I was probably a little overwhelmed from my attire. A few students quickly answered back that they’d rather be dressed like me, too. Good back and forth throughout the whole talk! One really amazing thing I discovered at this school was how collaborative the system was. There was usually an overarching topic at the school, and each class participated in this through the course’s specific medium. So not only were students receiving a base education, they were doing so in an incredible experiential way.
Beyond the first stop in West Palm where I stayed with my father’s wartime friend, I decided to couch surf at every other location during the tour. This is something I’ve done a lot of, whether when I’ve been on the big Shootapalooza journeys across the continent, or even other random trips across the US or parts of Europe. I like the unknown. Meeting strangers while traveling and leaving with new friends. In Winter Park, I stayed with Jeheremy, a music manager who was on his way to SXSW in a few days. I made portraits while there for his credentials packet. When I started my way up to Jacksonville, my couch request through the couchsurfing app was accepted. One of the great things about crashing with strangers is getting to learn little snippets about the people’s lives who you otherwise just pass on the street and are never any the wiser to the story behind that person. So in Jacksonville, I stayed with Pravin, who was born in India but went to school in New York, and then accepted a position down in Florida. It was the briefest of conversations, as he had to go to bed early and I had to prep for the following day, but such can be the couch surfing lifestyle.
In Jacksonville, I met students at the Episcopal School of Jacksonville. They literally had an entire house on campus set aside just for the photography program. The living room of the house was the computer lab. Bedrooms were lighting studios. Wild. That day ended up being a full day. The teacher, Mark Zimmerman, was actually an old college buddy with a guy named Tim McLaughlin, who is a former colleague of mine at MMW back in 2009. Small world. The original plan was to give a talk in Jacksonville, but Mark said I could basically have the whole day if I wanted it so I hung out in the different classes and gave demos and senior critiques for the students. It was such a laid back, casual atmosphere in the program. For the big talk, I was given a performing arts auditorium and students from all of the different classes had pizza while I spoke during the scheduled lunch break.
When it came time to head to my next stop in Tallahassee, I got in touch with a girl named Drew. A week prior, when I was driving from Louisiana to southern Florida, she had offered her couch for my midway point on the two-day drive. I fell behind schedule that day on the drive and wasn’t going to be in her city until around 1 AM, so we called it off and I got a hotel. She said on my way back through, I was more than welcomed to crash over, so I took her up on it. I’m really glad I did, she was awesome. Drew is finishing up a psychology degree, so it was fun to geek out in conversation on my earlier education background. I also made portraits for her and her partner (the portraits had to wait until I was off the road to edit them, which I am currently making progress through roughly half of them at this point… they’ll be posted via Facebook and Instagram once they’re all done!) Judging from her photographic ease in front of the camera, if Drew wants to be a lifestyle model, I think she easily could.
I visited Amos P. Godby High School in Tallahassee. So when I go on these trips, I tend to visit a mix of schools. Many are private, some are magnet public schools, some are schools that require a portfolio to be accepted into programs, and some are standard public schools. This is a decision I make. My reasoning for this is, there are passionate and talented people everywhere. There are students all over who could become inspired by something someone says to them, and it can alter their academic path in life. Personally, I went to a standard public high school with little if any art appreciation, and certainly no photography courses. I still remember this fact, and so now as an adult and as someone visiting classrooms, I make sure to reach out across all of the high school variations when giving talks. Godby is a public school and I spoke to three classes. Admittedly, Godby was a little rougher around the edges. But then on the flipside, I found passionate teachers who had figured ways to directly connect with the students in their classrooms. By my third class of the day, these students were by far the most engaged I had met yet that day and the questions during the talks were fantastic!
With Florida wrapped up, I started my drive north up through Georgia and into North Carolina. It was my first time to visit Asheville. So I’ve been to Portland, Oregon. I used to live in Burlington, Vermont. I feel like if Portland and Burlington were put into a blender, Asheville would be the creation. Set up in the mountains, it had both a small town feel and a sense of progressive tendencies that you can only find in so many places. Plus, not only did it have a punk rock scene, it actually had a fractured punk rock scene across the many genres available. It’s been about twelve years since I was in a punk rock band, I didn’t realize the genre was still going strong. Rob, the guy I crashed with in Asheville, was an avid punker and it was amazing to sit back and play some old school Voodoo Glow Skulls and catch up on how the scene had developed over the years. Interesting enough, Rob was also a traveller, except his primary mode was freight trains. I’m not sure I could ever travel that way, but props to him. It’s both a logistical gift to learn how to read trains, plus the pure adventure of hopping cars.
In Asheville, I spoke to the students at the Odyssey Community School. Odyssey may be the most unique high school I’ve ever spoken at. When I gave my talk, I did so from a low table at the front of the room and sat on little cushions (much like what I sat on for dinner during my stay in Portland a few years back). But one thing this also achieved was one of the mellowest artist talks and presentations I’ve probably ever given. You can’t help but settle in for the casual discussions when you’re sitting on micro beanbags. After the talk, I set up some lights in their gymnasium and handed my camera off to the students to let them take portraits of each other to use on social media as they wished. Midway through the shoot, they sectioned off half of the gym so students could play volleyball for PE. All it took was the slightest invitation and I found myself fully immersed in the game with students and faculty alike. Pretty incredible. I also found out that the high school was only about two dozen or so students. Not two-dozen per grade, but the entire high school, period. This blew my mind, but then I thought more about it and how it was a great opportunity. These students were learning through experience, as well. Because they were a tight knit group, a built-in support system was there. And plus, this also meant that teachers across different specialties could also share the classroom at the same time, so students are learning a topic from multiple vantage points simultaneously.
After Asheville, my last city was Nashville for three school visits. Going back to when I was originally setting up this trip, two students gave suggestions that ultimately panned out. The other was Tom Kochtitzky, a YO student of mine in 2013 and resident of Nashville. He put me in touch with his teacher at Hume Fogg Magnet High School, who was enthusiast about the visit and also introduced me to faculty at Nashville School of the Arts. In addition to his former high school, Tom also introduced me to faculty his mother knew at University School of Nashville. And so just like that with a few days of networking, my stop in Nashville turned into a three-school visit across the city!
My drive from Ashville to Nashville was another trip that I extended by a few hours in order to drive the back roads and photograph the landscapes. I found myself at various strangers’ houses photographing in their backyards, and also in all sorts of interesting conversations about travel. Biggest advice I can give for travel is to make the effort to put yourself out there. Say hi to people. You never know who you’ll meet along the way. Arriving into Nashville, I found a place to crash at through couchsurfing. I was going to be in town for about five days, but I met a guy named Ned who was totally fine with me staying in he and his partner’s upstairs bedroom. Even more exciting was that Ned was a Nashville-based portrait photographer, so we had already made plans to geek out about photography and probably do some photo trips outside of my speaking schedule. When I arrived at their house, we had some dinner and were chatting. On the TV in the living room, the voting results were coming in from the first big Super Tuesday presidential nominee contests. We chatted a little about the candidates giving their talks, but politics is a tricky subject and my personal opinion is, I’d rather just know and appreciate someone regardless of their political preference. So to Ned’s partner, Darren, I said something to the extent of “Is a political discussion really the best thing to have right when meeting people who we’ll be spending the next five days with?” Darren’s response was “It doesn’t bother me because I’m more of a (insert political preference here) anyway.” Game changer. I got excited because he’s basically right in line with my political views, so the three of us ended up sipping scotch and chatted about politics for the next three hours.
The next morning, I visited Nashville School of the Arts. The art program was inside of a room that felt more like a warehouse than your standard classroom. Amazing space. The block of time I was given was about two hours for one group, way more than a typical schedule seems to offer. We decided to use this in a variety of ways. The talk I gave was similar to the talks I offered at other schools, but the lack of a real time restriction enabled it to be more of a conversation about photography theories, ways in which students can benefit the most across the different courses at Maine Media Workshops, and technical questions. It all seemed to flow really well and helped form an incredibly laid back environment. Afterward, like at a previous stop, I set up some lights in the back of the classroom and gave a five-minute breakdown on how the equipment worked and the ways to think about strobe lighting when wanting to make a portrait. Afterward, I passed my camera off to the students to let them photograph each other and use the photographs on social media however they wished. I even was able to offer a few student critiques during my time there, and helped a student in her decisions over which equipment to purchase. Turned out to be a really great, interactive experience.
Here’s a little clip of me at Nashville School of the Arts, trying to instigate a Disney debate while in the middle of an artist presentation….
In the evenings over the next few days, Ned and I took a few photography field trips to different parks and interesting sights that locals knew about. In fact, during my whole time in Nashville, I never actually managed to walk down the tourist strip of Broadway. It was just a great time trying to soak up all of the areas most people don’t visit when they’re in town. Ned showed me an abandoned airport with the runway strips still on the ground. We found an old golf course that hadn’t seen any games in probably ten years. We also found an incredible green space and a bridge we went under for some fantastic landscape photography. Like I said, fulltime landscape photographer at the moment and it’s pretty exciting. Throughout the photo adventures, we traded lighting and theory tips back and forth, and I actually broke down a few of my photographs through the PSDs so he could see the process and compare. Again, didn’t know him before I went to Nashville, but great rewards can happen by just putting yourself out there and seeing what happens.
Over the last two days of the workweek, I spoke with two more schools in Nashville. The first was Hume Fogg Magnet High School, which is where Tom graduated from. I was able to first meet with the Photo Club during their early meeting for quick introductions, and then later in the day we did a formal talk during the lunch break. Students from different classes piled into the classroom. I actually filmed this talk legit and edited it together for Maine Media to use in support of the YO program advertising. The video above consists of me talking about summers in Maine and some of the work produced by Young Artists.
The last stop on the trip was at University School of Nashville, which was literally across the street from Vanderbilt. An extra bonus, Trent Boysen, the teacher whose class I met with, had actually been to Maine Media Workshops before. So during the discussions, not only was I speaking about my experiences and those of my students, but he also gave some great insights into what his workshop experiences were like. He is running a great program there with some amazing facilities. I don’t know if it’s because the school is right next to a major university, but it sort of felt like I was wandering through a small college within their art department. Great place to conclude the talks.
After Nashville, I decided to continue the road trip and venture up to West Virginia to see former students I hadn’t seen in a couple of years. I stayed with Ethan and Ashley Butler. Ethan was my photography student, and I was advisor on Ashley’s senior thesis project. They married after they graduated. First night I was there, a whole host of previous students dropped by. I saw Ally Fell, Caroline Hommes, Tilly Sanson, Diana Kimble, Dan Quattro, and Hartman. As what I suppose is tradition from my days teaching in West Virginia, we all had pizza!
My time in West Virginia was spent similarly to Nashville. Lots of photo trips! Caroline led a group of us to an old mine shaft behind her new house, where we photographed and generally just went exploring around abandoned equipment. Another day, Ethan led me to the top of a mountain outside of town. There was still snow on the ground up there, but the views were amazing. I probably made close to 1,000 photographs that day alone throughout all of the different scenery options presented in front of me. Gabrielle LaFata showed up one of those days for another unexpected reunion! Another day, I decided to swing by Audra State Park. It was only about half an hour away from the town I was in and used to live in, but it was my first time there. I spent a couple hours just wandering through the woods seeing what I would find. Normally when I’m photographing, I have a lot of equipment with me but in this new approach, I’m basically just armed with my DSLR and wandering. Completely different way of thinking. If anything, it’s more akin to how I treat my iPhone photography, in a weird sort of 180 and back again thought process.
I ended up spending around five days in West Virginia before needing to heading further east. I used to live in Delaware, but the northern part. I had never been to the “lower, slower Delaware,” as some call it. My friend Amanda Moore took a job there this past winter so I connected up with her and drove down to see what it was all about. We ended up going on a few excursions along Rehoboth beach and to interesting state parks all around the area. During my stay down in Delaware, Amanda and I finally had our tennis match that we had taunted each other on the previous year. She used to play competitively and coached for a bit. I won’t say who talked the most amount of trash during the game nor will I say who won, but I will admit that I managed to get that horrendous sunburn during the brief two hours spent on the court.
After southern Delaware, I made my way up to northeastern Maryland to swing by Cecil College, where I also used to teach. Saw all of the old familiar faces I remember during my time there, like Kristi Eisenberg, Barry Gorrell, Kit, Mary Johnson, Brandon Boas, Laura Marziano, Kit Abeldt, Jennie Campbell, and Adam Jacona. Had dinner with quite a few folks and it was great to catch up with everyone. I swung by the area last year on the first #mmwYOtour, so maybe a yearly visit will just become a tradition now? I had originally headed to the east coast to teach a workshop, but plans for it fell through just as I was getting in the area so I had some suddenly new free time. Jennie asked if I’d be interested in guest speaking for two of her classes at Cecil, and I said of course. Kit brought her digital photo course into one of them, and a video course also sat in on the second one. I ended up giving a guest artist lecture in both of her studio lighting courses, and also did a mini workshop on how to set up a location scene with lighting. It was actually pretty surreal to be teaching a class again at Cecil, but in all of the good ways.
After Cecil, I had already planned to crash over at my friend Jamar Short’s place outside of DC for a couple of days to do some photography. The landscape project I’ve mentioned, it also has people in it but they’re being added separately. Jamar is going to be playing one of the characters, so we turned his living room into a big studio to capture 300 or so frames. While we were at it, I also built a portrait setup and ended up making a portraits of his wife, Shaka, and all four of their daughters. Jamar’s sister even dropped by for a session. But the bigger event for while I was there was the next night. It was Wrestlemania Sunday! Now, backstory here: I almost moved to Fort Worth, Texas last year. Wrestlemania was going to be in Dallas. The original plan was, Jamar and Shaka were going to come to Texas and stay at our place, and we’d all go to the event live. Well, sometimes life happens and circumstances change, and I didn’t move to Texas. So, while we didn’t get to have a big Texas reunion and see the event live in person, Jamar, Shaka, and I still somehow managed to watch it together, albeit while sitting on their living room couch.
Just to give a small glimpse into the new project, this is a photo test sketch I made from one of the photos of Jamar that weekend…
As the weekend started to wrap, I was seeing which direction I’d be going next on the trip. I could start heading back south. But earlier in the trip, Beth Paugh, who teaches at the Cecil County School of Technology, had asked about the possibility of teaching a workshop at her new school. I met Beth last year during the #mmwYOtour when I dropped by her Maryland classes at North East High School to speak to her students. While seeing what travel plans had in store for me, we chatted a bit and decided to go forward with the workshop at her new school, so the next day I started heading back north into Maryland.
I had a lot of time to use up on my short drive north, so I decided to do something off the typical path. I ventured up into Pennsylvania for more landscape photographs. Back in Tennessee, I had great success in getting access to private property by simply knocking on a front door and asking if it would be possible to photograph an interesting visual in someone’s backyard. I did the same thing in Pennsylvania, except the majority of those places were at Amish farms. I’ve passed the Amish on the road before, but they’re one culture in America that I have absolutely no experiences with. Seemed like a good enough time to change that. The people I met were amazingly wonderful. The farms were breathtaking, and even though they have different perspectives on technology and etc, there was still genuine curiosity and excitement by how their property could be portrayed through the photographic medium.
By the end of the day, I ventured back down into Maryland to crash over at Beth’s family’s house before leading a workshop with her students the next day. She teaches in this wonderful high school program where she has the same group of students throughout the day for the entire school year. They start at their home schools in the mornings, and then all arrive by 10 AM. It’s a great opportunity for her to build cohesion within a group and truly take them across the world of digital media making! I could tell this was a close group just from the initial interactions with them. I walked them through various types of brainstorming, from word trees and associations, to Q/A with different students for concept sparks. The school’s building is renovated from a previous industrial place, so there are all sorts of unused interior spaces and rooms we had at our disposal. Eventually, as a group we came up with the concept of a mad scientist conducting experiments on people. There was a room that had these glass shield containers that worked perfectly for this winding concept. It was actually kind of funny, the students who volunteered for those roles basically made that area into a little home during production. We borrowed lab coats from the nursing classes, and welding masks from a machinery department and essentially went from no concept to props and a set and lighting within five hours. Afterward, I did a Photoshop demo on how to put all of the pieces of the photograph back together. Not a bad way to spend the day, and with a great group of students, as well!
So with that, I decided to venture back down to DC for the remainder of the week and visit Claire Harbage, who is a colleague of mine at Maine Media. During all of these travels, I’ve also been pondering a move to a new location. Since summer ended last year, I’ve sort of been all over. Louisiana for a bit, did some work in Texas, thought I was moving to Vancouver but that ended up not happening, spent a decent amount of time in different European countries, road tripped across half the country during Christmas time, did commission gigs during all of this, etc. But ever since not moving to Texas, I’ve been debating where I want to move to next. So while going on this speaking tour and giving various workshops, I’ve also spent time in different cities just to see how the day to day is and what the local atmosphere is like. I checked out Orlando, Asheville, and Nashville as possible places. All great cities in their own unique ways. But the one city I always find myself coming back to with sustained excitement is DC. So I spent that time in DC just getting a feel for what it’d be like to live there. Exploring the pros and cons of it all and getting a feel for the vibe of it, before heading back down to Louisiana.
This upcoming weekend, I’ll be packing up my car and heading up to Burlington, Vermont, to do a photo gig for Burlington Bytes, a great connection I made last year while I lived in that town.
After that stopover, I head down for the next adventure… I move to DC!