This past weekend, I had the awesome opportunity to visit Edmund Burke School, a high school in Washington, DC. My visit to this school wasn’t by chance. The connection to Edmund Burke has been growing for the past few years. Back in 2011, during my Advanced Young Digital Photography course at Maine Media Workshops, Nate Palmer was one of my students. During the school year, he went to Edmund Burke.
The following year, in the 2012 version of the course, Enti Mooskin was in my class. During our initial class introductions, she mentioned how Nate was a classmate of her’s and suggested the course to her. Every so often, I’ll get a student one year who is high school classmates somewhere with a former student from previous years. What made Edmund Burke even more pronounced as a high school crossing my path, was that it happened again in 2014. This time, Emily Karzon and Emma Tchen were in my course. Both mentioned Enti and Nate, and how they all went to school together (or at least previously… Nate and Enti are now rocking it at college!).
With such a reoccurring group of students from the same school, there had to be a central source helping this, so I remember asking Emma and Emily who their photo teacher was. They told me Allen Jackson, and then immediately came up with the idea that I should come visit their school. These girls’ spontaneous ideas became quite common during those two weeks… if you’ve ever seen my rhinestoned sandals in the past year, that was their doing. Once my summer in Maine concluded, intrigued by their idea, I contacted Allen about the possibility. Turns out, he has been sending students to Maine long before I ever taught there, and in the past, has held film festivals that gets students into a workshop course. Pretty awesome! Discussions with him developed into the possibility of doing a workshop event at Edmund Burke. At the repeated recommendation of Emma and Emily, he decided to bring me down to DC!
It was planned as a two day event. We weren’t sure which students would be available for each day, so we decided to break each day into its own thing, so more targeted projects could begin and end within each normally scheduled school day. This gave me the opportunity for a completely new approach in a school workshop, and the chance to dive into some quirky projects that simultaneously explored technical components while also being full of zany ideas and creativity on an individual level at each stage.
The first project we focused on Friday was something I casually refer to as “portraposites.” We set up the studio and made portraits of every student in attendance during that day. Afterward, we reconvened in the lab to focus on the next step of the project. The goal was to select a range of student portraits from within the class, and then use these pieces as a Mr. Potatohead of sorts, mixing and matching different people’s eyes, nose, lips, shirt, etc etc, to come up with an entirely new person that may vaguely resemble someone they know, yet eerily different in some subtle or distinct way.
Sometimes I refer to this process as “making monsters,” because at least in the early stages when all of the different facial features have yet to be scaled and blended in a somewhat believable way, the images on the screen resemble something used for an uncanny valley example sheet. Some students decided to apply their new creations to the absurd levels, while others chose to be as precise and believable as possible. The great thing about this project is that either approach is totally fine. Like I said a bit ago, it’s a chance to instill some absurd creativity or laser-precise attention to detail, all while using the same standard portrait base as a starting point.
I met with one student, Kelsey Coleman, after Friday’s scheduled event had concluded. She’s an 8th grader at Edmund Burke (it’s a junior/high school) but her schedule didn’t permit her to be able to attend either session. She was super energetic and the fact that she was still seeking out an opportunity to be involved even past her workday told me she had a great drive. So, I decided to repeat the tutorial specifically for her. During the day, there were a lot of fantastic images made. I believe they may pop back up in various presentations in the future at Edmund Burke, but for this posting, I think this image Kelsey made is a wonderful example to use for showing creativity with a high level of focus to detail. This was, I believe, one of her first times to use Photoshop, and she’s not even in high school yet. Good things are in store for her future.
The next day, we decided to approach the cinemagraph process. It’s a unique visual approach that creates moving still images, or still moving images. Either way, it’s a hybrid of both photo and video, where the end result presents both a frozen element within the frame while another area of the image runs on a moving loop. I sat down with the class, some returning from the previous day and some new, and mapped out plans for scenarios to take place in the different captures. The big focus that seemed to come across in each idea was the desire to harness the freezing capabilities of photography and push the contrast of the two mediums even stronger within a single image.
We set out for the next hour or so creating these concepts. Everyone got a turn starring in one of the segments. Each consisted of a story of some kind. Ideas keep bouncing around, both from previous brainstorming exercises, and during the various shoots. The students were great at experimenting and trying new approaches. The rest of the day was spent in the computer lab, introducing the concepts of masking to the new students, while reinforcing methods learned the previous day to the returning ones. One of the great things about building a cinemagraph is the satisfaction that comes after a rather steep learning curve in learning how to prep the layers once in the computer. There were a lot of “a-ha!” moments when students played back their new creations. Schedules dictated when some students had to leave early during various parts of the exercises, but I was most impressed by how, when offered an extension of time for us in the lab, many students elected to stay at school longer to work on their creations. It was an awesome type of dedication in the classroom.
During my visit, the biggest takeaway I had was the vibe and tone received throughout both of my days there. I remember commenting both to Allen and others how impressed I was with the school. I’ve visited high schools before, but I’ve never seen a place so relaxed in demeanor, while still maintaining a student body that is highly eager and attentive. In many ways, being in the classroom those two days reminded me very much of how a day functions during my workshops in Maine. Everyone has a sense of freedom and liberty to be his or herself. Students are treated like individuals, and given respect as such. That was the vibe at Edmund Burke. When you have combinations like this, great results can spring up and teaching can be natural!