ASMP Panel Discussion- Grants and Artist Residencies

Here is the presentation I made about working on the Hidden Sacred Spaces project at a recent panel discussion with Neal Rantoul and Mary Sherman, sponsored by the New England chapter of the American Society of Media Photographers at Lesley University College of Art and Design:

I feel a little like that guy who ran for VP with Ross Perot. 

Remember him?  “Who am I? Why am I here?” Yep. I definitely feel like that guy.

So who am I? I’m a lapsed commercial photographer, and, for most of the past 10 years, I was a teacher and administrator at two of those shady “for profit” vocational schools you’ve been hearing so much about lately. 

I managed programs that were designed for a particular type of student- one who was committed to “following her dream” of becoming a professional photographer, but who also understood that she would eventually have to wake up to pay the rent (and her student loan). 

Some of my former students and faculty are here tonight, but a lot more of them are out there hustling up work. Good for them. 

And let me say this- I don’t care what kind of photographer you want to be. If you’re in school to learn how to make your living with a camera and you’re NOT a member of ASMP, go talk to that guy over there, Mike Ritter. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Nobody? They must have all signed up already, Mike. Let’s go try Mass Art.

Seriously. Joining ASMP as a student costs about the same as a new set of longboard wheels. I know, I googled it. Being an active part of the nation’s largest support and advocacy group for professional photographers might even be a better investment than that 30 year old brick of expired Panatomic-X you overbid for on eBay.

Now let me tell you why I’m here, and what all these church pictures are all about. It’s my version of a TED talk, but that’s only because there’s 3 guys named Ted in it. And for those of you who don’t know me, which looks like most of you, heads up- I can be a little irreverent at times, and this is going to be one of those times.

Somebody once said that the way to make a million dollars in photography is to start with 2 million. That sounds about right, right?

Another guy I know tells this great story about Harry Callahan, who once told a group of students that the secret to living a happy, fulfilling and successful life as a photographer was to “find a rich girlfriend” (or boyfriend, significant other, life partner, main squeeze, arm candy, etc.) In other words, a “friend with actual benefits”. Count your blessings if you can relate to having a truly supportive “other” in your life, in whatever form that support comes.

The inconvenient truth about making a living in any creative venture is that the “making a living” part involves making money. If we’re not fortunate enough to already have it, we have to earn it somehow. 

Hopefully I’m not the first person to tell you that earning money as a photographer is no different than earning money as a plumber, even if we believe our pants fit better when we get down low for those arty angles. It’s not easy, and it’s not always fun or creative. If it was, everybody would want to be a… hey, wait a minute…

Way back before electricity, when I was in photo school (OK, I didn’t go to photo school, but I did memorize all 17 volumes of the Time-Life Library of Photography), nobody told me any of that. Actually, everybody did, but I wasn’t listening. I’d heard something about Guggenheim fellowships, about NEA grants, and I figured that if I could just find Robert Frank’s tire tracks, or Ansel Adams’ tripod holes, I’d get one of those and I’d be set for life. Wrong. 

Back then I worked as a union subway train driver in Philly. The old timers there used to say that the working stiff’s Holy Grail was a “soft tissue injury”, something that would theoretically hurt like hell but wouldn’t show up on an X-ray. A strained back, a wrenched knee, that kind of thing. 

Every now and then an unscrupulous character would exaggerate one of these vague, unprovable afflictions in order to receive extended paid time off in the form of workman’s comp or a disability payout. Our shop steward was rumored to be one of them, since he seemed to suffer these types of injuries on a regular basis. Hearing the words “Ted says he yanked something in his elbow again climbing down off the 404” always elicited a knowing, envious chuckle or two in the crew room. 

That’s Ted #1.

Now, I’m pretty sure I just offended one or two of you by mentioning grants and artist residencies in the same breath as a good old fashioned insurance scam. That was just to see if you’re paying attention. 

But my point is serious. Isn’t the desired outcome still the same? Aren't we all looking for a way to take some time off from more mundane responsibilities so that we can pursue our true passion? And wouldn’t it be all the better if we can convince somebody else to pick up the tab?

To that end, you either spent some of your own hard earned money or were dragged here tonight by your teacher (which is the same thing) to hopefully learn how to find and win the closest thing we photographers have to the Holy Grail (short of punitive damages from a registered copyright infringement, that is).

Funny thing- up until about six months ago, the only thing I knew about grants was that I would probably never get one. Even though I suddenly, unexpectedly wound up on the receiving end of a few, I still know next to nothing about them, except, of course, how to cash the checks.

So based on my lack of any real authority on the subject, my best advice tonight is to listen up when the two undisputed experts on this panel take the stage. Mary and Neal will be sharing their deep knowledge and experience, and If there’s a closely held password, a secret handshake, or a clever magic trick involved, they’ll help you figure out what you need to do to learn them.

But I can offer one tip that has served me well throughout my career, and one that is responsible for me having whatever credibility I do have tonight. It’s why it’s me here making wisecracks and showing pictures, instead of someone else of similar or greater accomplishment. It’s the tip I’ve given to every student I’ve ever had the privilege of working with, and it’s simple.

It’s that other “N word” that everybody talks about all the time. Networking. 

There’s a point where you know what you know, when you’ve accumulated sufficient skill to stand at the same starting line as every other competent individual. But that’s not enough these days, because any old schmuck with some willpower, an internet connection and a credit card can figure most of that stuff out too. When you reach that point, success in your career really comes from WHO you know. 

So, along with asking us tonight “WHAT should I know?” maybe the equally important question you should be asking yourself is “WHO do I know?”

I know David Binder, who introduced me to Mike Ritter, and Mike asked me to talk to you tonight, because I also know Dr. Wendy Cadge.

Wendy’s a close friend and a sociologist who’s already earned her Holy Grail- a tenured professorship at Brandeis. She’s currently about halfway through what I would consider to be a bonus prize: a sabbatical year. That means she gets paid to take time off from teaching to pursue her passion. 

And she didn’t even have to get an X-ray!

She wanted to commit that year to completing a project that had been bouncing around in her head for a while. She had already published a book about the role of religion and sacred spaces in hospitals and health care facilities entitled Paging God, and now wanted to expand that study to include a broader range of public or secular institutions- schools, airports, nursing homes, prisons, military installations, places like that. She knew that the project probably should have pictures, too, which is where I came in. 

Last summer, she started making phone calls and a spreadsheet. Once enough permissions were in place, we shot about 20 sites in the first month or so. She wrote a short blurb for each set of pictures, I threw it all on a simple Squarespace website, then we looked at it all and patted ourselves on the back. It felt like we were on to something!

Like most universities, Brandeis has an office whose mission is to help professors find grant money from both internal sources and outside foundations to help support their academic projects. Using the website as proof of concept, Wendy applied for and won a modest faculty research grant so that she could hire a photographer, and then told me to send her an invoice. Wendy knows professor Alice Friedman, a renowned architectural historian at Wellesley College, and recruited her to lend her expertise to the project. That made me nervous, because if anybody knows what good photographs of rooms and buildings should look like, it’s Alice. I relaxed a little when she saw the first pictures and immediately matched the Brandeis grant with another from Wellesley. 

The photography itself couldn’t be simpler. It’s not quite “spray and pray on a tripod” but it’s close. A full frame D700 with live-view, a bubble leveI, and a 17-35. “Shoot to the right” with whatever light’s in the room, low ISO, aperture priority at f8 or so, and let ‘er rip. Lightroom on the back end to catalog, process and print the RAW files, and no Photoshop. We don’t need no stinkin’ Photoshop.

Sweet talking our way in and then staying out of the way has proven to be the trickiest part of the whole project, since we usually have to be in and out of these places in 15 or 20 minutes. Obviously, we don’t want people in the photos, so I’m often squeezing in a few shots between services or shooting around folks sitting in pews or kneeling on prayer rugs as quietly and respectfully as I can. It’s also not possible to choose the perfect time and weather conditions to shoot- we go whenever we can get everyone’s schedules to align. In the words of Terry Francona, we “play the game that’s in front of us.”

Around Thanksgiving, and with nearly 40 sites in the can, Brandeis kicked in some more encouragement in the form of another grant from The Theodore (Ted #2) and Jane Norman Fund For Faculty Research and Creative Projects. And in December, MassHumanities took it up a notch and awarded our project a discussion grant that will enable us to create a traveling presentation and exhibition.

The whole project has quickly started to grow legs, all because I know somebody who needed a photographer. And I’m growing with it.

Wendy could not have enlisted a more agnostic project partner to work with, so I’ve learned a lot about the role of religion and spirituality in these institutions over the past 6 months. We’ve met wonderful, caring, supportive and generous clergy and staff everywhere we’ve gone. A few of the more memorable ones come to mind:

  • The 96 year old, legally blind but sharp as a tack Catholic chaplain at the Chelsea Soldiers Home, recovering from a broken kneecap he suffered in a fall while “running to catch up with the Bishop”. “If you had come last week”, he said, shuffling along with his walker “you would have thought I was a Yuppie priest because cargo shorts were the only pants that fit over my cast”. A self-proclaimed Walter Mitty, he was a celebrated Army chaplain in Vietnam, Japan, the Philippines and at West Point, as well as a student of Ikebana, the art of Japanese flower arranging, an apparent authority on English pulpit design, and a proud Irish immigrant. Sure enough, a green, white and orange tricolour hangs alongside military banners in the chapel. Italy’s national flag was later installed after someone complained that Chelsea’s Italian immigrants should be honored, too. “You buy it”, he told the guy, “and I’ll put it up.”
  • The friendly owner of a marine salvage and towing company in Hull who gave us a lift out to Peddocks Island in Boston Harbor to photograph the former military chapel there. Recently renovated by the Boston Harbor Alliance after having been abandoned for decades, it now serves as a unique wedding chapel and function venue. Our new captain friend is itching to tap into that market, and he shared plans to convert one of his vessels into a floating limousine that could ferry guests to and from downtown Boston, while also delivering new business to the basement taproom he owns. I sent him some links to regional wedding fairs and bridal magazines that might help him get the word out and wished him luck. 
  • The upbeat public affairs officer for the Massachusetts Department of Corrections who happily recounted all the wonderful goings-on at each of the three state prisons he escorted us through, even as we were being damn near strip-searched on the way in and on the way out. The only time his sunny disposition shifted down a notch was when he reminded us that we would have to be out of each facility prior to the next “movement”, which is prison-speak for times when inmates are permitted to walk freely and unsupervised between buildings. He checked his watch every time he unlocked a door to the next room, corridor or stairwell and then relocked it behind us as we moved deeper and deeper into the bowels of each institution. No, that was not at all unsettling.   

As of this week, we’re at 51 sites and counting, and getting ready to take our show on the road. We’re now researching some of these spaces at various state, university and hospital archives and will be expanding the content on a more refined website to include historical photographs, documents and blueprints, and an interactive map. 

Let me close with Ted #3. 

Those of you in art or photo school may have heard of Ted Orland, who once worked as an assistant to Ansel Adams. He co-authored a book entitled “Art and Fear” but what you probably don’t know is that he also published a humorous poster back in the 70’s called “Photographic Truths”. I had one, and it hung in every basement, attic, and kitchen darkroom I ever built. 

In the middle of the poster was a picture that Orland shot of his grizzled old boss peeking back at him from under the dark cloth draped around his 8x10 view camera. In front of the camera sat a group of children posing on the steps of their school with a caption that read “even Ansel Adams had to make a living.”

Surrounding the picture were other witty, humorous Photographic Truths, phrases like “falling lenses are attracted to rocks” and “a new Hasselblad WILL take better pictures than your current camera” and “you will never EVER receive a NEA grant”. 

No, I probably won’t, but just the other day, Wendy told me that both the Smithsonian and the National Endowment for the Humanities are interested in what we’re doing and may want to help at some point down the road. An interview with NPR is in the works. And she promises that some university press somewhere will eventually publish our finished project in book form.

That’s more than good enough for me.

Thank for listening.  

© 2017 Steven C. Borack

© 2017 Steven C. Borack



Randall ArmorComment