February 6, 2012 | CUNY Matters, The University
LaGuardia photo students create an exhibit-worthy collective portrait of neighborhood workers.
There are hidden treasures throughout CUNY, programs launched and nurtured by faculty members with a particular blend of vision, passion and wherewithal. One of them is the Department of Photography at LaGuardia Community College, a program that started small in 1986 and became what remains CUNY’s only degree-granting program in photography. Its students’ work has become a signature of the college, earning the department a growing reputation as a jewel of the community colleges.
LaGuardia’s photography program, considered one of the top two-year programs in the country, now has some 200 students a year and many of them are accepted into highly competitive B.F.A. programs. It moved into state-of-the-art facilities two years ago and has been making the most of them with the kind of ambitious projects more often associated with top-flight four-year colleges — international trips, for instance, including a month-long expedition to Chile led by program director Scott Sternbach that departed Jan. 16.
LaGuardia’s photography department was started by Bruce Brooks, who now coordinates the school’s visual arts programs. Sternbach, a successful commercial photographer, joined as an adjunct in the late 1990s and later became the program’s director. He’s credited with growing the program with department-wide projects and excursions, supported by grants he’s pursued, that have given students real-world experience and exposure for their work. It’s raised the profile of both the program and the college as a whole over the last few years.
The work of student photographers can be seen all over LaGuardia — in the poster-sized photos that hang in the front windows of the campus’s B building and in the pages of the college catalogue and on its website.
And, most recently, in the photographs now filling every wall on the second floor of the B building. “Long Island City Works” is the exhibit that emerged from the work of dozens of students who spent months fanning out from the college to create a collective portrait of the working life of the bustling, gritty neighborhood around the college.
“The idea was to help them become better photographers and also to meet the mission of the college — to both educate students and reach out to the community,” Sternbach says. “And they did it with something that’s actually useful and important. Whether someone’s selling falafel on the street or fixing someone’s shoes down the street or working in a chair factory, we’re paying tribute to workers at a time when jobs are so much a part of the current climate.”
The students spent hours, sometimes days, with auto mechanics and street vendors, people who work in kitchens and welding shops and even a chicken farm. And in Long Island City’s few remaining factories. One happens to be where they make the most famous pianos in the world — Steinways, a photographer’s gold mine. The students found — and conveyed in their photographs — that the men and women who produce things like padding for moving vans are the heart and soul of industrial Long Island City. The exhibit’s poster image shows only a worker’s gritty hand — black with grease, thumb wrapped in a black bandage, grasping an oversized wrench.
“It’s kind of like magic when you have a roll of plastic and go outside and press a button, and when you see the photos you see something you didn’t notice before — even when you were shooting,” said Lidiya Kan, who photographed the Steinway factory with an old-fashioned (but up-to-date) film camera. She’s one of many students who consider it more magical to create their work in the school’s new 28-station darkroom than in the glare of a computer.
Young Kyu Park, one of the school’s most talented student photographers, is 32 and came from South Korea with a college business degree. He discovered that Long Island City has a vibrant colony of urban artists and wound up photographing 29. “I shot for a month and then I spent two months just looking at them,” Park says. “I wanted a consistency, so I picked the pictures where I truly engaged with the artist.” The best of them — inventive, magazine-quality portraits of artists in their elements — fill a wall of the exhibit.
Another student, River Soma, spent a day following Stephanos Koullias, a rooftop gardener of local renown who ferries his produce around Long Island City on a “Bucky Buckaw” work trike. “He’s a very spontaneous and energetic person, and I think that mischief comes out in the photographs,” Soma says. One of her photos shows Koullias exuberantly pedaling through the streets — shot from behind while she tried to keep up with him on her bicycle.
The Long Island City Works project was a lesson in an often overlooked part of the craft. “If you’re going to be a photographer, even a landscape photographer, you have to be able to go out and meet people and find ways to get the access you need,” Sternbach says. “The students had to go out into the community and seek out interesting people, talk to them, get to know them as people, not just faceless workers.”
While students at Hunter, Lehman and City College can earn B.F.A.s with a concentration in photography, LaGuardia’s associate’s degree in commercial photography, unique in CUNY, has been a springboard to B.F.A. programs in photography, most notably at the School of Visual Arts. The prestigious design school in Manhattan has come to regard LaGuardia’s photography program as a pipeline for talented commercial photography students.