by Annette Hinkle
On Monday after school, the halls of Pierson High School were largely quiet and empty. But in Peter Solow’s second floor art room, a handful of students were fully engaged in a series of conversations with freelance photographer Francine Fleischer.
And the topic of those conversations was the student’s own photographic work.
“I don’t think this one gives enough information,” said Fleischer as she carefully considered six photographs taken by senior Will Broiche which had been pinned to a wall board.
Broiche had started the process with 25 images. The goal was to get down to four final images. Since this was the third round of editing, he agreed the photo, of an abandoned building out on the Napeague Stretch, should be eliminated from the line-up.
“There’s a dilemma in editing,” added Fleischer as she looked at the remaining five contenders. “Do you want to tell a story or go for aesthetics?”
These things matter — especially with a deadline looming. In this case, it was for an online photo project entitled “My Hometown: Teenagers Document America” which the New York Times is sponsoring on its Lens Blog site.
Fleischer explains that the project references a similar effort from the 1930s and ‘40s when the Farm Security Administration (FSA) sent a group of professional photographers out on a mission to document America. Now, the New York Times is revisiting the mission through a new set of eyes by asking, “What does America look like to young people today?”
Students ages 14 to 18 from around the country have been asked to submit up to four photographs that speak to their lives in this place and in this time. Several thousand pictures from the project will be shown in an interactive online gallery at the Times website, sortable by geography or theme. The Times will also highlight select images on it’s Lens Blog page, and many will be archived at the Library of Congress (as were the original FSA photos).
In recent months, thanks to a grant from the Reutershan Trust, Fleischer has been able to make periodic visits to the students in Solow and Liz Marchisella’s photography classes to offer advice and direction in their work.
And on Monday, it had all come down to the wire.
“Before midnight tomorrow we have to upload them at 300 dpi at the website,” explained Solow. “Each photo has to have a caption.”
“It’s really a portrait of Sag Harbor through the kids’ eyes,” added Solow who also plans to have some of the student work on display in an exhibit at the John Jermain Memorial Library in early June.
Though it’s not a part of the process budding photographers typically consider, editing is an important aspect for any artist, and one that is giving these students valuable experience in justifying their work while they learn to talk about it intelligently.
“The kids have been through editing — this is the real deal,” says Solow. “We saw a documentary on Annie Liebowitz doing a book and they had thousands of her pictures up and went through the same process the kids are now.”
“They also have to talk about the images, why they selected the images they have,” he added. “Francine has been brilliant in talking to them, because she brings an objective eye.”
“It’s one thing to make beautiful art, but another to defend it,” added Marchisella. “It’s important you have a voice in your work.”
This is not the first time Fleischer has worked with Sag Harbor students through the Reutershan Trust. Just last year, she helped them create formal studio portraits.
“But this project is different because they’re doing the pictures on their own as independent photographers,” explained Fleischer. “I’m coming in almost as a photo editor, helping with editing, sequencing, telling a story and presenting — which is such an important part of any kind of work, especially photography — whether its for an exhibition, portfolio or contest.”
“This challenges them to look at their photos differently — through the eyes of an audience,” added Fleischer. “If you’re not working with an editor or client and doing it on your own, you lose perspective.”
Speaking about their work is a skill lost on many young artists. But Fleischer notes it’s vital for those students who intend to pursue art beyond their high school years.
“A lot of these kids are going to art school, they need to be able to handle themselves in critiques,” said Fleischer. “They can be harsh. It’s not always easy.”
“We’re also focusing on intent — to really make them think critically,” she added.
For Brioche, the experience has been invaluable, and one he will take on to college next fall at Alfred University where he expects to study photography.
“I would say Francine has taught me that selecting photos is more of a process than you’d think,” says Brioche. “She has taught me that you must justify your actions and what you want to choose from.”
“I get emotionally attached to all the things I own,” he admitted. “I’m a hoarder in my room – that’s true of my photos too.”
But being true to themselves in their work has been part of the experience as well. For example, Brioche is a big fan of derelict structures (and has snuck into more than a few of them on the East End) and his images reflect that passion, dedicated, as they are to the theme of neglected and abandoned buildings in the area.
It’s certainly the kind of imagery many people would expect from a bunch of kids living in one of the toniest resort destinations in the world.
“I’ve been pretty impressed,” said Fleischer. “There’s not a perspective of Sag Harbor that is predictable. These are no tourist pictures … no one photographed the cannon with the Civil War soldier or the Custom House.”
“Some of them are quite gritty,” she added.
To explore the New York Times project, visit lens.blogs.nytimes.com and search “My Hometown.”