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Cassi Suen

Photographs and Memories

Arbor Hill Elementary School students document their own histories by taking pictures of their environs

By Kate Sipher

Imagine being 7 years old again and having atyour disposal a tool to document your playtime fun. You set up teddy-bear tea parties, and snap a shot to document the ursine pastime. Or, as photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue performed at the age of 7: army-man maneuvers, frozen in time as they meander across the living-room floor. Lartigue, who began his photography career as that crafty 7-year-old in 1902, snapped shots of those near and dear to him, as well as self-portraits—usually the sly-faced boy executing a prank of some sort, and no doubt having a ball.

“The work he became famous for, all of it, was taken when he was 7 to 15 years old,” says professional photographer David Brickman about Lartigue. “There’s a guy who made pictures that are part of the 100 best in history when he was 7 years old.”

The 8- and 9-year olds in Marion Leap’s art class are familiar with Lartigue’s work, and through a collaboration between Brickman, the Arbor Hill Elementary School and the Albany County Historical Society the youngsters recently particpated in a unique workshop that sent them on a camera-toting quest to document their neighborhood, and in the process, document their own personal histories.

Brickman is intimately familiar with Arbor Hill, as he lives and runs his studio out of the area, and he recently published Neighborhood, a compilation of his photographs of Arbor Hill. It was during last year’s exhibition of his Arbor Hill and West End photographs at Siena College that the artist was discovered by ACHS board member Tony Brankman, and later approached about bringing his work to the Ten Broeck Mansion, situated smack-dab in the middle of the Arbor Hill neighborhood.

That spark of an idea ignited into a full-fledged flame when Albany County Historical Society education director, Laura Pye, blew on it. She saw a potential learning opportunity with that documentor of the neighborhood so close at hand. So, she made a few calls, and set the workshops in motion. “Ten Broeck approached me and asked me if I’d be interested,” Leap remembers. “And of course I said yes, because it was an opportunity of a lifetime”

They decided on a course of action: Brickman would visit the kids during a few of their scheduled art classes, the future photographers would then check out his show at the mansion, and then they’d be sent to wander the nooks and crannies of their neighborhood, armed with viewfinders and disposable cameras. There would even be an awards ceremony, with the top three winners receiving their very own cameras, of the permanent variety, and their work would hang at the mansion for the rest of the season.

‘The basic elements of a visual vocabulary are light, texture, composition, form, you can have color or not, and point of view,” Brickman states. “That’s about it.” The onetime teacher shared this knowledge with the youngsters. “I met with them three times. The first time was explaining the elements basically, and getting them comfortable with identifying them in different pictures.

Portrait of an artist: photographer David Brickman. Photo by Joe Putrock.

“The second time we went and saw my exhibition and talked again about sort of picking out the elements in that work,” he continues. He then discussed his own reasons for making the pictures he did of the people, flora and architecture of the area. Perhaps it was a particularly nice sense of light or the shapes of the houses. “But it’s important to me because I live here,” he tells his students, “and it means something to me personally, and I’ve captured it in a way that I express how I feel about it. So that’s what you’re going to try to do.”

Many of Brickman’s new students soaked up his knowledge like sponges. With the week of their spring break to fill their film with images of their lives—and many performed the task in a couple of days—the kids used what they learned to create interesting photographs. They returned to Leap and Brickman each with dozens of photos, and the two adults, along with Pye, helped the kids edit their work and select the best ones to present.

“I don’t think that the really good pictures happened by accident,” Brickman says. “The one that I remember the most, actually, was taken from the inside of a car, through the back window of the car. And there were several shots. There wasn’t just one. This girl actually was working with it, and trying different angles. She had a picture within a picture.

“The thing became almost completely abstract,” Brickman continues excitedly about this 8-year-old’s treasure. “You knew what it was, but it tricked your eye a little bit. The foreground and background—the whole thing. . . . There was all this odd stuff going on. She took at least five or six different views, and the one that worked, it had an energy to it, and an interesting composition, and strong light. It was just so unusual.”

All of the Leap’s art students who participated in the workshops had photos in the mansion’s show. There were pictures of kitchens and friends and cars and various buildings and cats perched in windows and fences—many fences. For the awards cermony, which took place May 20, the photographs were presented snapshot size, row upon row, mounted to large boards. The walls of the room where their photos sat were covered with Brickman’s images: color-soaked and graphic pictures of buildings, inhabited and otherwise, street scenes and just plain life.

The youthful exhibitors were beside themselves, proudly pointing out their masterpieces to whomever happened to pass. The three winners, Franiqua Patterson, Isaiah Phillips and Rakeem Charleston each received an award and a camera.

Phillips’ winning photograph captured a tennis court during the waning moments of the day, capturing interesting light and a certain mood. “I just looked around and tried to see what I liked best,” Phillips says about the photo. He took a couple of the site, and chose one over the other due to the appealing lighting. “The sun was hitting the camera lens, and the house was just shiny,” he says. “And, I just liked that one.”

Charleston’s winning picture, a Brickman-esque shot of a liquor store on Swan Street, exposes what he learned from the artist—a fact the youngster readily admits. In fact, Charleston stood out in Brickman’s mind as deeply interested in the project, and he greeted the artist excitedly upon their second visit with recitations of the elements. “He and I really clicked,” Brickman remembers. “I could see his little brain going. That was what he related.”

“Rakeem was so excited about it he filled up two cameras,” Pye remembers. “He did some really interesting work.”

The photographs that clung to the large boards ranged in colors, subjects and mood, but they all served the same function: to document the history of their makers. “Those pieces of work will become part of our permanent collection at the County Historic Association,” ACHS director Brian Buff says, adding that this will now be an annual event, with yearly exhibitions honoring the personal history of the city’s youth. “So over time,” Buff continues, “what we’re really doing is compiling a photographic and an artistic rendition of history and what it’s like to grow up in Albany.”

Brickman’s exhibition came down last month, but the kids’ photographs, now enlarged and affixed to the prominent wall opposite the room’s entrance, remain—sharing space with the ACHS’s historical exhibit. “It tells the history of the organization, and the history of the neighborhood,” Buff says about the duality of the display.

Photo play: (l-r) Arbor Hill Elementary School classmates Rakeem Charleston, Isaiah Phillips and Samantha Coles. Photo by Cassi Suen.

“So every time an aunt and uncle comes into town, they can bring them on down to see their stuff hanging in a museum,” Buff continues, adding that creating an excitement about this in the belly of the young will interest them in their own histories. “That’s what we’re all about,” he says.

Brickman also seeks the same ends, in a way, as he believes that creating excitement in the young gives birth to new worlds. “More than anything, I’m interesed in getting their enthusiasm,” he says. “Getting them interested and giving them the courage and the freedom to just shoot whatever they feel like and see what happens.”

Brickman, the ACHS and Marion Leap all hope that this is not the last they’ve seen of a project of this sort. Buff has been approached by other city elementary schools that wish to collaborate in a similar fashion, and Brickman is seeking contacts on the elementary and the high school level throughout the region. “It’s something I would like to do more regularly,” he says, “and I think there’s enough opportunity just in this area that it would be possible.” Brickman recently left his position at the Daily Gazette, after spending seven years there, and hopes to maintain a living by teaching workshops of this sort and selling his own work in bigger markets.

But the daily grind doesn’t consume Brickman’s thoughts. “We think that there’s work and then there’s family life, and nothing else matters. In fact, it’s just about everything else that matters, if you ask me.” And if he hopes to impart anything on the kids of Leap’s art class it’s the notion of enjoying the little things in life.

“The idea that some of these young people, however many years down the road, will be different because of [the workshop], will be more sensitive to art,” is what keeps the artist involved in this type of endeavor. “They might become the audience, and they’ll appreciate it just a little bit more,” Brickman says. “It might make them if not better people, happier people. It expands their world.”

Jacques-Henri Lartigue went on to take more than a million photographs over his long life, and at age 70, the artist received recognition for them with an exhibition at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. But perhaps the late acknowledgment didn’t faze the man, since Lartigue was known to consider photography “a magic thing,” and photographs themselves as “little miracles.” Perhaps photography just made him a happier person.

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