Arbor Hill Elementary School students
document their own histories by taking pictures of their environs
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
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.
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
of an artist: photographer David Brickman.
Photo by Joe Putrock.
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
play: (l-r) Arbor Hill Elementary School classmates Rakeem
Charleston, Isaiah Phillips and Samantha Coles.
Photo by Cassi Suen.
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.
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