I chose a sunny Thursday afternoon to duck into Sam Abell’s classroom, a cool respite a couple flights of stairs below Maine Media’s Gallery overlooking Rockport Harbor. My timing was perfect. As the group settled in after indulging in the lunch spread served back on campus, the Nat Geo veteran prepared his students for a collaborative crescendo culminating the past several days of shooting.
After reviewing a few housekeeping items, including plans for a ferry trip from Port Clyde to Mohegan Island the next day, Sam dove into the essential theme of his class. It was time for each photographer to display the fruits of their efforts and edit them down to a five-image poem, complete with a succinct title to introduce its essence to audiences at the weekly Friday night show.
“Epic enterprises are largely out of fashion. We are past the time of showing a trip to Italy with 60 slides,” explained the renowned documentary photographer. “Poetry is an idea for our time, and a poem can be visual. But the idea should be strong-minded and heartfelt, a poetry-sized expression of an idea, person, thing or object. The Coast of Maine, for example, is not a poem, but a cemetery on the coast of Maine could be.”
A Maine Coast cemetery did in fact inspire one of Sam’s students to create a photographic poem called “Grave Gardens”. Clicking through the series, Sam advised that the first photo should be the one that’s a suggestion of the grave with the back layer of fog, adding that fog is your friend here. The second should be the grave peeking out of the trees. And so the critique went on from there until the final five images were selected and refined into a lyrical sequence, hanging tightly together just like the poetry-sized expression Sam had discussed.
Other poems explored included “Not Here” depicting life in transition; “Day Drinking” complete with a photo of PBR, Tabasco and a drink umbrella; and a rich autobiographical story called “My Journey Thus Far.”
“Yes, no, no, yes,” Sam said, selecting images as he clicked through each series. I sat down scribbling notes as fast as I could, while he generously imparted words of wisdom to his students.
“A poem can’t be redundant. We can’t be slammed by the fact of it. I’m looking for the intimacy of a poem. It needs to be delicate. Keep the maintenance of tone or the spell is broken. The visual tone needs to be true throughout,” Sam said.
He came to Paola’s photographic verse, “Everything She Touches Changes”, about a local woman weaver. Sam suggested “Song of Susan”, while Paola described the songs the artist sung while she wove. Then an image popped up on the screen, which Paola said was a recreation of a dream the weaver had.
“In the dream a ghost told her she could weave masks. I wanted to take the idea and make it real,” Paola said, pointing to a picture of the woman in a white woolen hand-loomed mask.
That image made Sam's cut.
During the class, Sam also reminded the group that they are here to disallow creative burnout. “How will you keep your love alive?’ he asked the accomplished photographers, some who even earn their living with a camera in hand. Sam then shared a secret of how he maintained his passion over a 30-plus-year career with high demands and constant deadlines—he kept a diary, a daily personal photo diary, used for his own creative expression.
“Think outside the box,” he advised. “Pick up a color Holga some weekend, and I promise you it won’t be Groundhog Day.”
Watching Sam teach, with a quite confidence, warmth and genuine interest in his students, I certainly didn't fell like it was Groundhog Day.
That’s just how it is here, working side-by-side with the giants of photography, film and other media arts, without feeling like your standing in their shadow. Time and time again, I hear that the most meaningful experiences students have during their week at Maine Media is finding out how approachable everyone is, no matter how long they’ve been in the business.
– Jennifer Cook, 2014 MMW+C PC Graduate in Visual Storytelling