It is clear upon walking into room 30 of the United Arts Building that it is a photography classroom: Instructions, tips diagrams, and a plethora of photographs line the walls, and in the center of the room several large tables pushed together provide a space for students to share work and receive new assignments. A faint humming noise from prints being washed in the darkroom has wound its way into the main area. Photography students have access to many resources including a light studio, a darkroom, digital labs with computers complete with Photoshop and other programs and a variety of film and digital cameras.
Most important, however, is the warm presence of Leon Kestenbaum, who has been a photography teacher for 36 years.
According to Kestenbaum, students have the option to experiment with film and digital photography, and he encourages them to try both. However, most settle on a favorite and work within that medium. After trying both types of photography in his Photography I and II classes, sophomore Shurron Gilliam said he far prefers film over digital.
“It’s a little more intimate in the darkroom and it’s really an experience,” Gilliam said. “Digital is also an experience, but it’s not as fun. In the lab you can get more precise pictures and there’s a lot more you can do editing-wise, but if you’re really willing to go all the way in the darkroom you can get a lot of the same effects.”
Junior Noah Mark spends most of his time working on their photos in the upstairs lab.
“I liked the digital lab because I prefer digital photography more,” Mark said. “I also like to use Photoshop, because it’s very versatile. I was able to make some pictures less busy by removing some things that I didn’t originally want in the picture and making the colors stand out more.”
Their teacher, however, could not choose a favorite.
“I truly love both, and they’re very different,” Kestenbaum said. “They both have a lot to offer. With film, the experience one has allows one to understand better what is taking place, and how the changes are occurring… However, in the digital realm you acclimate, and you come to use your mind and your eyes differently in making your decisions. The tools are different, and it works beautifully.”
No matter the medium, most of Kestenbaum’s students agree that his encouraging presence and passion for photography made the class edifying for them. Photography I and II student and sophomore Joelle Ducharme appreciated the way he always had something positive to say about his students’ work.
Sophomore Kaija Barisa, who took the same classes, agreed.
“Once I had a picture of zebras from a while ago and I made it black and white and colored in the stripes in neon colors,” Barisa said. “It was kind of meant as a joke but when Mr. K saw it he thought it was the coolest thing he’d ever seen and said it was original and creative, and that he wanted to hang it up. It was really funny.”
Besides exuding a positive attitude towards photography, Kestenbaum said he works to ensure that his students have positive and fruitful interactions with each other in class.
“I greatly encourage everyone in the classroom to be a good consultant to one another,” Kestenbaum said. “I think that’s critical because students realize that the best teachers in a classroom are one another.”
In addition, Kestenbaum is always aware of the need to simultaneously allow his students the freedom to express themselves and also keep them focused in class.
Gilliam appreciated his effort and the resulting feeling of independence.
“He really gives you time to do your own thing instead of expecting you to do a lot of different stuff,” Gilliam said. “And he’s on top of it without being hovering. He’s doing a good job.”
Kestenbaum said that if due dates are imposed, it is because he believes that they will ultimately result in better artwork, as concentration leads to excellence. He described the environment in his classes as easygoing yet focused.
“What I try to have students do is be aware that their responsibility is to be really fully engaged and yet feel free to take risks and take chances with their work,” he said.
Students say photography classes stand out because of their comfortable, expressive environment, and also because of the widely-praised enthusiasm of the teacher who leads them.
“Teaching is extremely rewarding,” Kestenbaum said. “It is to be involved in helping people to say something rich and to express something strong and beautiful, which is a very special experience for me. I love it.”
Kendall McGowan can be contacted at [email protected]