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The Collaborative Photographic Project
Photographer Stephen Perfect and his high school students combine talents for a unique exhibit
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Over the past several decades, photographer Stephen Perfect would occasionally ask one of his students if he could “borrow” one of their photos.
And they, in turn, often “borrowed” one of his. “I’ve been trading photos with students for some 40 odd years,” Perfect says. “Just to experiment, to see what else you could do with a particular image, or where you could take it.”
Perfect has been a professional photographer for over four decades, with a long career as a teacher, a commercial photographer, and an artist (it was Perfect who took the photo of The Rolling Stones on the Ann Colone Show that we ran in FWR #240). He’s been collaborating with students for about as long as he’s been teaching. Initially, these collaborations were more of an artistic exercise than anything formal, a way to treat the darkroom as a sort of lab or a playground. “I start manipulating these images, and when I find something I feel good about, I go back to the students,” Perfect says. “’What do you think about this?’ If they like it, right then and there they sign it. They sign it first, because they’re the ones that began this image. They get one, I get one, and then wherever I’m teaching gets one.”
But it wasn’t until this year that Perfect decided to “get serious” about these collaborations, swapping images with students from his class at Canterbury High School to develop a collection of work. “These students just blew me away,” he says. “I’ve said this for years — these students are doing things I wish I would have thought of, or wish I had done.”
The results of this collaboration between Perfect and his students can be seen at a show at Crestwoods Frame Shop and Gallery in Roanoke. Beginning May 3, it features the work of 23 students.
Though the collaborations are very much in the same spirit as the less formal work Perfect has done with his students for almost all his teaching career, these days “Photoshop” has replaced “the darkroom” as the lab where all the experimentation takes place. “I just put it into Photoshop to see ‘what happens if…’” says Perfect. “How can I use one of the commands, or half-dozen of the commands? Sometimes I’ll invert it. Sometimes I’ll convert it to black-and-white, sometimes I’ll saturate the color, sometimes I’ll do a partial reversal… But I don’t have any specific way I work with each image.”
Perfect says he looks for images that have some sort of craft behind them, evidence that the student had to work to capture it. But he is quick to point out that he doesn’t “finish” the images, he simply works on them, and if the student doesn’t like the results, it usually doesn’t go much further.
Part of what Perfect hopes his students learn from these collaborations is the idea that an image isn’t necessarily “finished.” It’s an idea he says he’s still learning, even after 40 years in the field. “I really thought that when I was younger, certainly in high school and probably a good way through college,” he recalls. “It’s like when I did commercial photography — once the client was happy with it, you were done. That’s the way I approached a lot of my non-commercial work, too. But now, working with these students, I’m looking at my own work in a completely different way, seeing how an image is not really done. You see something else in it, another direction that can enhance what’s there or turn it into something completely different.”
“Personally, I’m motivated by these students. I’m inspired by what they’re doing.”
Perfect says there’s no particular image or medium that lends itself especially well to these collaborations. The exhibit at Crestwoods features a wide range of work — 27 images from 23 students — with all different forms and subjects. “It doesn’t seem to make any difference what the medium is, whether it’s going to be Polaroids or something else,” Perfect explains. “We haven’t really put the images into categories like that. We’ve got almost everything in this exhibition from digital and film, and no one medium seems to lend itself to collaboration more than another.”
The opening reception for the Collaborative Photographic Project happens Saturday, May 3 from 4 PM – 8 PM.
The show runs May 3 – June 3 at Crestwoods Frameshop and Gallery
314 N Main St.
Visit crestwoodsgallery.com for more info