I first became interested in photographing inside schools about seven years ago. I was finishing up projects in which I had photographed my contemporaries dressed up as imaginary historical figures and also taken architectural shots inside houses whose décor had gone out of style. Specifically, I was interested in modernist spaces, as this was the near-ubiquitous style when I was going to grade school, and was a style that was self- consciously new. By the time the millennium rolled around, much of this design was showing its age. Yet aside from this wear, many school rooms were unaltered, almost completely frozen in time.
As I began exploring schools, I became fascinated with how a school day, which seems like an eternity to a child, is reduced to a few vivid, almost timeless moments in an adult’s memory. To better capture this, I have shot using natural light since the beginning of this project. My imagemaking has always been influenced by 17th-century Dutch painters like Jan Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch, whose use of natural light to illuminate everyday scenes brought a sense of the sublime to the mundane.
Initially, I shot interiors of many different schools in New England, which is where I lived at the time as a photography professor at the Maine College of Art. These shoots involved talking with each principal and showing him or her previous images in order to get permission to photograph. An amazing amount of work goes into getting access and permission; sometimes I would hit a dead end where my calls would not be returned and I’d have to move on to another school.
Still, I collected enough images to have a one-person show in 2003 at Boston’s The Gallery @ Green Street, winning a grant from The Lef Foundation to help fund the show. I moved back to Chicago almost immediately after that, and it made sense to begin photographing schools there, as Chicago’s public schools had always interested me. I feel they exist in the past and present simultaneously, with current students studying history from outdated textbooks and playing dodge ball in the faded glory of gymnasiums built more than 100 years ago.
I quickly set my sights on Lane Technical College-Prep High School. This selective public school is the largest school in Illinois. Located on Chicago’s North Side, the building looks like a castle or 19th-century factory set back on a large lawn. I had long been fascinated with the building and decided to approach the school about photographing. The then-assistant principal, Antoinette LoBosco, allowed me come in on Saturdays and photograph the empty classrooms. I photographed on and off for two years, but didn’t produce many compelling images.
I have been struck by the cultural vibrancy and diversity of Chicago. One day, in looking at the school Web site I came upon a list of ethnic clubs that perform dances at International Days each spring at Lane Tech. I believe Lane’s ethnic clubs beautifully reflect that multiculturalism of Chicago today and contacted Dr. LoBosco about photographing members of these diverse clubs. After much negotiating, she graciously agreed.
With a list of clubs in hand, I approached each with a spiel about my project and a digital point-and-shoot camera. I showed up during practices and took mug shots of students who were interested in participating in the project. I then sifted through those shots and called and e-mailed students who I thought would make good subjects.
In the end, I hope that these portraits allude to the richly diverse student population who currently attend these schools. I’m interested in how the students’ youth, traditional costume, and formal poses contrast with the aging but recognizably American architecture and design.
I began this project using medium-format cameras, but have recently switched to large-format negative film (usually Kodak Portra 160 nc). I use a Wista field camera with a 150mm lens. My goal is for the viewer to move in and out of space as well as time; I therefore produce archival digital prints in a variety of sizes from 20 × 24 to 50 × 70 inches, using these changes of scale to accomplish that.