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Gary Colby shares story of photography

Demonstrating the wrong way to create a self-portrait with a view camera, Gary Colby, chairman of the photography department, finds himself on the other side of the lens for a change. Colby’s interests extend beyond photography and include such diverse areas as the study of early cave drawings and experience as a general aviation pilot. / photo by David Bess

Christina Collins Burton
Arts Editor

As a professor of photography, Gary Colby has channeled his passion for photography into the department as the enrollment jumps beyond what was originally expected.

In a recent interview, Colby talked about the start of the department and how changes, both in the past and the future, are effecting the students.

How did you get involved in photography as an interest here at the University of La Verne?

I went from Bonita High School to Cal Poly as a landscape architecture major. I liked it a lot but I’ve never been able to find that line that clear demarcation between life enrichment and distraction.

So landscape architecture is pretty interesting, but so was theater, so I changed my major instantly to theater and that was terrific, but I had an interesting literature class, and that was a mythology course, so I changed my major to English and that was interesting, but just down the hall from the English department was the journalism department. Those guys were doing two newspapers at the time, The Poly Post, did two a week, and they were exciting, they were up all night doing all kinds of stuff.

So I changed my major again and stayed with that. In journalism and communications, I graduated with public relations.

I was photography editor for the Poly Post and I won the California Collegiate Press Association contest at least once and then I became editor and chief of the Magazine out there, which was called Opus Magazine.

That was all very exciting, but during that time I had a wonderful photography teacher, a gentle soul, a guy named Russ Lapp. He was just a terrific guy and extremely energetic, an older man, he had worked at the examiner in Los Angeles in the days before the Herald Examiner, before it merged with the Herald.

I think he either retired or he just left the examiner to take the position full-time as the photography teacher at Cal Poly, in the journalism department.

He, among other things, supervised our laboratory on campus where we would come and have a portrait made or a headshot and we were doing a lot of passport photographs at the time or just anything else. He asked me if I’d like to take over that, so I took over that studio.

Mr. Lapp had this huge photography concern going; he was a very busy freelance photographer. He worked for all the local colleges; he worked for the Los Angeles county fair and a bunch of others, and when he had conflicting assignments he would send us.

So that in a way was my training, I took the classes with him and a couple other people. I came to understand deadline and professionalism, and it was so trippy because he was such a gentle guy. A lot of other people trained with a whip and a chair and this guy was just kinder.

His technical skills were less than the best but he was competent, durable and he remained one of my best friends till the end of his days.

Towards the end of my college career my Mother got sick and passed away. I withdrew from college with about two classes to go; I began an alternative service project. In those days you had about three choices, you could either join the military, you could run and try to hide, or if you were certified you could do an alternative service project.

When I finished that project I went back to school and finished my classes and I was doing various kinds of projects, mostly just freelance photography and writing.

A friend of mine who I went to High School with had been asked by the associated student forum to be the advisor for the Campus Times, that was ok with him he was a good writer, but he wasn’t real sharp on how to do the technical things. So he asked me if I wanted to come help with that and ASF would pay. Then that next semester he decided that he didn’t want to do that anymore, so ASF asked me if I would like to be the advisor for Campus Times and I accepted that, it was exciting and fun. We had a staff of about 30, it was a big group.

Maybe a year into that Tom Davis the original photography teacher had left and they needed a photography teacher, so they asked me if I would do it. I took that job and it was just a part time teaching gig.

I taught a black and white dark room class in the student center that had just been built, that was the tents, and they had put a dark room in there, so I went in there and ordered up the equipment we needed.

It was allied at the time with the art department, and we had a class at the time called photo 310, which is the same darkroom photography class we have now called photo 210. We taught a lot of students that went through that program during the Campus Times.

There were two photojournalism courses, a studio course; I redid the Photo 210 curriculum to accommodate communications as well. I became the photography advisor for Campus Times, and at that time I became a full time instructor.

We continued to redevelop the program and it dawned on me, in my own experience, that one thing that I dislike about photography is that photographers tend to be prejudicial. They tend to be prejudicial about their own point-of-view.

What happens is you end up with the journalism department with a full on photojournalism program and across the campus is an art department with a full on photography program.

Elsewhere on the campus there is maybe an architecture department with an architecture program, and these people don’t talk to each other. I always thought, that is crazy, there is a lot to learn from everything and photography, the unique language that it is, the culture changer that it is effects everything.

In the late 70’s we hit on this idea of having this photography department that served all the other college departments. So it was an independent thing and it could get the job done for everybody. In this way then, a small institution could afford to have a photography department, I think we have an excellent relationships with the art and communications department and we’re developing new relationships with other departments.

Now for years, I asserted that we didn’t want to have photography major, we could have a minor, or concentrations in other programs but no major.

People began to talk to me about this, and I kept saying I don’t think so because there are majors imbedded in majors around here in the art department and communications.

When people think of photography as an undergraduate, most people think of top-notch institutions so why do we want to offer it.

Eric Bishop finally got through to me and said think of a student that goes to an art center, what kind of opportunity are they going to have they will be there around the clock and eat, drink, sleep, live it but that’s not what students that come to La Verne do, students that come to La Verne come for a broader experience than that we’re offering them something different.

So we put together the photography major and succeeded and went through academic senate and went through the curriculum committee and faculty meeting and it was approved on Dec. 8 2008.

So now we have some seriously heavy-duty growing pains, it is going to be interesting to see how this all works out. But it is thrilling, and I think those guys were right, I think we’re really onto something here as long as the institution backs it up, if they understand what we’re doing, this is going to be a real winner.

So far so good, the deans have been supportive and everyone up the ladder has been supportive.

With the recent increase of students, and a lot of students being interested in photography what expansions are you hoping to see?

We need to add faculty and space. How that works out, we’re presently not certain, but at the moment I’d say for the next couple of years I’d say we’re ok.

There is room for everybody and our classes look good, our enrollment looks good. We’ve got excellent adjunct professors who are working with us. After a couple years we’re going to have to add space and we’re going to have to add faculty members.

I think also at some point we can expect maybe to limit the numbers some how. Probably with performance standards, but I wouldn’t see doing that right away.

That’s the thing about La Verne it is the place we come to find out who we are, there are only a handful of people that come out of High School with an idea of what they want to be, the rest of us aren’t sure and La Verne is a great place for that.

The philosophy of our department suits that perfectly. It all fits real well and with the growth of it, finding a way to limit the numbers is a real concern because I really like students that are trying to find their way it takes awhile for some of us to do that.

You always mention your travels, what other places have you traveled to?

I’ve been to France a couple of times, New Zealand and all over Britain.

In 1976 I went to Guatemala right after they had a huge earthquake and I went to work for Redding Volunteer Service, Church World Service and ultimately with the Salvation Army in a little town called Tegucigalpa.

I worked there for one summer in construction and photography, and then in 1977 I went to Jackson Mississippi to work for a community self help organization called Voice of Calvary Ministries. A well-known philosopher and preacher named John Perkins established it and they were trying to put together a communications department so they could have a relationship with their far forum benefactors.

So I helped them establish a newspaper and taught them how to do photography and process pictures. I shot a couple stories for other publications again while I was there, I worked in the Deep South down highway 49 all the way down through Mississippi. Voice of Calvary has a number of self-help projects.

Also back in the early 70’s I got my pilot’s license, and I flew quite a big and when I was first teaching here I used to take my students and we would go take pictures. We did a lot of aerial photography for the campus times, it was fun.

Why did the Aerial photography stop?

It stopped for a couple reasons, one cause it is extremely expensive to maintain a pilot’s license to stay safe. You have to fly three hours a week at least, touch and go in order to stay safe. So it just kind of went away, but that isn’t the primary reason, the primary reason was that today it’s a big issue to get students onto an airplane.

I don’t think the institution would be unkind to us if we did, but I’m presently not current. Jay Jones got his license a few months ago and I’m pretty sure he is current.

Like I said it is expensive money wise, but I don’t have three days a week to go out to the airport to devote two or three hours to mess around with an airplane.

As far as the photography students, do you encourage them to take on freelance projects the same as you did?

A lot of us learn from each other or we’re self-taught and that’s ok but it isn’t very efficient. I have a feeling of responsibility that all of our students come from people that love them. A teacher here has a responsibility, a profound charge, to serve that honorably and if there is an expectation of any parent is that their child is well served.

Success is the student’s responsibility to do everything on their behalf and to find themselves and that is the main reason that you come to La Verne.

Christina Collins Burton can be reached at christina.burton@laverne.edu.

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