Union in the News for February 6, 1997
Disabled Adults Unshutter the World
By Online Edition - The New York Times
John Bromley waits with childlike impatience for the arrival of his photography teacher, who has printed Mr. Bromley's latest roll of film -- exuberant images of friends at a local disco -- and is stopping by with contact sheets.
Mr. Bromley, 39, has the sweet nature, garbled speech and facial distortions of Down syndrome. He spends his days on an assembly line, putting plastic shrink wrap on Easter-egg-coloring kits. He spends his nights at a group home here cataloguing baseball cards, Elvis memorabilia and old family snapshots.
The snapshots are in perfect order, shoebox after shoebox. They connect him to a safe, predictable world, when his parents were still alive and the family had barbecues, vacationed in the Poconos and celebrated birthdays and holidays that Mr. Bromley gave idiosyncratic names, like Happy Me and Ho Ho Ho.
But the color snapshots, mostly taken by his late father, do not thrill Mr. Bromley as do the black-and-white pictures he makes these days in a class taught by Martin Benjamin, a photography professor at Union College. He is instructing nine developmentally disabled adults at a center run by the Schenectady County Association for Retarded Citizens. Mr. Bromley always reacts the same way to a new contact sheet, laughing out loud and turning to Mr. Benjamin for approval. "I got good shots, don't I?" Mr. Bromley says. Thus the teacher found a title for an exhibition, "Good Shots: Photographs of and by People with Disabilities," which is to open Feb. 10 at the Union College arts building.
Mr. Bromley and his fellow students -- some with fetal alcohol syndrome, others with seizure disorders, many previously institutionalized -- are beside themselves with excitement about the event, which will include pictures taken by Mr. Benjamin and some Union College students who visit the center with him.
Mr. Benjamin, a 47-year-old professor who has exhibited widely, is one of a long and growing line of documentary photographers who are giving cameras to unlikely students -- ghetto children, learning-disabled teen-agers, retarded adults and others -- and watching their eyes widen and their worlds expand. Experts -- including Bruce Davidson, the documentary photographer, and Wendy Ewald, who won a MacArthur Foundation grant for her photographic projects with street urchins -- cite various reasons why cameras are such expressive tools. They are inexpensive, simple to use and allow people with limited dexterity and language skill to make representational images that would be out of their reach in painting or poetry. "You can explore a mood you're in but can't articulate, that may be beyond words," Mr. Davidson said. "And people with disabilities often pick up on feeling and mood quite astutely."
Mr. Benjamin's students are all but mute because of their disabilities, their thoughts and feelings begging to be expressed. But what they cannot or will not say, the camera says for them.
The only one to live with his family rather than in a group residence, Robert Stowell, 39, shot the photo used for the exhibition invitation, a picture of his father seated on a rock in front of their home in nearby Niskayuna. "What's this?" Mr. Benjamin asked. "It's my dad," Mr. Stowell said. Mr. Benjamin prodded: "What do you like about it?" "It's my dad," Mr. Stowell stubbornly repeated. "Anything else?" the professor asked. "I like the rock," Mr. Stowell said, unusually voluble. Later, Mr. Benjamin learned that the rock was the scene of all important family portraits.
The photographs these students take are distinctive because of the peculiarities of the $15 plastic Holga cameras and the nature of their disabilities.
The Chinese cameras have a single aperture and shutter speed, and a plastic lens that causes darkening at the edge of the image. If the students click the shutter more than once, which many do out of excitement, or don't advance the film properly, they wind up with overlapping exposures. Sometimes these pictures are magical, like Shirley Epting's portrait of Evelyn, a woman she greets each day outside a neighborhood old-age home. Evelyn's face is the single clear image in a dizzy succession of exposures.
"It's technically all wrong, and it's gorgeous," Mr. Benjamin said. Sometimes these pictures are a muddy mess because the exposures pile up one atop the other. That's what happened to most of Jennie DiMarco's film. Mr. Benjamin and his teaching assistant, Noelle Pirnie, were determined that the 66-year-old woman have some good shots for the exhibition. So they took Miss DiMarco across the street to the Villa Italia bakery, where she goes every morning to buy rolls. The two bakers gladly posed. But Miss DiMarco kept hitting the shutter with staccato repetition.
"Just once, Jennie, just once," Mr. Benjamin crooned. She made a perfect picture. Over the course of the term, the students have taken self-portraits with a cable release camera and gone on picture-taking field trips to a Jumpin' Jacks drive-in restaurant. They have been to the college darkroom, where Miss DiMarco was scared of the yellow light and Miss Epting astounded when her face emerged on the blank paper. They have had lunch at the student union and critiqued each other's work just as the Photo II students do. Now, they are putting the finishing touches on the exhibition: a new set of self-portraits to hang in tandem with the old ones, and signatures on their 16- by 20-inch matted prints. For some of the students, that meant practicing writing their names on scratch paper before trying the real thing. One became confused and used his house number where the date should be.
Mr. Benjamin resisted saying which class he prefers teaching. But after a long pause he formulated a careful answer. "This is a group of students that never disappoints me," he said, "and maybe that has to do with less expectations. But I more often feel exhilarated when I'm with them."