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Inside ChiArts: Young Artists in the Making – Bruce Bennett and Gabby Ochoa

Bruce Bennett and Gabby Ochoa are senior photography majors at The Chicago High School for the Arts. Last September, after being selected by their peers at the Filter Photo Festival, the young artists had their portfolios reviewed by author and photographer Jane Fulton Alt and Chicago Tribune photo editor Michael Zajakowski.

ChiArts, as the artists’ school is known, opened in 2009 and is the first public arts high school to serve the Chicago area, with the mission of diversifying the city’s landscape of professional artists. Students from all neighborhoods with a wide range of previous training are encouraged to audition for dance, theatre, musical theatre, music, and visual arts conservatories. A creative writing conservatory is set to open in the fall of 2014.

I teach in ChiArts’ theater department and wanted to share some of the thought-provoking work produced by these two young creators. Below is my interview with Gabby and Bruce about their approach to photography and their experience of receiving professional feedback.

Ginger O’Donnell (GO): Explain the concept behind your series of photographs called (digital)Artifacts.

Gabby Ochoa (GO): For Artifacts, I was thinking a lot about memories. I was listening to NPR in the car with my dad. There was a story about the science of memories, and how we’ve gotten it wrong for so long. We think that memory is concrete, but when you remember something, you’re really putting it back together out of subjective pieces. You can even create false memories in people. It made me think of computers: you can get rid of files, you can put files in, you can change them. I made that connection while listening to it. That’s how my images work – I change the data in the photo so my computer doesn’t know how to put them back together properly. These images are like the broken down memory that people end up with, a vague feeling of what something was like because they can’t remember all the details.

GDO: What process do you use to deconstruct the photos?

GO: I decided to use vernacular photos that I already had, like birthday parties, things like that, and run them through a really simple program. I used a program on windows computers that takes picture data and turns it into text. It tries to format the photo as if it’s an essay. It’s hands-off for me. I don’t control what comes out because in a similar sense, you can’t control the degradation of a memory.

Gabby Ochoa. Cutenails.jpg, 2013. Manipulated jpg file. (Image courtesy of the artist).

GDO: It seems that you like to frustrate the viewer. You enjoy playing with our expectations.

GO: Having some kind of interaction with the viewer has always been really important to me. I don’t want my photos to just be something representational, where you take a moment and walk away from it because you can get all the information that fast.

GDO: How do the titles play into the viewer interaction?

GO: For the Artifacts series, I used the names of the photos on my computer. Either I named them or whoever saved them, so some of them are long and dumb, others are short and to the point, I just kept them. I wanted an interplay between the title and the image.

GDO: Or you use complex words like Parhelions, “a bright spot in the sky on the side of the sun, where light is refracted through ice crystals in the upper atmosphere.”

GO: It’s a big thing for me. I read a lot, so when I see a word that I like, or when I listen to a song that uses a word I like, I just kind of hold onto it, like a squirrel. I just grab onto it until I can use it in a way that matters.

GDO: I like that metaphor. What is the concept behind the Parhelions series?

GO: For that one, I didn’t want to use digital manipulation. My work has a lot of glitched imagery, and I didn’t want to push it too far, making that idea mean nothing. So I used things from the real world, lights and lenses I made myself. These have no Photoshop in them. It’s just what the image looked like, what I was able to do.

GDO: Is your interest primarily in conceptual photography, making people re-think ideas like memory?

GO: Concept is really important to me. My practice is really experimental. Sometimes the concept comes first, and it’s figuring out how to make the image, and sometimes the image comes first, and it’s figuring out how to properly conceptualize what I was thinking of. I’ve done representational stuff before, but it didn’t feel right to me, because I feel like a photo can be so much more than a document. I also like to draw (I’m in sequential arts, a comic[s] class) so that’s more representational. Photo and drawing for me are completely separate. I do story-based work through drawing and my photos are more conceptual.

GDO: Bruce, what is the concept behind your series?

Bruce Bennett (BB): I am working on a black and white series of people in their domestic environments and outside their communities.

Bruce Bennett. Twins, 2013. Digital Print. (Image courtesy of the artist)

GDO: Why do you take the photos in black and white?

BB: I think about this question everyday. I don’t know what to say. My photos are very serious so I feel that black and white will give me that mood, that effect that I’m looking for. It’s kind of hard to explain. I really don’t like color.

GDO: Where did you take them?

BB: Most of my portfolio is of my friends and family. Many are from an after school program I’ve been going to since I was young. It’s on 45th and King Drive. I’m trying to get outside of my box, meet new people, and photograph them in their community.

GDO: Did you pose the people in the picture?

BB: Yes, I wanted them to look straight into the camera. It was staged.

GDO: What feedback did you receive at Filter?

BB: I started off with Mike. He said that I had good lighting in my pictures, but that I should close in a little bit, eliminate extra information that doesn’t connect with my subject. He also said I should start taking more family style portraits, because it connects with the viewer in an intimate way, so that’s one thing I’ll consider doing. I connected with him because he is a photojournalist, and that’s sort of what I do. I document my community. He mainly talked about size and cropping. Jane wanted to buy one of my photos; she said that my photos are very powerful. Many people say that.

GO: It was really encouraging, the experience, because we’re in a high school setting, but they made it clear that they were impressed with the caliber of our work.

Bruce Bennett. Kendall and Jarquis, 2013. Digital print. (Image courtesy of the artist)

GDO: Why do you think people use the word powerful to describe your photos?

BB: I think that in most of my photos, the subject is looking at the camera, so it’s like having a conversation with someone. Also, black and white just makes the picture stand out.

GDO: Gabby, what feedback did you receive?

GO: I talked to Jane first. Jane gave some good aesthetic advice, and I really appreciated that. I showed her my Artifacts series, and she pointed out that they were like landscapes. I have thought of that too, and I kept getting that feedback. Since talking with her about landscapes I have thought more about them and now I’ve started a new project about landscapes, so that’s pretty cool.

GDO: Does your landscape project involve digitally distorting images?

GO: Yes, but it’s a different process. I have more to do with the outcome than in the Artifacts series. I’ve taken one image, such as the image of a mountain, and run it through more involved processes so it breaks down into streaks of color. Then I use a different method to build it back up into what it was, so it kind of looks like a mountain again. Jane influenced me to do this, by pointing out how my images look like landscapes. Mike was completely different. He said that there’s not much anyone can say to me because conceptual photography is really subjective, so the advice he gave me was more about how to think of new ideas, how to convey them properly to an audience, through titling and style, things like that. He also gave real world advice about how to get jobs. That was useful too. It was encouraging to think of myself as an actual working artist coming up, making connections with other professionals. I got an internship at Latitude Digital Lab. I’ll be working there with Anthony Aguirre, another photography student. We’ll do the dirty work but also get the benefit of making prints there.

GDO: Did you get any leads, Bruce?

BB: I won the finalists for Twins, of two girls who go to the after-school program. I also sent Kendal and Jarquis, two boys that I took pictures of. I’m going to Miami in January for a week of mentoring.

GDO: Congratulations. Did you show these photographs to the after school program?

BB: Yes I did. They are not artists, but they really liked it.

GO: You represent people so well, you’d think they’d be like, yeah that’s me right there.

GDO: What are your thoughts about college next year? What do you want to do with photography?

GO: As far as art, I definitely still want to do it, but I’m not thinking of going to an arts school. I want to go to the University of Chicago, maybe do art history so I could teach. Maybe not immediately, but down the line, as a supplement to being an artist, because it’s not easy to make money.

BB: I still want to be a photographer. I really love what I do. I’ve applied to many schools, but my main focus is Parsons in NY and MCAT.

GO: Going for the gold in portraiture.

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