Exploring the company we keep at UCI and beyond

Roller derby girls. God Without Religion. Harry Potter enthusiasts (fanatics?). These are a small sampling of the groups and organizations that have formed at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and around Orange County. Members share a devotion to their cause and a desire to pursue it in collaboration with others, which are the subjects we examine in this blog.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Portrait of UCI's Photography Club--A Place to learn (and learn to love) one of the trendiest new hobbies

by Marissa Guyton

Rain water is running down the brick walls and staining the concrete floor below it. It’s dripping from the gray stair railings and the waist-high metal gate that’s blocking the path of three members and of the Photography Club at UCI. “It’s locked…” one of them sighs disappointedly. They are still panting after walking up five flights of the outside staircase of the Engineering Hall only to find another roadblock in their search for a good rooftop to take pictures from. Defeated, they start mentioning other buildings throughout the UCI campus they think they could go to.

“Why don’t we just jump it,” one of them finally suggests. After all, the gate is only waist-high. The others look around hesitantly; stand there silently. But what about the other buildings? Or could they go around some other way?

Out of nowhere, Sir Abille , a fourth year who joined the club last fall, leans up toward the gate, pushes up with his hands and jumps his legs over. In a second he is over to the other side, looking as if nothing has happened. He has set the standard. East coast transplant and physics grad student Brian Smith takes on the gate second, hoisting, sitting, then swinging his legs over the top of it. That just leaves Adib Towfiq, president of the club, who hands off some of his stuff before following them up the last flight of stairs. Restricted roof access, here they come.

On top of the roof it’s a different world. The floor of the roof and walls around it are made of an unexpectedly bright white plastic which, when compared to the neutral brick-red, cream, and gray color of most other buildings at UCI, makes the rooftop look like a sterile, alien landscape. But the view is phenomenal and worth every effort of the three members of the photography club who chose to come out on this dreary, rainy day. It is UCI as you have never seen it; a Google earth view of the campus and its surroundings up close and personal, right before your very eyes. You could see the orange-red tops of the surrounding buildings, as well as the gorgeous rooftop terrace of Donald Bren Hall, complete with wooden chairs and tables. You could see the tops of the sky-high Eucalyptus trees surrounding Aldrich Park and the golden hills in the distance, decorated with lines of housing communities streaming down the hillsides like ribbons on a Christmas tree. Without uttering a world about the great find, or taking some time to soak in the views, all of the club members cluster instinctively in one corner of the building and quietly snap shot after shot, fitting for a group whose stated purpose on the UCI website “is to take photos, nothing more nothing less.”

This is a fairly typical meeting for the Photography Club, albeit with less people. On average, about 10 to 15 people show up per meeting—a group running the gamut of Computer Science and Engineering majors to Studio Art majors, novices to hobbyists with years of experience. On a good day, there can be as many as 40 or 50 people. Although they try to meet every week on a Tuesday or Wednesday, there is no actual set meeting time. It is more relaxed than your average club on campus, and if it weren’t for the word “club” in its title, one would probably use the term ‘spontaneous gathering’ to describe them better. When an idea comes or the mood strikes, Adib will send out a Facebook message, usually a day or two in advance, announcing where and when the meeting that he has just pulled together will be. If there is any theme, such as the rooftop picture-taking theme of this latest photo walk, it will more often than not have come up once the meeting was already in session. Meetings take on the direction of whatever people feel like doing at the moment, and that’s part of the fun.

That being said, enough planning goes into the club to offer members a variety of different kinds of events. Along with photo walks, the club has put on Photoshop tutorials and critique sessions, has invited guest lecturers, and has also hired models for portrait shoots. These are the average event types that you’ll find at the photography club. Together they offer advice on the whole photography process: from shot to editing to taking your photography to the next level.

Back at the photo walk on campus, the club members are mulling around the Humanities Gateway building. To many students this may be a familiar and looked over structure, but the photographers out today see something different in it. The unique angles offer great potential. A snap of the façade of the building and out comes an intriguing abstract picture with curving lines and indiscernible shapes.

At the other side of the building, the club members encounter more photo opportunities. “This hallway is great for portraits” Adib muses enthusiastically in a columned walkway at the back of the Humanities Gateway building. “Here, I’ll show you.” He grabs Sir and pulls him in front of the camera, with one side of his face towards the open side of the walkway. “You see how the light is coming in like this from the side?” He pulls his camera up with a focused look as Sir pulls a big, cheesy smile. Click. “It makes everything look really smooth,” he says. In the picture that pops up on Adib’s display screen, Sir’s skin looks extremely smooth and even; there is even a soft glow about him. It’s as if Adib had somehow managed to find an automatic airbrushing button on his camera. It’s in moments like these that members can learn in a matter of a minute, tricks that would otherwise take hours of pouring over photography books.

Those who are experienced enough to share their tips with other club members are often self-taught. Many of the club photographers have picked up a lot of what they know from the Internet. On websites like Flickr, there are thousands of forums, ranging from topics like black & white photography to depth of field shots. Looking through these, it’s easy to pick up on hints and gather bits and pieces of information.

But generally, it comes down to a matter of practice. Adib, who has been taking photos for 6 years, learned much of what he knows from friends and the Internet, but most from just putting in the hours. He tried reading a book here and there until he decided that they were “completely useless” when it came to learning the ropes. The real teacher has always been experience.

For this reason, members of the photography club make a point of sharing their experiences—of passing down information to each new generation of novices. When Sir Abille first joined the club, he had just bought a new camera and was pretty new to taking photos. Remembering his first club meeting, he said, “The awesome thing was that there were multiple people who shared tips and tricks…it wasn't just one person running the show.”

Teaching is a main feature at every meeting. At the Photoshop tutorial sessions, the club will reserve a room with a projector and connect to Photoshop. Members come in with whatever questions they have, and whoever can chip in an answer will answer. At the photo critique sessions, members can get advice on how to improve a particular photo. Club president Adib will usually ask anyone who wants to participate to send their photos in to him before hand, so that when the group meets up, everyone’s work is anonymous. They will go through each photo one at a time and discuss what they think could take it to the next level. Professors in the Art Department at UCI have been known to make an occasional appearance at these sessions. Rudy Vega, who teaches Digital Photography during the summer sessions and runs the photo lab on campus the rest of the year, has come a couple of times to offer his advice and give amateur photographers the rare opportunity to “get someone to critique their photos actually” as Adib says. There were also two guest speakers in the last school year, who came to talk about photography on the professional level. Erich Chen, a 25-year-old wedding photographer who has also shot for, among other things, AVEDA and URB Magazine, came to give a talk last February. And in December of 2009, Nick Merrick, a senior photographer and President of the Hedrich Blessing firm, gave a presentation on architecture photography.

At the model shoots, Adib and the other more savvy people in the club will set up the lighting in advance so that members can take advantage of their know-how first hand. By the time they are done putting everything together, the set will be completely camera-ready. Even if a photographer has almost no experience, “it’s kind of hard to take a really bad picture,” Adib says. “When they get the results they’re like…whoa this is like a professional portrait I just took! That’s awesome!” He helps out even further by covering a good amount of the finances to pay for the rented lights and professional models, who often cost $100 per hour.

Even the photo walks themselves, which are the most common event, are educational. “Usually I give some sort of assistance,” Adib says. “You know, like you wanna have your setting around here, you wanna shoot this or keep this in mind. It’s kind of like a tutorial session.” Others help out too. During a recent photo walk at Crystal Cove State Park, Sir Abille spontaneously took the lead and taught some novice photographers “some techniques, like how to shoot a panorama, how to get the right exposure…” Brian Smith also helped some amateur photographers out with “a bit of a casual crash course in manual camera operation,” where he taught “things like how aperture works and what kind of shutter speeds they might want use.”

Though there can be a lot of technical talk—conversations start with lines like, “That’s some good macro focus you’ve got on your camera” and are sprinkled with debates over the merits of Canon versus Nikon cameras and the highest temperature a digital camera can stand (104 degrees)—but the club is open to people of all levels of photography. There are some who come with “point-and shoots", your basic, compact camera that is usually is geared toward auto-focus use, and while they may feel a little out of place, and out of the loop during some conversations, the other club members will be more than willing to get them up to speed.

With such ready help available, it’s easy to develop your photography skills pretty quickly. Some of the more confident club members have gone on to do freelancing work, doing things like taking personal portraits, business portraits, and nightlife photos at local clubs. Even “small time” gigs, such as taking pictures at UCI fraternity and sorority events, can get you 100 to 150 dollars a night. Other club members have gotten internships with professional photographers as well.

In terms of showing their work, the club has never put on any exhibitions. But as they continue to work with Rudy Vega, they may end up showing some prints on campus in the future. For now, the group’s Facebook page acts as their own personal gallery. Anyone who is a member is free to post pictures the wall, whether the photos were taken during a club meeting or not. Other members post approving comments and give advice, making their Facebook page something like a virtual exhibit.

Back on campus, the drizzling rain is starting to pick up into a mild pour as the photography troupe heads down ring road. No one has brought an umbrella. But both Brian and Sir have carefully tied plastic grocery bags or Ziploc bags around their lenses in an effort to keep the water out. The water dripping down their faces and soaking their clothes does not seem to bother them; their eyes are too busy looking for that perfect shot.

Sir Abille is especially involved in these photo walks. He constantly trails off from the rest of the group, to be found 50 feet away, crouching over with his camera thrust inches away from the face of some beautiful flower. He’s in a world of his own. “You worry about nothing else,” he says, explaining why he loves these events. “You just take pictures.”

As fanatical and nerdy as the meetings can get, the Photography club members know how to have fun too. Sometimes meetings cross the border into just plain hangouts. Model shoots turn into parties, photo walks turn into dinner gatherings. For the latest event, Adib said he would be, “buying some good Mexican food catering so we can make this whole meeting into the best meeting EVER!!!” They know how to balance out the intensity of their borderline addiction to photography with a fun-loving, welcoming, laid back attitude. “People are friendly,” Brian says, “they’re enthusiastic about photography without being elitist.”

Reporting Notes:

One hour long interview and one 30 minute interview with Adib Towfiq

A lengthy interview with Sir Abille

A lengthy interview with Brian Smith

Two and half hours of observation


The Photography Club at UCI website

The UCI web page on campus organizations

Facebook messages from the Photography Club

Photographs from Adib, Brian, and Sir