Back in September of 2015, I wrote a post for this very blog titled "Liberal Arts From Every Angle," detailing a handful of memorable experiences that I had during my time as a student worker for Luther College’s Visual Media department. Now, as a graduate and employee of the college, I have spent the last eleven months doing much of the same work, but in a slightly different context. Rather than producing general marketing material such as athletics photos and campus scenes, I find that I am doing much more editorial work that’s geared toward more specific purposes.
One of my first major photo assignments as a fellow was to document the removal of the damaged statue of Oedipus and Antigone. The above photo, taken toward the end of the removal process, shows the "Oedipus" portion of the statue lying face-up on the sidewalk shortly after being lowered to the ground.
It was through this assignment that I was made aware of a glaringly obvious fact that goes largely unacknowledged by most: statues are heavy. Since we rarely, if ever, see casted metal statues move, we subconsciously perceive them as static entities and don’t really think about their weight. Whether it was the size of the crane that it took to get the statue off the ground or the number of people that it took to move it aside once suspended, it was humbling -- dare I say, intimidating -- to actually perceive the weight of this statue. Because of this, there was something profound about seeing this massive statue lying prone on its back- to stand over a statue that once towered over myself. It is also worth mentioning that, as quoted from the Luther website, “The sculpture depicts Oedipus as he is about to enter the olive grove and gain release from his life of suffering and agony.” Needless to say, I found a parallel there.
While I am my own biggest critic, I will say that this is one of the more iconic photos that I have taken in my time at Luther. Despite the brilliant sun rays and the almost ethereal glow that was brought on by the dense morning fog, the story behind this photo is a surprisingly dark one.
Back in August of 2016, shortly before this photo was taken, Decorah was hit with intense flooding, and my basement studio apartment was not spared. While I narrowly avoided any major financial or material loss, I did find myself displaced for a little more than a week. This, combined with other things that were happening at the time, took its toll on my well-being. I wasn't sleeping much, and when I was, it was far from restful.
After one such sleepless night, I decided that my best option was to head to work early and see if being productive would put me at ease. It was that morning, just before 7 a.m., that I noticed this scene while walking into the Union. At first, I thought it looked nice -- nice enough to get me to take my camera out of my bag -- but that was about it. It wasn't until I snapped a few photos and saw them on my camera's screen that I realized just how magnificent the scene before me really was.
Having experience in multiple artistic disciplines (music is my first love), I've begun to notice a correlation between tragedy and beauty. From Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto in E minor, written in the aftermath of the first World War, to the number of Pulitzer Prize-winning photos from this past year which depict atrocities from around the world, there's something about tragic events that seem to prime our capacity for creativity.
The specificity of my assignments has definitely allowed me to push myself creatively. Back in October of 2016, I was assigned to take some promotional photos for the Luther Visual and Performing Arts department’s production of "Who Do You Trust?" to be used on a poster for the event.
While the VPA department did have some input on the photos, such as having them in black and white and feature the dancers in pairs, the rest was up to me. At first, I decided to have each of the pairs of dancers show me a portion of their routine, and I made note of any significant poses or moves. Specifically, I was looking for poses that featured the profiles of both of the dancers.
Not only did this introduce an element of continuity between all of the photos, but I also used as a means of portraying in a simple and direct way the most important element of the dance: the interaction between the two dancers. With all of the dancers’ heads at a strict 90 degree angle to the camera, the element of interaction comes naturally. In most of the photos, for example, the dancers are directly facing each other, though in a few photos, the two are facing the same direction or even away from each other, which made for a nice variety of photos.
As a music student, I never had the chance to photograph a Christmas at Luther rehearsal, since I was always in one of the choirs. It wasn't until last November that I finally had the opportunity to do so. Since this one rehearsal was my only chance to get photos of Christmas at Luther, I initially went into it in a bit of a panic. For the first few songs, I found myself firing off as many photos as I could, worried that I wouldn’t get enough photos by the end of the night. While a Christmas at Luther rehearsal is a fast-paced event for photographers, I eventually found that my frenzied photography was actually counterproductive.
It was upon this realization that I found myself directly behind the conductor’s podium in time for a mass piece, a piece which involves the orchestra and all six choirs (and, in some cases, even the audience). During a piece of this nature, I could have run to any number of locations to start rattling off photos, but I decided against my own panicked instincts to stay put and let a photo op come to me. It was during that piece that I took the above photo.
Admittedly, I do also have my time as a music student to thank for the photo. After slowing down and giving myself time to process the situation, I used my four years of Christmas at Luther experience to predict when the conductor would cue a choir that was singing from the balcony behind me. By doing this, I was able to capture a rare combination of the face of the conductor and the expanse of musicians behind them. Most of the time, the conductor is facing away from the audience, so this made for a new and refreshing perspective.
These are just a few examples of the many settings in which I've found myself as the visual media fellow. From venturing into the forests that surround campus to climbing onto the roof of the library (with the aid and clearance of campus security, of course), this position has taken me to a multitude of places and situations that are either inaccessible or often overlooked by most at Luther.
Will Heller, Luther College class of 2016, graduated with a major in music and a minor in management. He is working in the Visual Media department as the Visual Media Fellow, supervising a team of "rockstar" student workers. As a student, Will worked as a photographer for the Luther College Photo Bureau for two years, including working for the Visual Media Department during the summer of 2015. His work has been featured in publications such as the Decorah Journal, the Des Moines Register, the Luther Alumni Magazine and Private University Magazine. Check out more of his work on his website.