Life lessons from a photography teacher's darkroom

To set up a really good photography program would cost $250,000, Howard Wallach estimated. But his Brooklyn public high school had only $75 to spare.

"I said, 'Great,' and took it," Mr. Wallach says, remembering back to 1983. And then - through wheedling, borrowing, networking, relying on friends, and expending enormous amounts of personal time and money - Wallach built a darkroom for his school and put himself into business.

Today, as he prepares to retire, he is known as one of the most successful high school photography teachers in the country. Over the course of 20 years, his students have won almost 300 of the prestigious Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, setting a national record for students under one teacher.

He himself is the only teacher in the 80-year history of the Scholastic Awards to become a 10-time winner of the Lois Vinette Award for educators whose students have produced the best overall work.

In addition, he has seen many of his students take other top photography prizes and go on to careers as professional photographers, photo editors, and photography teachers.

In many ways, Wallach's story defies expectations. His school - Abraham Lincoln High School - is an elderly urban behemoth in a down-at-the-heels corner of Coney Island. His students are generally not candidates carefully selected for their promise.

Although some do apply because they've heard of the program, a large number of slots still are filled by special-education students, those with limited English proficiency, and those doing poorly in other classes.

"I've had felons on parole," Wallach says with a rueful smile. "I had a homeless girl who went on to win awards. I've had many kids who don't get enough to eat." Like his students, Wallach also grew up in Brooklyn, and attended a large public high school.

He remembers being miserable.

"I always hated school and I always hated my teachers," he recalls. "I held them in contempt."

After high school, he longed to become a race-car driver but settled for college instead, pursuing an unusual double major of humanities and mechanical engineering at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y. Later he began a master's degree in English literature.

His main concern, however, was avoiding the Vietnam War, and that was why he began teaching high school English.

But much to his surprise, that was where he found his calling. Wallach stepped in front of his first class and suddenly kids who normally slept with their heads on their desks were alert and smiling. His particular blend of intellect, wry New York humor, and ironic gesticulation - à la Woody Allen - seemed to captivate.

Put the hard work first

After teaching English for 15 years, Wallach felt a restless desire to switch disciplines. He wondered about capitalizing on his self-taught expertise in photography.

It was a subject, he felt, that could grab students who were otherwise disengaged from school.

At the same time, he says, he saw it as a powerful platform from which to teach crucial life lessons - "to work hard, to turn things in on time, to learn to cope with loss and setbacks." Wallach's teaching method involves putting the hard work first.

Students who sign up for his Photo I class - offered to any interested student in grades 9-12 - must start by absorbing lectures on the mechanics of photography.

Some find it a tough beginning, but the highest hurdle is a pair of exams. One is a safety test on photographic chemicals and proper darkroom procedures. The other is what Wallach calls "the big test" - an exam on the basics of photography.

The tests are offered weekly throughout the semester and students may take them as often as they like. But they may not enter the darkroom until they have passed both.

For many students, it's a grueling introduction, but for some it's also a powerful motivational experience.

"I studied for this test like I never studied for anything else," says freshman Vance Bostic, who freely admits he's failing most of his other classes. "I usually don't participate in my classes, but this was different. I started seeing the other kids going into the darkroom and I wanted to do that, too."

After Photo I, Wallach teaches a constantly changing succession of Advanced Photography courses. Because each is different, students may take a new class each semester as long as they're in school.

For many students who take several Wallach classes, the jury-rigged yet oddly sophisticated darkroom he built out of an old mechanical-drawing classroom becomes an emotional and academic hub, and sometimes also a refuge.

Here the students - to some degree - are in charge. They are allowed to listen to whatever music they choose and work largely autonomously.

Wallach is ever-present but sits amid a cluttered collection of posters and photographic equipment, keeping a sardonic eye on the students who swirl around him in a lively tangle of baggy jeans and T-shirts.

He is constantly being asked to dispense Band-Aids and bathroom passes, critique photos, answer darkroom questions, and sometimes just lend an ear to personal concerns that may begin with statements like, "Hey, I had to see a doctor yesterday," or "I'm worried about my other classes."

But Wallach also gives his students considerable freedom to work on their own, sometimes helping each other and, when necessary, learning from their own mistakes.

The darkroom is often open late, with Wallach still there, sometimes until midnight, to give students plenty of time for lab work and - along the way - emotional bonding.

"Once you [take a Wallach class] it's like you enter into a whole new world," says Joseph Rodriguez, a former Wallach student finishing up his first year at New York's esteemed School of Visual Arts.

"People I met in other classes were just acquaintances. This was my family."

The bulk of the work is hands-on photography. The students receive assignments like "Make photographs in which line disappears," or "Make photographs that make the unbeautiful beautiful." Or - quoting from Picasso - "Make a photograph/object/thing which 'represents the accumulated remembered experiences which constitute knowledge of a subject.' "

Whatever he does, it appears to work. "When I got to the photo classes in college, I was at the top of the game," says Shamara Minto, a former Wallach student who's now in her third year at the School of Visual Arts.

In fact, she says, it's been hard not to be restless. "[Wallach] was more hands-on as a teacher and his critiques were more powerful" than she experiences now.

What Wallach teaches "puts us far ahead of other kids," agrees Atif Ahmad, another former student who just finished his first year studying photography at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

The importance of fitting art in

The network of Wallach graduates is extensive. Some have gone on to work for major New York-based publications like Sports Illustrated, W, Newsweek, and Maxim. Others have set up their own studios or freelance businesses.

Wallach frequently asks his alumni to bring their expertise back to his program.

But his own reputation as a gifted teacher has also enabled him to attract some famed photographers - names like Richard Avedon, Mary Ellen Mark, Arnold Newman, and Jay Maisel - to visit his classes and work with students.

One of Wallach's former students will be teaching in his place next year. It's a big job, and only getting harder, Wallach says.

Proposed cuts in the vocational-education budget may threaten the program's funding and the current focus on standardized testing makes it tough for students to fit art classes into their already packed schedules.

Some have to give up lunch to make it work.

Wallach says he may now try to take his own pictures - something for which his work has left him little time. But that's not important, he insists.

"These students," he says proudly, gesturing toward the lively group of teens brushing past him as they study negatives and earnestly discuss lighting, "they are my real product."

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