Photographer Accra Shepp to Teach Learning by Looking

Accra Shepp

Accra Shepp

Reported by Raleigh McElvery ’16

Inviting people to learn with their eyes is a big part of Accra Shepp’s mission. A photographer, educator, social documentarian, and soon-to-be Visiting Artist In Residence at Bowdoin, Shepp records the natural and social phenomena that surround him, bringing those subjects into focus for others.

“One of the responsibilities that you have when you’re an artist is to see the world ‘officially,’” Shepp said during his Nov. 19 lecture in the Digital Media Lab of the Edwards Center, sponsored by the Visual Arts Department.

Shepp, a professor at Pratt Institute, will teach all of Bowdoin’s photography classes (two per semester) during Spring and Fall 2014, as a visiting replacement for Associate Professor of Art Michael Kolster, who will be on leave during that time while working on a Guggenheim-funded photography project.

Shepp has been affiliated with a wide range of prestigious institutions such as Princeton University and Rhode Island School of Design, and has worked with collections in world-class museums — including The Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He has an impressive record of exhibitions, including an upcoming solo show at the Queens Museum in February 2014.

One of Shepp’s recent endeavors, he said, is a series of color images illustrating the islands of New York pre- and post-Hurricane Sandy. Shepp used sheets of film to portray this area’s lesser-known waterfronts, and to explore the fallibility of sight. By intentionally leaving breaches between film panels as he pieced together multiple images, Shepp mimicked the gaps in the visual cortex. “Human vision doesn’t need to be perfect,” he said. “[It] just needs to be good enough.”

In some cases, the camera allowed Shepp to show viewers realities that were not otherwise available to their unaided vision — panoramas greater than 180 degrees, or the merging of two disparate angles, for example. In his talk Shepp prompted audience members to continually look harder, using their eyes to discern subtle nuances of meaning. For instance, in several of his photographs the waterfront is distant and obscure — a reference to the historically negative attitudes of New Yorkers who regarded the water with disdain.

Though Shepp initially intended to chronicle New York’s geography so “we could all understand it better,” his project assumed a more solemn tone after Hurricane Sandy. The tragedy demonstrated to many the importance of seeing and understanding the landscape in which they live, he said. Harnessing the value of thorough vision, an idea Shepp said he adopted long ago, is one that he continues to advocate through his work.

Shepp visited the College not only to present a lecture but also to visit photography classes, meet with students as they registered for spring classes, and begin getting to know the community he will soon join.  “He will be an important member of the visual arts division of the art department,” Kolster said of Shepp, “and his presence will constitute a significant contribution to the artistic and intellectual dialogue at the College.”

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