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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
Photographer Stephen DiRado and biochemistry and studio art major Mary Badon share an interest in documentary photography. While DiRado finds inspiration close to home in Worcester, Mary photographed exotic wildlife on an island off the Panamanian coast.

Meet the artists: The sky's his limit

Interview with Professor Stephen DiRado
Massachusetts native Stephen DiRado has been experimenting with photography since he was 12, and conveying his love for the art form to students at Clark since the early 1980s. His photographic career took off in the 1990s with a series of photographs he created around two celestial events. This year he received a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council for his "Dinner Table" series. In a recent conversation, summarized below, he discussed his photography, and how teaching strengthens the practice of his craft.

Stephen, what drew you to becoming a photographer?

My father was an artist, and for 34 years he worked for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the Department of Public Works. He created renderings of what new interstate highways would look like in the context of the landscape. These drawings were published in the Boston Globe in the 1960s and 70s. All my formative years he brought his work home, and worked in his home studio. I watched him draw and paint; he was very good at portraiture. He taught me at a very early age how to draw realistically, to the point where I was getting $1 commissions in grade school!

My dad used a camera for note taking in his studio. I loved looking at it, loved its technology. Often I'd go into work with him, and visit the photography labs. It was very exciting and immediate. But he wouldn't let me use the camera until I was about 12. He said photography was expensive, making art with a pencil was cheaper. My first chance to use his camera, I photographed the night sky. I was an astronomy buff at that time. I set the camera up on a tripod in my parent's backyard. Opening the shutter for long durations, I made time exposures capturing star trails. Soon I started to photograph friends and family at gatherings. In my high school I found an abandoned darkroom and was given the opportunity to resurrect it. I started a photography club and supervised the darkroom for the next couple of years. I had enough technical skills to also work for the local paper.

After high school I went to the School of the Worcester Art Museum. I studied photography and painting. Eventually I went to Massachusetts College of Art in Boston and concentrated in photography, graduating in 1981. Not long after, I started teaching at Clark.

Are there particular subjects or techniques that you like to explore?

I have many different styles and many different interests. One interest that has never left me is the stars. Periodically, if there's a celestial event, the camera comes out. I photographed the two comets that appeared in 1996 and 1997, Comet Hyakutake and Comet Hale-Bopp. Those photographs were very successful and went a long way to advance my career. Professor Munro in the theater department gets credit for that, because in 1996, when Comet Hyakutake adorned the evening sky, he asked me to come to Martha's Vineyard and photograph it--to record it for him and our friends. I said to him, condescendingly, 'That's baloney, that's astro photography. I'm an artist and I make meaningful narratives.' He said, 'Shut up, just do it for your friends!'

So we went to the island over a long weekend to photograph a comet. Normally I photograph with a very large, cumbersome, 8x10 view camera; film holders and tripod. I like the methodical, slow way, of working with that camera. But I couldn't use it to shoot a comet. The films produced for it are slow. And the lenses on these cameras are not fast or large enough to record the dim light from stars or comets. So, I borrowed my wife's 35mm camera, and used the latest in high-speed films. The result was a series of photos that went way beyond my expectations. I had no idea they were going to be so popular.

When Hale-Bopp came along the next year, I knew exactly what to do. I tracked where the comet was going to be in the sky from night to night, as well as the weather conditions and phases of the moon. I wanted to insure that the sky would be at its maximum darkness when I photographed, so the comet would really stand out. By 1997,I was living part-time on Martha's Vineyard, so I had great dark locations for backdrops. There's another comet coming next year, May 2004, that I'm looking forward to photographing.

In my heart, though, I would say that I'm a social-documentary photographer. I love people, and the environments they claim as their own. I work very slowly, making records of some subjects over a long period of time. Some I have stayed in contact with for 15 years or so. I like to make repeated visits; eat, talk, watch movies with them, and study how they live and what kinds of changes come about. I use the big camera to capture in great detail all that I want to say with the greatest of details.

I was raised within a Roman Catholic family. We are a large family, adding up to 60 plus members, including aunts, uncles, first and second cousins. We would at the drop of a hat get together for dinner on weekends. And they're wonderful dinners, right out of the movies. All those Italian movies you see--it's true, it's all true! And they do all yell at one another, but they're very passionate and love one another. Somewhere in my history as photographer I wanted to record it. Again, I used my large format camera to depict the details of the table; the people and the foods. I remember printing my first image, inspecting it, and I thought, there's something more to this than just a table and cannolis. The photograph was rich with activity, very much the same emotions we'd see in a Renaissance paintings. There was a narrative, a story about the people and the foods they shared. So, began the development of a new project. I gave it a title: Diner Table Series. It expanded beyond my family's table and encompassed, friends, acquaintances, and students, all of us sharing food, and great conversation. In recent years I introduced dramatic lighting in order to accent the table dynamics. I studied paintings; the narrative you'd see in a Tintoretto and the lighting in a Caravaggio. I use flash bulbs and 1940s technology to get a desired effect. This project is now 19 years in the making--an epic project. This past year I received a Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowship in honor of it.

Why do you choose to work in black and white?

I'm colorblind. I'm insensitive toward pinks, reds, and greenish-browns. I tend to wash color out in my brain, and think in values, shades of grays, instead of hues. But mostly I work in black and white because color photographs aren't as permanent. I'm on a mission. I'm on a life-long mission to document the social environment of our era. I want my photos to live--long after I'm gone. And I really mean that. I'm very passionate about it. For me, it's not about money; it's not even about art in some ways. It's about cataloging the things that surround our lives--right now! Take the Dinner Table series as an example. Twenty years ago, many of the people around the table were smoking. We don't see that, much anymore. Twenty years ago we saw soft drinks like Jolt and Tab--Tab doesn't exist anymore. Now we're seeing at the table water bottles. The bottles of wine we consumed in the past are different than the ones we drink now, all because we make more money, we are getting older, thus more selective in what we drink; the clothing, the hairstyles, the table settings, and presentation of the meals show the general aging of the group that I hang around with. These are things I want future historians to look at. In many of the same ways we look back at Renaissance paintings, to learn something about the daily life of that time. Color, to me, has nothing to do this inventory process.

Do you think being colorblind actually helps you as a black and white photographer?

Yes. It gets me off the hook! Color has become very, very popular the past few years. The contribution of digital technology to color photography has been phenomenal. If I were starting out, I would probably stay with color. It's the medium of the new generation. I'm an anachronism--I even go back before my age group, to the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.

Does working with students help you grow as a photographer?

Yes. These guys keep me honest. I work seven days a week, year-round. I push my medium constantly. I feel if the day ever comes when I stop making images, or thinking in imagery, I have no business teaching. I'm struggling that day, that hour, even within moments of the class and it's very fresh and very alive and very contemporary. These guys keep me young, and keep me current. They make me educate myself and reinvent myself all the time, so I can bring that back to the classroom.

 

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