Every once in a great while, if you are lucky, during the course of your schooling, at any level of that schooling, you might intersect with a great teacher. And that teacher asks you questions, involves you, shapes your furious thoughts and aspirations, and calms the hubris of a young mind always teetering on the brink of the truly foolish action, like quitting the endeavor entirely. Good teachers open doors. They make sense of ramshackle, unformed thoughts. And by dint of their patience, and with the certainty of knowledge acquired over time, they allow the young student to become that which they might hope to be. Or, at least give it a shot.
Fred Demarest allowed me to become a photographer.
I was a good student in high school, largely out of fear. If you didn’t perform up to expectations, or if you were guilty of conduct they deemed unbecoming, the Irish Christian Brothers would often remind you of their exacting standards with a good crack to the head or jaw. If my mother got wind of wrongdoing or lackluster efforts in the classroom, she would simply continue at home the job the brothers started in class. Hence, for the most part, I did well. I could tell you I possessed an eager young mind, keen on learning. I’d be lying. I just didn’t want to get the shit kicked out of me.
College arrived, and I was woefully unprepared. I don’t remember much of my freshman year. (Hey, it was 1970.) I traveled through college in fairly shiftless fashion, enrolled as a writing major in J-school, and was academically undistinguished. But then, I was required to take a photography class, in my junior year, and I instantly committed to another direction. Which meant I had to take another class, which was not allowed for non-photo majors.
Enter Fred Demarest.
Fred didn’t start the photography program at Syracuse University. But he came aboard when it was an infant, and he shaped it, designed it, taught the classes, mixed the chemistry, administered the budget and forged it into what it remains todayâ€”one of the top photo programs in the country. When he started, he thought he’d be there a couple years. He retired as chairman of the department, 34 years later.
About 1960, Si Newhouse came to SU with cash and a mandate to create the Newhouse School of Journalism and it fell to Fred to design the space for the photo program, which had matured into a full blown sequence in the context of the journalism school. It became, in the building known as Newhouse One, physically the biggest department in the school, with wet darkrooms, space for nascent color printing technology, and of course a studio. Fred wanted a story and a half for the shooting space, but the building folks told him it was two stories or nothing. He then negotiated the installation of a balcony, so students could experiment with bounced light. It remains today, as he configured it. “Lots of the other faculty members didn’t like the studio, because it was basically a big hole in the middle of the building,” Fred says now, with a chuckle.
Fred was close with Arthur Rothstein, whose work for the FSA defined his career. On Rothstein’s recommendation, the US military, who felt their photojournalists were undertrained, spoke with Fred, among other educators, and he designed for them what has come to be known simply as “the military program,” ongoing to this day. It has trained hundreds of combat camera men and women, who, after a year in upstate NY, are spun out to the far reaches of the globe, better equipped to tell the story of life in uniform.
It is hard to overestimate his significance as a photo educator. The program he started growing in 1956 has produced the likes of Ed Kashi, Clint Clemens, Stephen Wilkes, Seth Resnick, Clem Murray, Bob Sacha, and Eric Meola. He brought notable photographers such as Karsh and Larry Burrows in to lecture, enlarging and enhancing the student’s view of what photography could do. He believed fiercely, and still does, in the power of the picture, writing a significant tome for the ASMP he called “The Three C’sâ€”Creativity, Communication, and Craftmanship.” All are linked, all work together. Important C’s to remember in this, the age of pictures that begins with a big, capital D.
You had to get to know Fred a bit to truly appreciate his gifts as a teacher. By virtue of his nephew actually going through the program, he became known as Uncle Fred, and given his status as Chairman, his admin duties often overwhelmed his time in class and presence in the lab. There were other profs more dashing and charismatic, to be sure. But none approached his skills at refining a young photographer’s intentions, and hooking raw, unhinged photo notions to the larger vehicle of a project or a story. He calmed you down, and redirected you. So quietly, sometimes, that at the end of a semester’s efforts, you would pat yourself on the back and think, wow, glad I thought to do it that way! And really, it was Fred, all the while, pushing you towards hoped for excellence.
Given the onus of chairmanship, he reveled in the Syracuse program abroad, where he could escape into the smaller setting of the photo program based in London, and spend a semester with 15 students, as opposed to lecturing 50 at a clip in an auditorium. That is where we all got to know Fred, not just as a professor, but as a friend. In 1974, I went with him to London, my first year of graduate work in photojournalism. He gave me nine free credits, and the London program paid me five pounds a week to run the lab and maintain the chemistry. It was there that I first really embraced the struggle to try to be good enough at this to actually do it. It’s a struggle that, trust me, is ongoing.
But, he opened the door to that wickedly wonderful, lifelong tussle with a camera. I didn’t have the grades or the portfolio to be admitted to the graduate program in photojournalism. I used to sleep in his Photo 302 class quite regularly, not a fault of his, but a byproduct of me burning not just the ends, but the entire candle my senior year, trying to graduate. He perhaps, in his patient and insightful way, might have seen a glimmer, a faint hope.
Fred is 88 now, and still looks the same as he did all those years ago. He hired Tony Golden, who became the chairman after Fred. Tony has now given way to Bruce Strong. Time flies. The program remains strong, and has more students than ever.
I made the portraits above just a couple weeks ago, when Annie and I went to Syracuse for a brief stint. It was, perhaps, my way of thanking him. As a teacher, he gave me the benefits of his patience and wisdom, and withheld his doubts, which he no doubt had.
Your time with a good teacher is short, perhaps, but the gifts they give you last forever.
What a wonderful tribute. The portraits ain’t too shabby, either . . .
Beautiful story… wise words and so very true. Thank You
Stu Elwing says
Joe, this is one of your best blogs ever, both the words and the images. Thank you.
Thank you for a very thoughtful and reflective piece.
Great tribute! Thank you for sharing!
John Keane says
Thanks for sharing such a great story. I had many thoughts flash through my head as I read it. 12 years of Catholic school probably has something to do with my empathy for your early “education”.
I couldn’t help think that the sleepy senior in PJ school has now become, however humble, the inspiration and professor to so many thousands of students across the globe – through the wonders of the internet and DVDs. I’m sure Fred is proud.
I’m grateful that you share your thoughts and lessons so eloquently – and without the pain of the yardstick!
It’s great to come across a write-up of a legend from Syracuse – I was always jealous of the PJ guys while I was hammering away on my program across the quad.
I hope that your time in Syracuse (back then and recently) included a stop by the Community Darkrooms, one of my favorite places in the world for printing and talking shop…and then my employer for a while back before the digital age changed everything!
Thanks for the post.
Well done, Joe.
And, Irish Christian Brothers… yeah. I know, man. I know.
Tyler Vance says
Great teachers can make all the difference in a career.
I remember a great guy at a photo workshop in Ireland a few years ago–think is name was Joe…
My high school offered photography, well mainly in the form of the school paper & yearbook. Offering cameras & film to use and “the darkroom’s over there” was how I remember the processing part. But what Mr Echols really excelled at was giving us the opportunity to shoot a variety of assignments, including a press conference with (back then) VP Spiro Agnew. And my photo made the front page of the hometown paper – which was so exciting.
Then, the photo instructor at my local community college did the same sort of thing, enabled me. I signed up for the beginning photo class & next thing ya know I’m the photo lab tech, a paid position. Helping students, mixing up the sauces & checking out equipment, it was OJT at its best.
Frank Burch says
Wonderful story Joe. I passed this on to several teachers and they were all touched by your gracious retrospection. This thoughtful narrative certainly transcends photography. If you ever find yourself too feeble to lift the camera, I truly hope you will continue to lift the pen.
DR Chevalier says
A great post sir, and a wonderful reminder to be thankful to all of those who guided, cajoled, encouraged and smacked us as we all work to be better at our craft.
So grateful to Fred since he inspired you who inspires and teaches so many of us… Thanks to the teachers like Fred and you who steady the nerves of the students 🙂
Thanks so much for this blog entry! I think it’s the best you’ve written, but them I’m biased… I’m a former teacher. I really felt your passion showing through your writing as well as the photos you made. Inspirational teaching does that to people. Keep that tradition alive!
Jim Meyers says
Nice one, Joe. The reverence is palpable. Deservedly so.
Though we think of you first as a photgrapher, then as a teacher, your essay proves you also are a wordsmith. As a former editor who loves to tinker with photography, I tip my hat to Joe the Writer. A wonderful tribute.
Wolfgang Lonien says
Good one, Joe – bravo!
John Skinner says
Very heartfelt Joe.
But if I may. I believe that many people could have gone through this program just as you, and never really made a difference one way or another. The real testament to Fred and his influence is what he’s created that carry’s him forward.
You have truly created some of the most iconic images of my 53 years on earth. I can remember them as if yesterday on covers as I grew up. How wonderful is it that without all of these small and seemingly insignificant little orchestras, none of it would have happened.
Thank God that people like Frank ran onto someone like Joe, who made the images I grew up with..
Tom McKean says
Joe. Thanks for a wonderful insight to a man who has shaped your career as a photojournalist.
Very cool story.
And by the way Joe, your teaching ability, wisdom and inspiration aint too shabby either.
Joe McNally says
many thanks Simon…hope things are good down under!!!
Hannes Uys says
Joe what an awesome story of true passion that planted the seeds for future greatness. Fibre that legends are made of. Thank you again for sharing so much soul. ~H.
Mike Dziak says
I’d love to have this man come down to Buffalo to talk to our camera club. I’m sure our members could learn loads from him
How do I reach him to see if he’d be interested?
John Tebbetts says
Interesting, Joe, how motivational fear of an ass kicking can be. Even more interesting how quality people don’t forget where they came from and graciously acknowledge those that brought them to the party. Great piece…and portrait.
Heh, had to break out the big lights and the PWs to shoot the teach ;).
Dan Berry says
Excellent. I am so proud that you did this now while he can enjoy the article, I was afraid it was going to be his obit. I just last month reconnected with my main teacher. He remembered me and we have been emailing like crazy. Great article Thank You for sharing.
Elevon Consulting says
so lucky to have someone like that walk into your life. All it takes is one person to make a difference.
Great pictures btw.
Man for a moment I thought that was David Ziser……lol….great write up 🙂
Very different from my experience … in Grad School. In photography.
Mine came in High School. My football coach, my math teacher, and his wife, my English teacher. They took me in, helped me, taught me, shaped me …
My teachers in my M.A. Program in Photography? … Twenty years later … not so much. Now, as a middle school teacher and part-time photography instructor at a small Community College, I remember that …
Great article … Great program. Although I grew up in Up-State(way Up-state)NY in Pulaski … and worked as a civilian photographer for the Department of the Army in Germany, I never had the chance to attend SU.
Wish I did …
Steve Mac says
Hi Joe..I read your post out to my eldest daughter this morning..she teaches high school and had been through a “tough” day at school with some of her students yesterday. Your post brought a smile to her face and her comment was”Yes Dad..thats why I started teaching in the first place!” Thanks for a great post..often its only as we grow older we see the big picture of the influences in our lives.
At 55 it makes we want to go back to college.
Mark Carruthers says
Joe… Wonderful way to thank a pioneer in the field. Must admit, I didn’t know you attended SY… I just moved you up another notch!
Kristin Linnea Backe says
My piano teacher, M, was a lifesaver almost. Nothing like a good dose of skill, patience and kindness. Wonderful pictures, of course. Thank you for sharing.
Thank you for that wonderful tribute to my Uncle. I am one of Fred’s 7 nieces and nephews and he has been a great inspiration and uncle to us all. I am glad that he has been appreciated by so many.
Dennis Pike says
Everyone who comes out of Syracuse, not just S.U. Is harder, weather beaten if you will. Shooting in the middle of December or January won’t build character… it will reveal it.
I spent 20 years living in the Syracuse area. It certainly shaped me.
Thank you very much. Uncle Fred’s nieces and nephews really enjoyed reading this and seeing the great photos of our uncle.
Robert Austin Fitch says
Joe, What a fantastic tribute to an influential teacher. For those lucky enough to interact with a truly gifted and inspirational teacher, the experience is often profoundly life changing. Cheers, Rob
Anthony Shealy says
Such a great tribute! A wonderful story!
Bobbi Lane says
Joe, this was wonderful! I am still in touch with my first photo teacher, Ralph Mercer, and we get together on a fairly regular basis. I’m sure that learning from a great teacher helped you not only become a great photographer (or one who is still trying to be good enough! LOL! I can relate!) but also to be the great teacher and communicator that you are today. The best part of this is that he gets to see you now, see the photo that you created of him, and read the wonderful, kind and touching words about what he means to you. I regret not letting some of my past influential teachers let then know how much they touched me until it was too late. Let this blog be an inspiration to all of us to let these important people in our lives know how much we love and appreciate them. Thanks, Joe.
Nice one:) Thank you for sharing:)
Gabe Palacio says
A great piece and so good to see Fred just as I remember him too. It was his photo 301 that inspired me from a journalism major to a PJ major as well.
Fred, if your reading this — Thanks for inspiring another photographer.
Darren Nunis says
Thanks for sharing Joe. Just want to say that just as Fred was an inspiration to you, you too are an inspiration to many of us.
robert quiet photographer says
A great tribute, for sure he was a good teacher. And you have been a good student 🙂
Cesar Barroso says
Great to read such a beautiful piece on gratitude.