Daring Greatly by Theodore Roosevelt


President Theodore Roosevelt, Photograph by Pach Brothers Studio, New York, c. August 15, 1913

President Theodore Roosevelt, Photograph by Pach Brothers Studio, New York, c. August 15, 1913 (Library of Congress image link)

I have spent the few free moments I have had this week, totally engrossed in Ken Burns’ latest film The Roosevelts, An Intimate History currently being broadcast on public television. The film presents, in seven parts, the lives of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, three members of the most prominent and influential family in American politics. An amazing and moving film.

In the final minutes of episode two, we are presented with what is perhaps one of the most memorable things Theodore Roosevelt’s may have ever penned. He writes:
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Goodbye and Thank you Dr. Zakia

Richard Zakia with then student Andrew Davidhazy. Photograph courtesy Andrew Davidhazy

Richard Zakia (R) in the classroom with student Andrew Davidhazy. Professor Davidhazy went on to become a respected teacher at RIT. Photograph courtesy Andrew Davidhazy

This appreciation originally appeared on this blog in March 2012.

I have been thinking a lot about teachers and teaching lately with the passing of a favorite college professor of mine. Richard D. Zakia, who I had the privilege of studying with when I was a graduate student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, passed away on March 12, 2012 at the age of 87.

Dr. Z, as his students would call him, was amazing in many ways. While he began his work life as a photographic engineer at Eastman Kodak he, luckily for us, came to teaching in 1957, beginning his career at RIT where I later came to know him. He was a man who had his feet planted firmly in two worlds; one in the technical world of photography, being able to explain the nuisances of sensitometry—the study of the action of light and chemistry on photographic materials—and the other planted in the world of aesthetics trying to understand through gestalt psychology and semiotics not only what photographs mean but also why they are visually organized the way they are.

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Off to College

Rebekkah Varjabedian and newborn goat, Picacho, New Mexico 2010 by Craig Varjabedian

Rebekkah Varjabedian and newborn goat, Picacho, New Mexico 2010 by Craig Varjabedian

My daughter Rebekkah leaves for college this week. As I contemplate the impending goodbye that will take place in a few days, I am grateful that she turned out to be such a kind, thoughtful and incredibly capable young woman. While I know it will be sad for her mother and I (and her Aunt Cindy too) when she leaves for school, the excitement of what I know lies ahead for her allays my sadness. The photograph above, made a few years ago, foretells her life’s passion, that of becoming a healer of animals—a veterinarian. And in her caring for all creatures great and small, I know she will find her true bliss.


An Elegy for a Printer Named Cottonwood

Cottonwood No. 5, Autumn, nr. La Cienega, New Mexico 1996 Photograph ©Craig Varjabedian

Cottonwood No. 5, Autumn, nr. La Cienega, New Mexico 1996 Photograph ©Craig Varjabedian

The printing presses ceased to roll at Cottonwood Printing Company this past Friday. The firm was forced to close its doors after thirty-five years due to the City of Albuquerque condemning the property where the plant is located. The city wants (needs?) to put a road over a water diversion channel and it seems that the Cottonwood plant is in the way of the growing needs of the city.

I began my adventure with Cottonwood in 1994 when the firm printed a brochure for a one-person exhibition of mine at the Albuquerque Museum. It was there that I first met Victor Scherzinger and a great friendship began. And over time, as the business grew and changed, Victor brought on two partners, first Blake Thies, a wizard of the accounts and later his wife Christina whom I have often called the heart of Cottonwood Printing. Over twenty years we created many beautiful things together—calendars and notecards and even a book—a duotone volume for an exhibition of mine that was assembled by the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center titled By the Grace of Light: Images of Faith from Catholic New Mexico.

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Discovery Excites Me to Focus

San José de Gracia Church, Late afternoon light, Las Trampas, New Mexico 2014    Photograph ©Craig Varjabedian

San José de Gracia Church, Late afternoon light, Las Trampas, New Mexico 2014 Photograph ©Craig Varjabedian

I have been rereading the Daybooks of Edward Weston lately; the great photographer’s journals that I first read while I was a beginning photography student at the University of Michigan many years ago. Weston’s writing is thoughtful and perceptive and I have found myself, over the years, returning to the books many times for inspiration, clarity and solace. A quote by Weston came to mind the other day while I was making the photograph above. It was inspired I am sure by conversations I was having with two wonderful photographers named Dolph and Jeanne from Tyler, Texas who had joined me for a private workshop:

I start with no preconceived idea – discovery excites me to focus – then rediscovery through the lens – final form of presentation seen on ground glass, the finished print previsioned completely in every detail of texture, movement, proportion, before exposure – the shutter’s release automatically and finally fixes my conception, allowing no after manipulation – the ultimate end, the print, is but a duplication of all that I saw and felt through my camera.
Edward Weston

” . . . of all that I saw and felt through my camera.” It seems to me that we must imbue in our pictures a sense of how we feel about what we are photographing. Having the best gear and mastering the software may be fine but if our photographs share nothing of what we felt—what happened inside of us while we stood witnessing that miraculous moment in front of our cameras, then our images have no life, or as Kahlil Gibran once observed, are just “a form of waiting.” My friends from Texas would agree.

P.S. I wish I could have met Edward Weston and sat and talked with him about his pictures. I am grateful that photographer Willard Van Dyke made the film The Photographer in 1948 so that I might be able to virtually get to know the man who made so many incredible photographs. You can view the film and meet Edward too by clicking on the picture above.


Ansel Adams on the Miracle of the Creative Process

Ansel Adams The Tetons and the Snake River (1942) Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the National Park Service. (79-AAG-1)

Ansel Adams The Tetons and the Snake River (1942) Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the National Park Service. (79-AAG-1)

What is the creative process involved? How can I–or any photographer–impart to the spectator not only information, but the experience? The Esthetician, the Historian, the Technician, the Psychologist (and lately, the Psychiatrist) will have convincing explanations. I think the miracle of the creative process evades all analysis. With complete deference to the various sources of critical wisdom, I feel that instinct, intuition, and experience combine in fearful and wonderful ways to create the instantaneous assertion of the spirit. Armed with creative ambitions, with or without a tangible objective, we face the world about us. We recognize the potential of a situation and thereupon we visualize the statement we will make through our lens. Thoroughly complex, and resolved within unconscious areas of our mind, the visualized statement, or image, calls upon our resource of craft for expression in tangible values. So rapid is this process that it assumes the quality of the inevitable; no computer can approach the dextrous inclusiveness of the human mind and imagination. Anyone who has watched Edward Weston walk casually among the complexities of Death Valley, carrying his 8×10 camera over his shoulder, will recall how he might pause a moment, then turn towards a particular spot and set up the tripod–rarely moving it an inch from its first position. The photograph to be made was clearly defined: visualized, in his mind. When a photographer must fuss with his point-of-view, he should realize his visualization is insecure.

Ansel Adams, “A photographer talks about his art.” Los Angeles: Occidental College, 1969.


Photographic portrait of nature photographer Ansel Adams — which first appeared in the 1950 Yosemite Field School yearbook. Photograph by J. Malcolm Greany


Goodbye, Farewell and Amen to Facebook

My Facebook Page, now extant

My Facebook Page, now extant

It’s been a long time since I posted here on Facebook. I stopped because I long for the silence that allows me to commune with and learn from my muse. And for me the cacophony of the social media noise is simply getting in the way. I truly long for the silence where the birth of ideas can happen and clarity can be found.

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My liveBooks Web Site Refreshed

Craig Varjabedian's "Refreshed" liveBooks web site as displayed on his Apple Macbook Pro, 2014.

Craig Varjabedian’s “Refreshed” liveBooks web site as displayed on an Apple Macbook Pro, 2014.

Web sites can always use a little refresh, and my own web site was certainly no exception. Don’t get me wrong:  I love my site, which was designed by liveBooks. I can’t tell you the number of times a curator, museum director, gallery owner, print client or potential workshop student has commented on how beautiful and professional my web site looks. While I want to believe that they are responding to the images I am showing, I am the first to acknowledge that the design of the web site helps a lot, setting the stage to show off my work to its best advantage.  Continue Reading →


On Teaching Photography: A Manifesto

Photographing Anthony and his Family, San Marcos, New Mexico  Photograph Copyright ©Craig Varjabedian

Workshop Student Photographing Anthony and his Family, San Marcos, New Mexico Photograph Copyright ©Craig Varjabedian

Teaching is one of the greatest experiences of my life. Next to making photographs and spending time with my family (not necessarily in that order), sharing what I have learned after making thousands of photographs is a great joy in my life. “By teaching others you will learn yourself,” the Armenian spiritual teacher Georges Gurdjieff once said. I think he was right. The number of things I have learned through teaching over the years could stun a bull in its tracks.  It truly amazes me.

It seems to me that effective teaching is a kind of intricately choreographed dance between the teacher and the student. The teacher needs to figure out what the student needs which changes as the student and teacher get to know each other and trust develops and the student progresses. The student needs to be available and ready to learn what the teacher has to offer. It is an awesome responsibility for both teacher and student.

Several months back I was challenged to put down on paper a manifesto; a philosophy of sorts of how I believe it is best to teach people to make good photographs. What follows is an excerpt from “my manifesto.” I invite your comments. You can download the entire 2-page essay at the end of this post.

by Craig Varjabedian

To take a photograph means to recognize—simultaneously and within a fraction of a second—both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis.
— Henri Cartier-Bresson

Effective teaching is more than the collecting and sharing of facts, figures, and techniques. It is an ongoing, dynamic dialogue between student and teacher, a collaborative exchange of ideas. My goal as a teacher is to help students discover a more thoughtful way to create and to find their own unique and authentic voices.

I begin the process by teaching students to use the tools of photography. These include the camera, the computer and its associated software, and the traditional wet darkroom. Once the student has some facility with the fundamentals, the bigger questions of image making arise: “Where do I point the camera?” and “How do I make a photograph that expresses what I am seeing and feeling?” and finally “How do I create an object (a physical print or perhaps some other electronic form) that allows me to express the experience I had when I made the image?”  [more]

Click to download a pdf of "On Teaching Photography: A Manifesto"

Click to download a pdf of “On Teaching Photography: A Manifesto”


A Visit by Students from the Colorado Springs School

Students from the Southwest Photography Seminar, Colorado Springs School, Colorado Springs, CO  2014

Students from the Southwest Photography Seminar, The Colorado Springs School, Colorado Springs, CO 2014

Nothing you do for children is ever wasted
–Garrison Keillor

A few weeks back, we hosted students from the Colorado Springs School at our studio. Under the guidance of Ms. Vicki Vaughn, the students from the school’s Southwest Photography Seminar were regaled with stories from behind the lens told by Craig Varjabedian as part of a week long photography adventure in New Mexico. As one student commented,

I would just want to sincerely thank you for meeting with my seminar group. When I saw your name on the trip’s itinerary, I thought that we were going to view your work in a museum, but actually meet you in person, at your studio!!! It was like a dream come true . . .

Thanks Vicki Vaughn, Anne Hatch, Eric Gaylord and the thirteen students of the Colorado Springs School for the delightful visit. You made our day!