Alternative Grad School fails and successes: A year in review

Last June, after finishing undergrad, I decided to embark on a new big-ish goal that would keep me learning, making things, and getting stronger.

Based on an idea from The Art of Nonconformity by Chris Guillebeau, I started Alternative Grad School. You can view Chris Guillebeau’s suggested goals here. My goals were based on his original suggestions. I simplified many and completely created some new ones according to my interests.

1. [x] Memorize the name and location of every country in the world.
I completed this goal using the paid version of the Seterra app on my phone. It’s a super productive way to spend car rides and other spaces of boredom. Plus, knowing where all the countries are has already turned out to be so valuable. It’s hard to know what’s going on in the world when you don’t know the locations of the countries you hear on the news.
Also, actually knowing where all the countries are makes you seem super smart and knowledgeable (not that that’s the point).

 

2. [ ] Travel to a new continent.
I didn’t travel to a new continent (I’ve been to North America and Europe). But I did travel Europe for the second time, visiting two new countries: The Netherlands and Germany.

 

I plan to travel (I hope) to South America in 2018 or 2019.

 

3. [ ] Listen to Coffee Break Spanish sections 1 and 2 and retain the language. 
[x]    Sec. 1
[ ]    Sec. 2
Since I knew I would be traveling to Germany, I decided to brush up my German instead of pursuing Spanish. I took German all four years of high school and had never used it with a real German speaker, so this was really exciting to me and was a really awesome incentive to spend some time each day deepening my understanding. German is a very difficult language with lots of exceptions to its own rules, but it was rewarding to finally work through some of the grammar I couldn’t wrap my mind around when I was a teenager.

 

(I’ve been learning both German and Spanish with Mark from Coffee Break German via podcast on my walk to work and would highly recommend trying it out!)
4. [ ] Read the basic texts of the major world religions: the Torah, New Testament, Koran, and teachings of Buddha.
[ ]    Torah
[ ]    New Testament
[ ]    Koran

[x]    Buddha

 

I wish I’d gotten further with this, but it was way too much with a full-time job and all the other goals I wanted to accomplish. I hope to get to this one day.

 

5. [ ] Show Once Familiar publicly.
I did not get to show my work publicly, but I did apply at the local arts space and at coffee shops around town. At first, I felt disappointed. But I took that energy and started volunteering at the local arts space, working on some of their programming and joining their gallery team. There’s a lot more I’d like to learn and make before doing my first solo show anyway.

 

6. [x] Compile a graphic design post-grad creative portfolio by completing 15 projects. 
Most of my graphic design projects were work-related (our annual report, website graphics, etc.) but I also spent time designing the old-school camera stickers I sell on this site. I learned a lot, but I also learned that graphic design, though an extremely valuable skill, is not my favorite. I am glad to know the basics and turn to the pros for help when I need it.

 

7. [ ] Read 30 nonfiction books and 20 novels.
I’m not sure what to say about this one. If anyone else has tried this challenge, then they probably know that reading this many books in a year is the hardest goal of all. I started strong, reading 30 books by the end of 2017. I only read 11 books so far in 2018.

 

Interestingly, I ended up reading very few novels. With a background in journalism, I’m just more interested in nonfiction (though I believe reading fiction is very important). Eventually, though, I got very burned out and couldn’t bring myself to read at all anymore. My eyes were just skipping across the page and I’ve been on an extended break since.
I’m sure the lust for books will come back to me. It’s just a matter of time.

 

8. [ ] Run a 10K (6.2 mi.) in 60:00 or less.
My fastest 10K time was 1:09:10. Just getting up to running a 10K without stopping to walk was a challenge enough. I did surprise myself, though, by running in an actual 10K race.

 

9. [ ] Start/maintain a blog and post bi-weekly
Here I am. During the very last couple months of the Alt Grad School challenge, I got around to this goal. Aside from posting, I added a store to my site, sold some stickers, and created a MailChimp email list. I do a lot of blog work at my day job as well, so by now these skills come to me fairly naturally, but it was rewarding using them for my personal work and getting my site fully customized to my vision.

 

10. [x] Learn to write by listening to the Grammar Girl podcast and reading Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.
I didn’t love these as much as a lot of people seem to, but they got me writing which says a lot.

 

11. [ ] Read Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs.
This was one of Chris Guillebeau’s suggestions but it was just not my style.

 

12. [x] Publish 3 freelance stories.
I was a little surprised by so proud I met this goal. My writing had only been published in my college newspaper before, and so every time I wrote something new for Little Village, it felt amazing. I wrote three stories: one about women getting IUDs (multi-year birth control) out of concern about changes to women’s healthcare, one about a college student who started a farm while still in school, and one profile on Jane Elliot (blue eyes/brown eyes). There is nothing quite like seeing your work out in the world, in print.

 

13. [1/2] Complete a new photo series by 12/31/17 and a second by 6/1/18.
I didn’t complete a photo project during the first 6 months of the challenge, but I traveled to the American South and took a bunch of photos that I would consider a series in February 2018. View them here and here. I hope I can go on a few more adventures like this over the summer, at least of the weekend. I’m getting a little antsy photographing in Iowa.

 

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The sight did not fill me with joy, I did not come away feeling happy. Nor was I filled with contentment when I caught sight of it, it wasn’t that something stilled within me, as hunger or thirst do when they are satisfied. But it felt good to look at it, the way it feels good to read a poem that ends in an image of something concrete and seems to fasten on it, an image of something concrete and seems to fasten on it, so that the inexhaustible within it can unfold calmly. Swollen with water, handles up, the plastic bag hung a few feet down in the water on this February day in 2002. This moment was not the beginning of anything, not even an insight, nor was it the conclusion of anything, and maybe that is what I was thinking as I stood digging holes in the ground a few days ago, that I was still in the middle of something and always would be.

—Karl Ove Knausgaard, Autumn

Alternative Grad School September update

I’ve been trying hard to keep up with my goals as I started my full-time position. It was difficult the first month when I was first starting my new job, of course, but I feel like I’ve really started to adjust and am learning how to accomplish more tasks after 5:00 p.m. and on the weekends.

Since I wrote my last list, I’ve read the following books, putting me at a total of three fiction books and 10 nonfiction:

  • The Gathering by Anne Enright
  • Zen Mind, Beginners Mind by Shunryū Suzuki
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  • David & Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell
  • Everybody Writes by Ann Handley
  • Deep Work by Cal Newport
  • The Gangster of Love by Jessica Hagedorn
  • The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

And I can now communicate in very basic Spanish. Hopefully, I’ll have the opportunity to travel and use it soon.

The biggest news is that I’ve totally completed one Alt. Grad School goal: Publish three freelance stories. All three were published in Iowa City alternative press magazine Little Village in 2017.

  • Profile of Jane Elliott, an anti-racism advocate famous for her Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes exercise she performed in her 3rd-grade classroom the day after Martin Luther King Jr. died. Jane is 85 and has lived in Iowa her whole life. I had the privilege of interviewing her in her home in Osage.
  • Profile of Bridget Fonseca, a 24-year-old who graduated from the University of Iowa and started an organic farm with her partner Jake Kundert.
  • Current affairs story about young women getting IUDs, a long-term birth control method, because of their fears about the changing healthcare system.

And one last goal I made headway on during these first two months… I’m training to run a 10K (6.2 mi) in 60 minutes or less. On Aug. 27, I completed my first 5-mile run and on Aug. 31, I was able to run 5 miles without taking any breaks to walk, which took about 55 minutes. This may not be a major feat for all runners, but it was big for me! I’ve been slowly increasing my running capacity over the last two years and it’s encouraging to see that, though very gradually, I was able to reach this point. I remember when two or three miles was a significant challenge. Reaching 6.2 miles in 60 minutes will require me to average faster than 10:00/mi, which will not be easy, but I’m confident I can get there by  June 1.

Pinhole Project Update

Pinhole Project Update

I’m beginning my last photo project of undergrad and I’ve decided I’m going to build pinhole cameras out of mostly salvaged materials and make into a camera. Essentially, I am trying to explore what photography could look like after an apocalypse of some kind, like an environmental disaster where the latest Canon $3,000 DSLR could become useless.
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For reference I’ve mostly been using a book I bought used on Amazon, Pinhole Cameras: A DIY Guide by Chris Keeney, as my guide. I’ve also been reading Minimal Aperture Photography Using Pinhole Cameras by John Warren Oakes and Pinhole Photography From Historic Technique to Digital Application by Eric Renner, though these are more complicated.

Below is the first image I was able to create using a large peanut can and 5×7″ darkroom paper. I scanned the image and reversed the values in Photoshop.

scan

The best piece of advice I ran into was suggested by Keeney’s book: scanning pinholes to bring them into Photoshop and measure them. I used an online pinhole calculator to determine pinhole sizes for various containers. The focus on each of the cameras I’ve made so far has been far more sharp than I ever expected.

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Here are a few images I took just this week. You can expect to see a lot more as I start cramming my project into my last few weeks of undergrad.

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Just for fun shoot

I so rarely go out to shoot for myself. It’s a good thing Ethan’s there to make me get out there and create images just for fun. I’m always glad I did.

Graveyard 2
Mamiya 645 1000s, Kodak Ektar 100

 

Graveyard 3
Mamiya 645 1000s, Kodak Ektar 100

 

 

Graveyard 8
Mamiya 645 1000s, Kodak Ektar 100

 

Graveyard 10
Mamiya 645 1000s, Kodak Ektar 100

 

Medium format comparison

Take a guess: Which of the following images is medium format digital and which is film?

Graveyard digital mamiya

 

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I took the opportunity to borrow the University of Iowa’s Mamiya 645 camera with a digital back out to shoot and compare with my own Mamiya 645 1000s, which uses film.

Both cameras absolutely have their advantages and disadvantages. The digital is bulky, creates enormous files (which can be both an advantage and a disadvantage), and would cost thousands of dollars (probably $20,000+) if I were to buy it myself. Obviously, as a soon-to-be college graduate with a liberal arts degree, this isn’t feasible for me and likely never will be.

At the same time, I could see my images instantly on the back of the camera, never had to deal with film, and had great results.

I’ll keep this post short because I’m not going to debate which image is the winner. The compositions of these two images are of course not equal (I think the top image’s composition is much better) but it’s fascinating to finally observe them side by side.

Answer:

Top image: Mamiya 645 with digital back

Bottom image: Mamiya 645 1000s, Kodak Portra 400 film

 

Iowa Project Update 4

Iowa Project Update 4

I’m beginning the last semester of undergrad and have decided to focus on my rural Iowa project for these next few months of school before graduation.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to open myself up to new techniques, cameras, and film stocks because I want to use whatever tools suit my project best (even if they don’t happen to be film).

During my first semester working on the project, I stuck to the Hasselblad exclusively because I didn’t want to mix square format images with other ratios. After spending a few days looking through artists’ photobooks, though, I found that many were able to mix ratios to great success.

I ended up trying a Canon 5D Mark III, which I mostly enjoyed, and a  Mamiya 645 digital camera (blog comparing this to my Mamiya 645 1000s film camera to come) to put any biases I had against digital to the test. I definitely like using the Mark III, especially for portraits and indoor work, but when I’m shooting digital, I work too quickly. I think it’s because I have so many opportunities to just click, click, click, click that I don’t take time to compose. I’ll definitely have to try the Mark III again in the future though and keep pace in mind next time.

Gear aside, scroll down to see my most recent results.

Club 76 3.jpg
Hasselblad 503CW, Fujifilm Pro 400H

 

Walcott 1.jpg
Hasselblad 503CW, Kodak Portra 160VC (exp. 2009)

 

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Canon 5D Mark III

 

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Hasselblad 503CW, Kodak Portra 160VC (exp. 2009)

 

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Hasselblad 503CW, Kodak Portra 160VC (exp. 2009)

To view my past updates of this project, click the links below:
Update 1 
Update 2
Update 3

January: 52-Week Photo Challenge

January: 52-Week Photo Challenge

I’ve completed the first four weeks of my 52-week photo challenge where I am making Instax photos based on my partner Ethan Zierke‘s original haiku. Check out my first post for a full project description.

Jan. 1-7: Poets toss rotting
books from knotted shelves to fro-
-thing populations

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Jan. 8-14: A new snow dusting
Above old fixtures rusting
Long live frozen towns

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Jan. 15-21: the quiet surrounds:
swallowing sounds, each louder
than my heart expounds

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Jan. 22-28: impossible, yes,
the silence cannot listen:
what is there to say?

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Iowa Project Update 3

Iowa Project Update 3

This winter I was able to use the university’s Hasselblad camera to continue my rural Iowa photography project over break. My goal was to shoot about 10 rolls of film in the five weeks but I ended up shooting only about two and a half, one still being unfinished inside the camera.

My motivation was definitely effected by the fact that I knew I wouldn’t be able to see my images for a month after shooting them because I lacked access to the school’s scanner. My sudden loss of interest made me doubt my long-term commitment to this project and also how sustainable it would be after I gradate in May, losing many of the tools I use.

Regardless, I sat down and scanned my two finished rolls of film on the first day of school and the good images reenergized me. Though I’m open to new ideas, I think I’ll continue this project until the end of the semester.

At the same time, I would like to expand on this project and push it forward. This semester, my goal is to keep working with the same rural Iowa themes and motifs but adding more portraits. I’m not sure yet whether I would like to capture them street photography style (which sounds funny considering they’re rural) or planned/staged yet. I’m not even certain I want to keep working completely on the Hasselblad. I’m considering switching to one of the school’s 4×5 large format cameras or (gasp) a DSLR.

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Hasselblad 501CM, Kodak Ektar 100

 

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Hasselblad 501CM, Kodak Portra 400

 

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Hasselblad 501CM, Kodak Portra 400

 

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Hasselblad 501CM, Kodak Ektar 100

Year in Review

Year in Review

I’m currently making photography resolutions including learning how to sell my photos and beginning a 52-week photo challenge. But I recently realized that looking back at accomplishments over the last year can be just as important as setting goals for the next. I also want to look at my year in review.

I learned a lot in 2016. I took a class on large format photography. I gained the courage to ask strangers if I may take their portraits. I participated in my first three photography shows, two group shows with my class and one online.

More than  anything, though, the best decision I made for my photography was starting a blog. In the past, I was reluctant to share my work. I didn’t want any of it out in the world for others to see until I felt completely ready.

Instead of allowing me to improve privately without judgement, hiding my work set me back. I was convinced I should keep my images private until I considered myself a fully fledged photographer.

But that’s just not how it works. I rarely shot anything except when it was required for class and I hated the results when I did. Working alone in secret gave me little motivation to make anything at all.

The piece of advice that changed my mindset came from Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. I read the book several times in years past but his words finally sunk in in 2016: “You can’t wait until you know who you are to get started.”

If I’d waited to know who I was or what I was about before I started “being creative,” well, I’d still be sitting around trying to figure myself out instead of making things. In my experience, it’s in the act of making things and doing our work that we figure out who we are.

—Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist

I knew he was right. I couldn’t wait until I perfected my work to start interacting with others. I had to hone it by sharing. And so I launched this blog in September 2016.

Composing a blog post every week was a challenge, but now I’ve written over 20 posts and am glad I took time to make every one of them. I went through at least double the film I was before starting my blog, probably more. Plus, knowing the images would be public forced me to try even harder to produce my best work every time I went shooting.

Secondly, starting a blog allowed me to find a community of photographers online. Between this site and my Twitter account, I’ve learned acquired all kinds of useful advice. Any time I have a question, I now have a small army of film photographers I can call on for help.

Lastly, my blog offered me a space to share work in progress from where I am right now at this moment in photography, not where I will ultimately end up. Looking at my blog as a sketchbook rather than a perfectly curated gallery allows me to focus on what’s most important: to keep creating work. One day I might look back at the work I am making now and dislike it. But the fact remains that continuing to shoot is the only way to get where I am going.

Here are some of my favorite images I made in 2016:

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