Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

Aesthetics and Politics

In my senior year at Queen Anne, I had the privilege of being the principal photographer for the Coeur de Leon, our school yearbook. Up until that point in my life, I had exerted most of my creative energy to compose shots in which human beings were pushed to the margins or eliminated altogether. It was enormously beneficial for both my art and my psyche, then, to learn how to put people in the foreground. Indeed, I believe that my stint with the yearbook was instrumental in making my experience as an exchange student in Germany the following year a rich and rewarding one.

Because I spent my senior year indulging various revenge fantasies towards my school, however, the work that I did for the yearbook had an edge even when I was supposed to be documenting happy occasions. Nor was it an edge over which I had full control. On our annual Blue & Gold Field Day in the fall, for example, I took roll after roll with an eye towards representing our school in ways that might make its founding families shudder.

You see, although it was a progressive Episcopal school, its progressivism had more in common with that of Woodrow Wilson than anyone was willing to acknowledge in public. To be more blunt, it was a school created in response to the specter of integrated public schools. By the time I arrived on campus, most classes had one or two students of color. But the environment was still overwhelmingly white, in both a literal and figurative sense.

To that end, as I roamed from event to event on that day, I looked for ways of making the school seem far more diverse than it actually was. Luckily, my editor, the wise-beyond-his-years Henry Sume, seemed to be in tacit agreement with me about the need to imagine a new and improved Queen Anne. If you were to look through the lavish color pages at the beginning of the finished product, for example, you would never imagine that the school was still over 90% white.

The highlight of my rovings that fall day, however, was a photograph that didn't simply make the school seem more diverse, but promoted a vision of more fundamental integration. I was delighted that Henry was willing to let it cross the gutter in a two-page spread, rather than relegating it to a more discrete location. Even now it remains one of the pictures I'm proudest to have taken. I like the original version, because of where I placed the figures, 1/3 of the way in on the right side of the frame, set off by the blurry patches of light on the trees in the background. But the crop that Henry decided upon for the yearbook spread does a better job of foregrounding their expressions. The way that the girl, Tanya, is looking straight into the lens while the boy, Chuck, stares with composed fierceness into the distance is worth way more than the proverbial thousand words:

That said, the caption -- I can't remember who wrote it, but I seem to recall discussing how to handle the image -- is itself dense with import. Yes, Chuck and Tanya were on the bleachers during a soccer game. But neither one of them was paying it much mind.
Tags: archive, autobiography, photography, race

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