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Finding Beauty in Everyday Struggle

01/09/2014

For photographer and professor Justin Kimball 85 PH, returning to RISD in December to speak as part of the Photography department’s T.C. Colley Lecture Series proved to be an emotional homecoming. He used the opportunity to pay homage to the “crazy, wacky and incredibly passionate” group of RISD photography professors who helped shape his vision as an undergraduate here in the early 1980s.

In a candid presentation in the Metcalf Auditorium, Kimball transported the audience all the way back to his childhood in New Jersey – where he served as the official family photographer – and forward again to his latest published collection, Pieces of String (2012, Radius Books). “I’m a storyteller,” he told the students who came to his presentation. “I’ve always used the camera as a way to stop the world and try to make sense of it.”

Admitting that life as an artist is a work in progress, Kimball quoted painter Willem de Kooning (whom he met on a shoot with renowned photographer Duane Michals in 1985), who said that he didn’t know who he was as an artist until he was in his 60s. Yet, the speaker’s own images made in his early 20s captured moments between real people that seemed to tell a larger story and show signs of more promising work still to come.

Despite Kimball’s ebullient personality, his work typically presents a sober view of humanity and our “beautiful struggle to bear up” under the realities of life. Pieces of String presents a sequence of poignant photographs he made of the things people leave behind in their homes after they die. In them he attempts to reveal remnants of the “humble and quiet lives” ordinary people live.

As a lifelong photographer, Kimball says he chose to come to RISD because he knew he didn’t want to go into commercial photography, but did want to be immersed in art. “RISD was a life-saver for me in a lot of ways,” he has noted in the past. It was the first time he met people interested in the same things he was – including fellow photographers like John Willis MFA 86 PH and Tom Young MFA 77 PH, with whom he still photographs today. More importantly, perhaps, studying at RISD was the first time he realized he didn’t have to feel “like a pariah” for doing what he loves to do.

After earning an MFA at Yale in 1990, Kimball took every teaching job he could find – no matter how part-time, underpaid or far away. At one point, he was juggling so many part-time jobs that he was driving 800 miles a week to three different states. But since 2001 he has taught as an associate professor of art at Amherst College, while continuing to pursue his own fine art photography.

In terms of process, Kimball notes that he made the switch from film to digital years ago but manipulates his files in order to minimize contrast and mimic the softness and rich color palette of paint. In an attempt to add detail to his work – “to feel the skin of his subjects” – he once tried working in an 8x10 format but found the results to be “disastrous.” But working with the larger camera did result in slowing him down as a photographer, allowing him to take the more directorial approach he uses today. “I trust that if I keep making the work, it will reveal to me where I'm supposed to go in my next project,” he told students.

Kimball also encouraged students to build community among their peers while they’re here rather than living in a vacuum. He relishes the companionship of his longtime friend Associate Professor Steven Smith – who earned his MFA at Yale alongside Kimball and now teaches in RISD’s Photography department – and points out that photographing with partners like Smith, Willis, Young and others leads him to ask revealing questions about his own work that he might not otherwise consider.

Kimball concluded by reminding students of a thought he paraphrased from a letter painter Jackson Pollock’s father once sent his son: “If you want a full measure of joy out of life, you need to be fully awake to the world.”

Simone Solondz

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tags: academic collaborations, alumni, Photography

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A figure modeling class from 1916.