Editor’s Note: Chloe Coleman is an intern in NPR’s multimedia department. She recently studied under Keith McManus at the Rochester Institute of Technology and interviewed him about his work.
Photography is a series of breakdowns and breakthroughs. And one of my most memorable breakthroughs was facilitated by spring break. Not during a moment of tequila-inspired clarity on the beach — I know what you’re thinking — but rather inside an RIT classroom.
I was taking a photography course centered on long-term projects. And my professor, Keith McManus, showed one he’d done a few decades back called “Rite of Passage,” about spring break in Dayton Beach, Fla.
His images had everything I loved about photography, but had never been able to articulate: Rather than neatly composed scenes, his were intentionally disorganized. He’d often cut his subjects off at the neck or below the knee, or sometimes fill the frame with someone’s back. In short, they simultaneously followed and broke the rules. Yet there seemed to be some method to his madness.
Knowing he’s worked on several projects, though, I’ve always been curious to know why he chose a spring break series, of all things,to introduce himself to the class. And so, more than a year later, I called him up to find out.
“Part of my agenda as a teacher or a photographer is to influence people,” he says. “It wasn’t so much about the project but the idea of doing a long-term project — and the value in that.”
In other words: It’s the age-old idea that you get out what you put in, regardless of the subject matter.
In fact, I learned, he wasn’t planning on making Daytona Beach an annual voyage. But there was something he saw in his initial rolls of film, made in 1982, which led him back for more. About 12 years in a row. Because, he says, he felt like he was witnessing a modern cultural tradition:
“We really didn’t have many of those in our culture now, in modern America,” he explains. “One of the things people might consider a rite of passage was this spring break thing. It’s not very profound as an activity, but … if that’s what you got, that’s what you do.”
It’s all the more curious if you’ve met McManus: He’s quiet, unassuming, by no means the center of a party. How would he fit in at a beach party? The answer, he says, is that he didn’t try to fit in.
He’d walk the beach or walk the pool deck with a few Leica cameras, dressed modestly — but never tried to hide what he was doing.
“The worst possible thing is to sneak around and try and take pictures,” he says. “And for some reason, and I can’t really explain it, the more open I am about it the more invisible I become.”
For some reason, these spring break photos changed the way I looked at the world. During his class, I chose to document our college baseball team. I tried new approaches. I laid on the ground in front of the dugout. When I wanted to photograph just legs, I photographed just legs. And oddly, I learned how to be invisible.In a way, I experience my own rite of passage.
I’m still left with a lot of questions, but another thing I learned from McManus is to be comfortable with that.
“I don’t think still photography is very good at answering questions,” McManus says. “More often it poses questions, and I think that’s one of the most endearing qualities of still photography.”