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Detail Work-Astoria Style

Scott Holmstedt
Astoria High School, Astoria, Oregon

Subject: Art, Language Arts, Photography
Grade: 9-12

"Images of Astoria is a project that involves art, photography and writing students," says high school teacher Scott Holmstedt of Astoria, Oregon. "It is designed to create awareness of the details of the community in which students live. Outstanding community characteristics are brought into focus, photographed and researched, and then assembled onto individual matboards."

Holmstedt, a photography and design instructor in grades 9 through 12 at Astoria High School, worked with graphic arts instructor Nancy Kem and advanced writing instructor Russ Alborn to carry out the interdisciplinary project about the community with a population of 10,000.

"Prominent local characteristics were developed into themes," notes Holmstedt. "These themes then were developed into individual a forest, a fishing boat, a school building, local monuments, a Victorian house and a Scandinavian flag.

"The art class enlarged each symbol onto individual matboards that measured 32 x 40 inches. Every symbol was treated individually so that six full-size matboards made up the project. Different areas of each matboard then were cut out to complement the design. In each of these cutouts, which varied in size and shape, 35 to 350 photographs were mounted that show actual scenes from the community.

"Background history for each theme was researched and reported by advanced photography and writing classes. Students from these classes were assigned to interview local people, visit museums, comb through libraries, and contact businesses for information. This research then was assembled by the students into research reports.

"One of the exciting things about this project is the way that different students can become involved. Through the medium of photography, many students who did not have much interest in studying their community became actively involved with the project. Their interest in photography brought them into direct contact with the world in which they live. They became more aware of the local history, architecture, industries and people.

What Resources Were Required To Complete The Project?

"Because this is a project that concerns itself with the community, it was important to involve as many outside members of the public as possible. They included: an art gallery coordinator, who reserved space and time for displaying the finished pieces in her local gallery; a city librarian, who assisted the students in researching and reserved part of the library for displaying their finished work; a local newspaper reporter, who visited the class and photographed and interviewed the students for an article on the project; the Maritime Museum director, who provided assistance and information to students concerning individual report topics; safety engineer for a local corporation, who arranged a special tow for several students to photograph the plywood industry; a marine operator, who provided background information and special help on photographing the fishing industry; the Heritage Museum coordinator, who helped with architectural information and allowed time for assistance with questions about community background; a Coast Guard officer, who arranged to have a student fly in a helicopter for aerial shots of Astoria used as publicity for the project; and a photo shop owner, who provided discounts for materials used in the project.

"In addition to these people from the community, nearly 100 others were involved indirectly by allowing students to interview them. They were questioned about what it was they liked about living in Astoria. Their responses are displayed with the project along with their pictures."

What Materials Were Required?

"We used ten 32 x 40 inch white matboards, Exacto knives, KODAK TRI X Film, Kodak developing chemicals, KODAK POLYFIBER Paper, and rubber cement. All photographs were taken with 35 mm camera and developed, printed and mounted in the school darkroom. We shot nearly 500 feet of film and used almost 250 sheets of printed paper. Buying film in bulk rolls of 100 feet and rolling our own quantities helped to keep the cost within our budget. Chemicals were purchased in five gallon sizes to keep the cost down."

Note: Rubber cement may, in time, stain photographs. For long-term keeping, a special photo cement such as KODAK Photographic Mounting Cement or equivalent is recommended.

How Long Did The Project Take?

"The project, from start to finish, took approximately three months.

What Did The First Phase Involve?

"The graphic arts instructor motivated the students by showing examples of corporate and informational symbols taken from magazines and books. The lesson included the uses of positive and negative shapes and how they apply to the effectiveness of good compositions. Students were individually assigned a theme. Each was then required to do a series of six thumbnail sketches that might be used for a final design. The instructor discussed the strong points and weaknesses of the designs. This critique helped to refine the designs to a finished symbol, capable of being enlarged for the project. The process took a little more than a week to complete."

At What Point Did The Photography Students Become Involved?

"Upon completion of the designs on the matboards, the boards were passed on to the photography students for cutting areas to be fitted with photographs. Students were assigned in groups of three to cut the mats. Cutting the mats took most of one week.

"Before any photographs were taken, the entire project was thoroughly discussed with students. Examples, both original and magazine photographs, were shown to stimulate imaginations. Locations, subjects, lighting, weather and materials were all brought forward for consideration. A list of possible primary and secondary photographs for each theme was written on the blackboard. Several picture-taking field trips around the community -- to the downtown area, to the boat basin, to the maritime museum -- helped students without transportation. These brief outings were made during class time.

"The time period to photograph each theme varied slightly. Weather proved to be an outside consideration that could not be planned. As a consequence, we could not concentrate on finishing one theme at a time. The average for each theme to be photographed and printed by one class that meets for one hour a day was about two weeks."

How Did The Printing Proceed?

"A darkroom demonstration on cropping helped the students understand the difficulties of specific size printing. We used the cutout pieces from the matboard to act as the shapes that the pictures had to be printed. Because of the odd shapes and sizes of many of the picture requirements, all the students demonstrated the technique of cropping. Many negatives also had lighting problems that students corrected when printing by dodging and burning in. These techniques helped to not only improve the individual quality of the prints, but also to make the entire project's appearance more professionally done.

"Unexpectedly, after working in the darkroom, the students began to alter their composition by changing their angles of view when taking their photographs. This type of thinking both improved their compositions and sharpened their eyes to relationships between the main subject and the background."

What Did You Expect In Terms Of Research?

"Research evidence came in two ways: through student photography and student writing. Many times the students who were out taking pictures returned with interesting information that they shared with others in the class. This shared learning helped to strengthen the subject content in photography and helped others with the project. After seeing photographs taken by one of the students on a trip to the maritime museum, many other students became interested enough to visit the museum themselves. This type of interaction worked to make this project worthwhile.

"All students were assigned to a topic of report; they used a variety of sources for their information, including people in the community. This involvement helped to stimulate interest in the project by outside members of the community and also helped to motivate the students to do a good job of reporting.

"The advanced writing instructor also recommended several students to do research for the text that would be displayed with each theme. Together, we outlined the individual elements that should be included to give the viewer some background on each topic. The lettering instructor prepared titles and signs for labeling the individual themes."

Just How Successful Was This Project?

"This project aroused more student interest than any other activity I have ever presented. The proof of this was the way the students wanted to design and photograph an extra theme on school activities. They enjoyed seeing pictures of their friends and themselves in the 'fish.' Students of all the photography classes contributed to this theme and were daily checking progress. With this type of interest, it was easy to motivate the students to work in class. Students who were not enrolled in the class also took an interest in the project.

"Not only did the students show a real interest, but teachers and outside members of the community gave positive comments on our progress. After a school board meeting at which I presented information about the project, a gentleman in attendance, who previously had thought there was too much waste in the school budget, made some very positive remarks. 'After seeing the type of work from high school students that I have seen here tonight,' he said, 'I am no longer against the price I have to pay in school taxes.'

"The local newspaper provided very good coverage. This publicity aroused the interest of many people who had read the article. Several people asked if I could send a photographer out to shoot some photographs of their house. Several times I received letters from people who wanted copies of pictures that the students had taken of them. The plywood mill wants the students who took inside pictures to put together a display for its main office. This type of community involvement made the project rewarding for all those who participated."

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