Every once in a great while, if you are lucky, during the course of your schooling, at any level of that schooling, you might intersect with a great teacher. And that teacher asks you questions, involves you, shapes your furious thoughts and aspirations, and calms the hubris of a young mind always teetering on the brink of the truly foolish action, like quitting the endeavor entirely. Good teachers open doors. They make sense of ramshackle, unformed thoughts. And by dint of their patience, and with the certainty of knowledge acquired over time, they allow the young student to become that which they might hope to be. Or, at least give it a shot.
Fred Demarest allowed me to become a photographer.
I was a good student in high school, largely out of fear. If you didn’t perform up to expectations, or if you were guilty of conduct they deemed unbecoming, the Irish Christian Brothers would often remind you of their exacting standards with a good crack to the head or jaw. If my mother got wind of wrongdoing or lackluster efforts in the classroom, she would simply continue at home the job the brothers started in class. Hence, for the most part, I did well. I could tell you I possessed an eager young mind, keen on learning. I’d be lying. I just didn’t want to get the shit kicked out of me.
College arrived, and I was woefully unprepared. I don’t remember much of my freshman year. (Hey, it was 1970.) I traveled through college in fairly shiftless fashion, enrolled as a writing major in J-school, and was academically undistinguished. But then, I was required to take a photography class, in my junior year, and I instantly committed to another direction. Which meant I had to take another class, which was not allowed for non-photo majors.
Enter Fred Demarest.
Fred didn’t start the photography program at Syracuse University. But he came aboard when it was an infant, and he shaped it, designed it, taught the classes, mixed the chemistry, administered the budget and forged it into what it remains todayâ€”one of the top photo programs in the country. When he started, he thought he’d be there a couple years. He retired as chairman of the department, 34 years later.
About 1960, Si Newhouse came to SU with cash and a mandate to create the Newhouse School of Journalism and it fell to Fred to design the space for the photo program, which had matured into a full blown sequence in the context of the journalism school. It became, in the building known as Newhouse One, physically the biggest department in the school, with wet darkrooms, space for nascent color printing technology, and of course a studio. Fred wanted a story and a half for the shooting space, but the building folks told him it was two stories or nothing. He then negotiated the installation of a balcony, so students could experiment with bounced light. It remains today, as he configured it. “Lots of the other faculty members didn’t like the studio, because it was basically a big hole in the middle of the building,” Fred says now, with a chuckle.
Fred was close with Arthur Rothstein, whose work for the FSA defined his career. On Rothstein’s recommendation, the US military, who felt their photojournalists were undertrained, spoke with Fred, among other educators, and he designed for them what has come to be known simply as “the military program,” ongoing to this day. It has trained hundreds of combat camera men and women, who, after a year in upstate NY, are spun out to the far reaches of the globe, better equipped to tell the story of life in uniform.
It is hard to overestimate his significance as a photo educator. The program he started growing in 1956 has produced the likes of Ed Kashi, Clint Clemens, Stephen Wilkes, Seth Resnick, Clem Murray, Bob Sacha, and Eric Meola. He brought notable photographers such as Karsh and Larry Burrows in to lecture, enlarging and enhancing the student’s view of what photography could do. He believed fiercely, and still does, in the power of the picture, writing a significant tome for the ASMP he called “The Three C’sâ€”Creativity, Communication, and Craftmanship.” All are linked, all work together. Important C’s to remember in this, the age of pictures that begins with a big, capital D.
You had to get to know Fred a bit to truly appreciate his gifts as a teacher. By virtue of his nephew actually going through the program, he became known as Uncle Fred, and given his status as Chairman, his admin duties often overwhelmed his time in class and presence in the lab. There were other profs more dashing and charismatic, to be sure. But none approached his skills at refining a young photographer’s intentions, and hooking raw, unhinged photo notions to the larger vehicle of a project or a story. He calmed you down, and redirected you. So quietly, sometimes, that at the end of a semester’s efforts, you would pat yourself on the back and think, wow, glad I thought to do it that way! And really, it was Fred, all the while, pushing you towards hoped for excellence.
Given the onus of chairmanship, he reveled in the Syracuse program abroad, where he could escape into the smaller setting of the photo program based in London, and spend a semester with 15 students, as opposed to lecturing 50 at a clip in an auditorium. That is where we all got to know Fred, not just as a professor, but as a friend. In 1974, I went with him to London, my first year of graduate work in photojournalism. He gave me nine free credits, and the London program paid me five pounds a week to run the lab and maintain the chemistry. It was there that I first really embraced the struggle to try to be good enough at this to actually do it. It’s a struggle that, trust me, is ongoing.
But, he opened the door to that wickedly wonderful, lifelong tussle with a camera. I didn’t have the grades or the portfolio to be admitted to the graduate program in photojournalism. I used to sleep in his Photo 302 class quite regularly, not a fault of his, but a byproduct of me burning not just the ends, but the entire candle my senior year, trying to graduate. He perhaps, in his patient and insightful way, might have seen a glimmer, a faint hope.
Fred is 88 now, and still looks the same as he did all those years ago. He hired Tony Golden, who became the chairman after Fred. Tony has now given way to Bruce Strong. Time flies. The program remains strong, and has more students than ever.
I made the portraits above just a couple weeks ago, when Annie and I went to Syracuse for a brief stint. It was, perhaps, my way of thanking him. As a teacher, he gave me the benefits of his patience and wisdom, and withheld his doubts, which he no doubt had.
Your time with a good teacher is short, perhaps, but the gifts they give you last forever.