The veteran photography educator talks about how he uses new technologies in the classroom; his long-term large-format project, The Italian Portfolio; and what he learned from Ansel Adams about being a mentor to the next generation of photographers.
View a selection of Jeff Curto's work in the slideshow above. You can also see more of his photography on his website, hear his lectures on his History of Photography class site, and listen to his podcasts on the creative side of photography at Jeff Curto's Camera Position. Information about Curto's photography workshops in Italy is available on his workshop site.
To read more from poet and contributor Ron Egatz, visit his website.
Jeff Curto is a man with a knack for combining disparate elements to good effect. Take his honeymoon in 1989. “I somehow convinced my new bride I should bring my 4x5 camera along with me,” he says, laughing. “I'm not really sure how that was able to be flown as a concept.” However it happened, the combination proved salubrious: The trip marked the beginning not only of his marriage but also of a lasting photographic relationship with Italy. The 40 sheets of film Curto shot on his honeymoon germinated The Italian Portfolio: Evidence of Hands on Stone, a long-term project that Curto continues to explore to this day. “I fell in love with the country, the people, the food, the architecture, the wine, and the whole shebang. I can't stop. I keep going,” he says.
The Italian Portfolio uses the relatively youthful medium of photography to capture Italy’s centuries-old heritage of stone work, documenting not only buildings and sculptures, but the effects of time, nature, and generations of human use. It's the kind of combination of old and new that has also become a hallmark of his work as an educator, in which he uses the latest technology to relate the history of photography, and teaches students how to combine chemical and digital processes to attain new levels of creative control.
Curto's own history with photography began when he and his father built a darkroom in their basement. As a teenager, he viewed photography as a hobby and went to college as an English major at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. John Mulvaney, then the chair of the art department, convinced him to switch majors. Curto soon knew the move was the right one, and after graduating went on to pursue an M.F.A. degree in photography at Bennington College in Vermont. He also started working as a commercial photographer, shooting “just about anything that anybody wanted me to,” and putting his darkroom skills to professional use. “I did custom color printing in a darkroom job for a number of years and another black-and-white darkroom job for another number of years,” he recalls. During this time, he also began to teach photography, and in 1984 he started working as an adjunct at the College of DuPage. In 1990, he was hired as a full‑time faculty member, and he’s been there ever since.
Since beginning his career as an educator at DuPage, Curto has managed to balance teaching with regular trips to Italy to expand his Italian Portfolio. In recent years he has used these trips to teach photography workshops there as well. Curto still uses Kodak Tri-X sheet film and a large format camera that he bought new in 1982 to capture his Italian Portfolio images. Typically, long exposures are the norm. His record is five hours, although that’s an anomaly shot in the dark part of a barn. His average exposure lasts a few seconds. “There are some photographs I really like with 15- or 20-minute exposures,” he says. “I love sitting in those places and thinking about all those little photons sneaking their way through the aperture and falling on the film. There’s something fun about that.”
But his post-capture process has evolved along with imaging technology: He scans his film with an Imacon scanner, uses image-editing software to make adjustments to his images and prepares them for printing with Roy Harrington’s Quad Tone RIP, and then outputs them on an inkjet printer. “I think that gives me the best of all possible worlds,” he says. “I get all the great creative control of the large format camera in terms of perspective control and tone control and making sure all the values are where I want them to be on the negative. I also have all of the tremendous control that's available through applications like Photoshop to be able to articulate exactly what I want the pictures to look like.” Curto also credits digital printing technology with ensuring that every print in an edition will be exactly the same. While this was possible in the darkroom, it’s much easier to make identical prints with digital tools.
Given the nature of his sculptural subjects, Curto makes careful use of dynamic range in order to reveal their details with subtle gradations in tone. “That subtlety, or greater subtlety, has come out of the ability to work digitally and with film,” says Curto. “With a piece of film now, I can control through plus and minus development and so forth in the same way I always did in the traditional world. I also get this amazing ability in Photoshop to say, ‘I want this gray value to be exactly that gray value. No darker, no lighter.’ I can specifically say the only black tone I want to be truly black is this one little area I have specified as being black. That is really a huge change, and I think it has made the prints more subtle. The work really depends a lot on shadow versus highlight, but the control of that shadow versus highlight is really important. I think, not unlike a lot of photographers I know, I'm kind of a control freak, so I really like having that ability to say, ‘I want that tone to be exactly that tone. No brighter, no darker.’”
Although Curto has included some color work in his Italian images, he still leans toward black and white. “I grew up in that era when color photography wasn't a huge component of photo schools,” he remembers. “There were schools teaching color, but they weren't making such a big deal out of it. Fine art photography was black and white in the '70s, so I'm steeped in that tradition. I took a workshop with Ansel Adams years ago, and that kind of helped cement my interest in black-and-white photography. I still think it is a form of image making which has a greater possibility of evoking emotion, because we tend to divorce ourselves a little bit from the way the world of color works.”
Curto still has fond memories of the time he spent with Adams near the end of his life: “First of all, he was funny. He had an amazingly great sense of humor, a very dry sort of slightly double entendre sense of humor, which I think was something a lot of people who may have just known him through books and his rather serious images may not assume. He was just a really funny and entertaining guy who loved photography, loved the medium, loved teaching photography, and also loved cocktail hour.”
Adams also impressed Curto with his subtle way of conveying photographic insight to less practiced photographers. Everything the elder photographer said was a lesson, according to Curto. “He would talk about the way we perceived values, and even if he was just standing there talking to you, he'd sort of look at something and say, ‘You notice the difference between the tones in that shadow and the tones in that shadow over there?’ Those were really useful little bits you got without really realizing what it was that he was doing. He had a way of teaching without actually teaching, which I thought was great.”
During this time at the end of Adams’s life, Curto saw newly enlarged contact sheets of photos Adams had made of William Henry Jackson, the great 19th century landscape photographer and one of the pioneers of the medium. It was a revelation for Curto about how incredibly young photography was. “Here's one of its early masters being photographed by one of, at the time, its late masters. In 1983 I was looking at these pictures a guy who is standing next to me had shot of somebody who had made amazingly great photographs in the 1870s and a little bit before and little bit after,” remembers Curto.
The experience also drove home the important role mentors play in guiding new generations of photographers, a role he has now stepped into as an educator. “It's an important part of this medium," he says. "There traditionally has always been that mentorship where younger photographers look to people who've been there before to help them figure out where to go, what direction to go in, how to proceed forward, and how to live the life of a photographer.”
At the College of DuPage, about 350 students enroll in the photography program and start trying to figure out how to live the life of a photographer every semester. The school is a two-year community college with a total enrollment of between 30,000 and 34,000 students, depending on the term. With three full-time faculty members, its photography department is headed by Curto and Glenn Hansen. Under their leadership, DuPage's program has morphed from a vocational education department teaching photography into a curriculum that teaches students how to become professional photographers. Curto and Hansen teach students how to treat being an artist the same way as any other business venture or profession. “In photography," explains Curto, "you have to have an understanding of what your costs are. You have to have an understanding of how to make a living, and how to market your work, and all those kinds of things.”
DuPage's photography curriculum offers 24 courses, covering topics from very basic introductory photography to sophisticated studio and location techniques. Students graduate with either a Photography Technology Certificate, which requires a prescribed set of courses pertaining only to photography, or an Associate in Applied Science in Photography, which also requires some general education courses. The department still teaches film and darkroom work as well, but not, Curto insists, for the sake of clinging to the past. “It has a lot more to do with having traditional photography be an incredible lesson builder," he says. "It’s understanding the relationship between light and light-sensitive materials, and having a tactile experience with the materials you don't get with digital technologies.”
And yet, with decades of teaching photography under his belt, Curto is amazed at how all-encompassing computer technology has become in the world of photography. “Virtually everything I do in the classroom is related in some measure to a computer,” he says. Even his History of Photography class utilizes images projected from a computer, and Curto records his lectures with software to create podcasts of the class. “It’s sort of inseparable from the computer technology," he says, "whereas when I started teaching that History of Photography class it was a Kodak carousel slide projector and slides.”
The DuPage program also offers numerous courses on alternative processes, partly in response to a recent resurgence of interest in them among students. The courses include processes such as wet plate collodion and platinum printing—but like Curto's own personal work, they benefit from an infusion of new technology. Many students shoot with a digital camera, print transparency material on an inkjet printer, and then make a platinum or other alternative-process print. “Really exciting things are happening in photography now,” Curto says. “People have realized there's some great value in the beauty of these early processes. Nineteenth-century and even twentieth-century processes of traditional black-and-white silver printing can be modified in a bunch of different ways with different pieces of technology. That's been one of the really fun things about watching the digital revolution slide over us. It didn't really displace all the traditional stuff. It just moved it over to its own little spot, and that little spot is a really interesting and potentially creative place.”